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NASA revises its spaceship plans

A worker checks out Sierra Nevada Corp.'s structural test article for its Dream Chaser spaceship at a facility in Colorado. The Dream Chaser is in the running to become a successor to NASA's space shuttle fleet.
A worker checks out Sierra Nevada Corp.'s structural test article for its Dream Chaser spaceship at a facility in Colorado. The Dream Chaser is in the running to become a successor to NASA's space shuttle fleet.Sierra Nevada Corp.

Budget uncertainties have led NASA to change its policy on funding the development of commercial spaceships, shifting to a process that provides more flexibility but also more risk for the space agency.

More than $365 million has already been devoted to NASA's commercial crew development program, or CCDev. Congress has approved another $406 million to be paid to would-be spaceship builders, with the aim of having U.S.-made, crew-capable successors to the space shuttle fleet flying to the International Space Station by 2017.

During the first two phases of the program, the effort has been managed through a set of Space Act Agreements, which award money to the companies in stages as they reach agreed-upon milestones. For the third phase, known as CCDev3, NASA had planned to switch to a different fixed-price contracting system that would give the space agency more control over the management of the companies' development efforts. NASA was scheduled to issue a request for proposals under that system on Monday.

But because of the uncertainties surrounding the federal budget for the next couple of years, NASA has decided to stick with the Space Act arrangement, said Bill Gerstenmaier, the agency's associate administrator for human exploration and operations. "It's really tough to lock into a fixed-price contract with the number of providers that can keep us moving forward," Gerstenmaier explained during a teleconference with journalists.

The shift means NASA will have to delay its announcement for proposals until the first quarter of next year, but Gerstenmaier said he still hoped agreements could be made in mid-2012 to cover a 21-month period lasting into early 2014. Two potential spaceship providers, and perhaps more, should be able to get close to a critical design review on that timetable with NASA funding, Gerstenmaier said.

In a statement, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the space agency is "committed to ensuring that U.S. companies are sending American astronauts into space."

"This new acquisition strategy will allow us to preserve competition as we maintain our momentum to provide a U.S.-based commercial crew launch capability at the earliest possible time," he said.

Crucial difference

The crucial distinction has to do with how much control NASA will have over the designs that are produced.

"We can't actually approve their designs, we can't say we're needing a service or getting a service," but the companies at least will be able to keep making progress, Gerstenmaier said. He used the rocket-science term for "change" to describe how the process could go: "There's going to be some potential delta that has to occur when we complete this phase."

The companies involved in CCDev had initially voiced reservations about the fixed-price contract plan, out of concern that NASA could exert too much control or even cancel the program altogether in midstream. One of the CCDev companies, California-based SpaceX, issued a statement in support of today's shift.

"Given budget realities, NASA and domestic space companies need to innovate more than ever," SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell was quoted as saying. "Space Act Agreements yield amazing results — we need only look at the Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket, both highly advanced, all-American vehicles designed using 21st-century technology.  We applaud NASA's decision to use Space Act Agreements for the next round of commercial crew and look forward to the competition."

However, U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall, the Texas Republican who heads the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, questioned the move. 

"The disadvantage of using Space Act Agreements is that NASA cannot impose its safety requirements as would be possible under a normal acquisition," Hall said in a statement. "Therefore, it is vitally important that NASA and its industry partners work cooperatively to ensure the highest level of crew safety, even in the absence of safety requirements."

In a report issued today, the Government Accountability Office, Congress' independent investigative arm, mentioned fixed-price, performance-based contracts as one of the "good acquisition practices" that NASA was planning for future CCDev work. The report was drawn up before NASA's announcement.

What lies ahead

CCDev funding is currently going to Blue Origin, the Boeing Co. and Sierra Nevada as well as SpaceX for spaceship development. For the next phase, commercial ventures will have to propose a full-service system, including the launch vehicle, to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Gerstenmaier said that once the 2012-2014 design phase is done, he expected that fixed-price contracts would be drawn up for the follow-up work, such as spacecraft certification.

NASA originally planned for commercial spacecraft to start ferrying astronauts in 2016, but because Congress authorized only half as much money for the current fiscal year as the White House was seeking, NASA now says flight operations won't begin until 2017 at the earliest.

In the meantime, NASA has to purchase seats from the Russians for rides on Soyuz capsules, at a price that's due to rise to more than $60 million in 2014. Gerstenmaier said NASA will now have to negotiate with the Russians for additional seats in the 2016-2017 time frame.

Today's GAO report raised further concerns about the development timetable. It said the "critical need to transport crew to the space station beginning in 2016 requires an aggressive program schedule that may not be attainable, given NASA's experiences with past government and commercial development efforts."

NASA is also supporting the development of commercial cargo spacecraft under a separate program known as Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or COTS. A key test flight in that program is scheduled to come in February, when SpaceX is due to launch a Dragon cargo capsule to a potential linkup with the space station. Orbital Sciences Corp., the other COTS company, is planning to begin test launches next year as well.

Update for 2:05 p.m. ET: Blue Origin issued a statement from its president, Rob Meyerson, about NASA's change of plans:

"We applaud NASA’s plans to continue using competitively awarded Space Act Agreements to accelerate the development of truly commercial crew capabilities.  We believe commercial means significant private investment and competition to accelerate technologies and capabilities designed to enable a space economy, one that includes trips to the International Space Station. ...

"We suggest NASA limit its co-funding to 20 percent of any single private effort, and perhaps less. This keeps the effort predominantly a private endeavor, with the private sector having real 'skin in the game.'  This level of co-funding limits the government’s role to accelerating a private marketplace, not distorting it."

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Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.