Massive Fight Brewing Over NASA Changes to CCDev Contracting

NASA wants to change its contracting process for the future rounds of the Commercial Crew Development program, a development that has a lot of commercial crew proponents up in arms. First, the details from Space News:

Breaking from the strategy it used in the first two rounds of its commercial crew development (CCDev) program, NASA said it intends to use a traditional procurement process governed by the Federal Acquisition Regulations to fund its contribution to the next phases of work on privately owned human spaceflight systems.

NASA awarded Space Act Agreements (SAA) for the first and second phases of CCDev. Under those arrangements, companies developing launch or crew transportation systems are paid upon meeting self-imposed milestones developed with NASA input.

But NASA said SAAs may not be suitable for the next phase of commercial crew development because the agency wants that effort to yield an integrated transportation system, comprising a rocket and a crew-carrying vehicle, that NASA would then certify as safe for ferrying astronauts to the international space station.

As part of the certification process, NASA would have to dictate some safety design requirements to its industry partners. NASA does not have that authority under the SAA framework, according to former astronaut Brent Jett, deputy program manager for the agency’s commercial crew program.

And now, this reaction from Charles Lurio in today’s edition of The Lurio Report:

Update, July 21 – ‘Commercial Crew’ Fatal Management Error Imminent

At a forum on 20 July, NASA revealed its plans to indeed control the program tightly and fatally after CCDev 2.  The scope apparently went beyond the worst I’d anticipated in my June 28 issue (“Intervention Required _Now_ to Save ‘Commercial Crew’  From ‘Death by Management’”).

From Blue Origin to SpaceX to Bigelow Aerospace and others, industry firms and entities were stunned.  Only two weeks (to August 3) are allowed for formal responses, but twitter feeds from the meeting indicated the strength of their initial protests.

It seems that the NASA proposals are based on an inverted world where the Space Act Agreements (SAAs) used during the COTS program are suddenly legally questionable, where their accomplishments may not have really been accomplishments, and where rules that didn’t and can’t exist have suddenly become holy writ.  Such weasel words are a flimsy tissue attempting to cover up a retreat to NASA’s traditional FAR contracting, the same procedures that gave us standing armies from factory floor through operations and costs that can never go down.  It makes plausible speculation that this has been engineered by traditional NASA sectors and contractors in revenge for COTS’s SAAs showing just how overpriced they’ve been.

The basic justification is, of course, perpetuation of the “magical thinking” that only NASA can create “safe” human spaceflight; the thesis that the Harry Potter books are nonfiction is plausible by comparison.

NASA is counting on OMB and other higher elements of the Executive Branch being so distracted by larger national issues that they can be “played the fool” and taken in by this, rather than overriding it.  If that happens or if NASA doesn’t change plans on its own, I think that commercial crew beyond the present CCDev phase should be defunded rather than turn into another farce.

(Footnote: Evidently officials, management, and other groups within the Agency are each pointing at the other as responsible for “requiring” a retreat back to costly traditions.  A perfectly illogical circle, but one that’s also hanging together.)

This will be a battle royale. I can’t help thinking that CCDev is going to be a constant battle right up to time of the first launch or the moment it collapses into a giant scrap heap.