THE BLOG
06/24/2014 12:21 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2014

New Restrictions on NASA Contracts Compromise U.S. Leadership in Space

iLexx via Getty Images

When the Space Shuttle Atlantis was decommissioned in July of 2011, so too was our nation's ability to launch humans into Earth orbit from U.S. soil. Instead, NASA was forced to purchase seats onboard the Soyuz spacecraft from Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. With our future as a spacefaring nation at stake, NASA turned to its commercial partners as the fastest and most cost-effective path back to orbit.

Three companies are currently competing for contracts to transport crews to the International Space Station -- Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and SpaceX. These three companies have funded Space Act Agreements with NASA, all with significant testing milestones ahead of them, and contracts that allow NASA insight into the safety of the vehicles. NASA plans to select at least two companies this summer for final contracts that will include the last stages of development, certification and the first few operational flights. Assuming no unusual delays, we can expect to see astronauts launching from U.S. soil by 2016 or 2017.

For the majority of the Commercial Crew Program, NASA has used Space Act Agreements to provide funding for the development of spacecraft and launch vehicle systems. These agreements are competitive, milestone-based and, most importantly, fixed-price. In this way, the commercial company is responsible for achieving success and for any additional work required, while NASA invests a fixed amount to develop pre-determined capabilities. Compared to the conventional approach of full-cost-plus-fee, these fixed-price contracts have saved NASA hundreds of millions of dollars while leveraging private investment and private expertise. NASA's published standards, by which all Commercial Crew competitors will be judged, ensure that safety is always the top priority.

NASA pioneered this approach in its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, which produced two cargo suppliers for the International Space Station under unprecedented budget constraints. This same approach was adopted for the Commercial Crew Program and allowed dramatic progress to be made, despite chronic underfunding by Congress over the last five years.

However, certain forces on Capitol Hill are combining to make sure these rousing successes can never be duplicated. In May, the House of Representatives approved a funding bill that required NASA to select only one company in the next round of competition, destroying the competitiveness that has enabled the successes to date. Recently, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed a funding bill that would require the competitors to provide certified cost and pricing data for the final development phase of the commercial crew program, an odd and unnecessary provision in a competitive, fixed-price program. Imposition of this requirement would add extra layers of government bureaucracy, raising NASA's costs and threatening its schedule. The requirement could even require NASA to hold a new competition, adding months if not years of additional dependence on the Russians for our access to space.

The cost-plus-fee contracts of the past should be NASA's last resort, chosen only if a more efficient option is infeasible. They provide incentives to both government agencies and contractors for programs to be delayed and over budget, and it's no surprise that both tend to happen with remarkable frequency. The contractor gets paid regardless, the agency turns to Congress for more money, and the only losers are American taxpayers. NASA has tried to develop new vehicles under such contracts several times in the last twenty years. None succeeded until the Commercial Cargo program tried the new fixed-price competitive approach.

Swift return of NASA astronauts to space on American vehicles is crucial to protecting not only our national security and our status as a spacefaring nation, but also our $100 billion investment in the ISS. The latest report on the future of space exploration from the National Research Council concluded that the current NASA program is inadequate to meet its goals, citing flat budgets for the foreseeable future. But that assumes NASA returns to the failed methods of the past. If NASA is to succeed in a time of tight budgets, it must instead embrace new ways of accomplishing its goals, including commercial contracts and partnerships.

Flying our astronauts should be a national strategic priority, and NASA should be free to continue expanding its use of public-private partnerships and building on its successes. NASA will always lead our nation's exploration of space, but it must empower all the members of the team that makes that happen, including commercial companies. If Congress can ensure that NASA is cutting bureaucracy and getting the most value for its money, our nation will have a bright future of space exploration ahead of it. If not, our human spaceflight program may be a disappointment for years to come.