On February 29, seven US congressmen issued a letter to White House Office of Science and Technology Director John Holdren urging that NASA be given authority over commercial spaceflight safety protocols. “Proposed agreements between NASA and commercial crew entities fail to provide adequate authority for safety oversight and guidance needed by NASA to ensure the best safety for astronauts operating independently developed crew vehicles,” said Representative Pete Olson, one of the signatories. “Safety is the most critical component of human space exploration. This is a no brainer for NASA.”
The full text of the letter is available below:
Dear Dr. Holdren,
While testifying before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on February 17, you and Chairman Ralph Hall had the following exchange:
NASA recently announced its intent to use the Space Act Agreement for the next round of funding for the commercial crew program. And I know you’re familiar with that, aren’t you? And I know that you’re as anxious as anybody or probably more so than most folks for the safety standards, but I have a problem with this. Under this agreement, it’s my understanding that NASA can’t require the companies to meet any safety standards. I don’t know how that could have been left out. But how does the agency intend to ensure that these vehicles ultimately are going to be safe enough to take NASA astronauts to the International Space Station alone?
Well, Chairman Hall, it’s my understanding that NASA retains the responsibility for ensuring the safety of its astronauts whether the launches are commercial or government launches. I am not familiar with the level of detail in these particular agreements that you’re referring to, but I can’t imagine that NASA does not retain that responsibility and that ability. And if – and if there is a problem in the agreements that would jeopardize that, I am sure we will fix it.
In fact, according to NASA’s own Office of General Council, NASA cannot impose any design or safety requirements on its contractors under a Space Act Agreement. NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier fully acknowledges that NASA design and safety requirements cannot be imposed on companies operating under a Space Act Agreement, which therefore increases systemic risks.
NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel also expressed concerns on this issue in their annual report to the Congress in late January. From page 7 of their report:
In mid-December, however, just before this report went to publication, NASA announced plans to change its acquisition strategy for the integrated design phase of the CCP from a fixed-price, Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR)-based contracting approach to one utilizing Space Act Agreements (SAAs). Previously, NASA had made a strong safety case for using conventional contracting on the next phase of the CCDev Program, an approach that was viewed as well reasoned and appropriate by the ASAP. The ASAP acknowledges NASA’s assertion that the change is primarily driven by funding uncertainties and the need to maintain more than one provider for commercial crew transportation services. However, we believe that the sudden change in acquisition strategy in an effort to salvage the CCP may have significantly increased the risk to safety that the previous plan had begun to address. The lack of the ability to incorporate firm safety requirements using an SAA procurement exposes NASA to new risks if, at the conclusion of the developmental phase, the proposed designs do not meet minimum safety requirements.
We have serious concerns about the Administration’s course of action with the commercial crew program. It is inexcusable for the Administration to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds on these nascent systems without the ability to define and impose the necessary requirements to ensure the health and safety of astronaut crews. We ask that you heed your own advice from your testimony before the Science Committee. If safety is being jeopardized through improper contracting methods, we expect you to take immediate action to remedy the situation.
In addition, NASA Chief Financial Officer Beth Robinson has informed our oversight committee staff that the NASA has requested your office to approve a request to Congress for a legislative extension to existing waivers of U.S. payments to Russia to support the International Space Station under sanctions contained in the Iran North Korea Syria Nonproliferation Act. We ask that your office expedite this process in order to ensure that Congress has the time to take the necessary action on this important request this year. Without a timely resolution that extends NASA’s ability to purchase Soyuz launch services, NASA and our international partners could face the need to de-crew the ISS. Such a dire outcome would put the Station at significant risk to its safety and long-term viability as a national research laboratory, as well as jeopardize our nation’s significant investment
Thank you for your consideration of these two important issues for our nation’s space program. We ask for a response within 30 days of receipt of this letter.
[Signatories included Representatives Olson, Palazzo, Smith L., Hultgren, LaTourette, Brooks, Poe]
Opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Space Safety Magazine, IAASS, or ISSF.