Congressmen Call Approach to Commercial Crew Safety “Inexcusable”

Washington, DC (Peter Olson PR) — Rep. Pete Olson (R-Sugar Land) and several colleagues today urged White House Office of Science and Technology Director John Holdren to follow through on his understanding that NASA should retain all encompassing responsibility over the safety requirements for development of commercial crew vehicles. Under proposed agreements between NASA and commercial crew entities, NASA would not have the necessary authority to oversee and approve the safety measures needed to keep our astronauts safe.

“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,” Olson said. “Safety is the most critical component of human space exploration. This is a no brainer for NASA.”

Signers of the letter include:

Pete Olson (R-TX)
Lamar Smith (R-TX)
Ted Poe (R-TX)
Steven Palazzo (R-MS)
Randy Hultgren (R-IL)
Steven LaTourette (R-OH)
Mo Brooks (R-AL)


Full text of the letter:
The Honorable John P. Holdren
Office of Science and Technology Policy
New Executive Office Building
725 17th Street NW
Washington, DC 20502

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:

Chairman Hall:

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?

Dr. Holdren:

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. [emphasis added]

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.

Very respectfully,

  • warshawski

    Simple under SAA contract if the spacecraft does not meet the required safety requirements you do not procede to the next step and that spacecraft is eliminated from flying crew for NASA. There is no safety risk to NASA, there is a project risk that none of the spacecraft will meet the safety requirement and NASA will not have a privately developed spacecraft. That however is unlikely as the companies involved are designing and building to sell services to NASA so they will try to meet NASA requirements. That is why having multiple contractors reduces overall risk as if one company does not meet the requirement some of the others should.
    The bigest risk to NASA is insufficient funding to pay for multiple projects to develop and test spacecraft so the objectives of safe affordable space transport is achieved.

  • Tim Cooper

    Has anyone else noticed how all these free-market Republicans seem to have absolutely no faith in the free market when it comes to space safety?


  • Paul451

    Olsen is one of LM’s paid bitches. He’s saying this because it’s what he’s been told to say.

  • Sounds to me as if the ‘usual suspects’ are beginning to run scared…

  • The budget presents some interesting possibilities.

    Orion is funded at a lower level (about $170 million) to keep pace with SLS development. Huchison is already screaming about that. Meanwhile, the Mars program cut is about $300 million or so.

    Restoring both those programs to what Congress wants by taking it from commercial crew (and maybe tech development) would leave that CC budget at or below the $406 million being spent this year.

    That would pretty much force NASA to down select to one provider. Then Congress would likely demand that it be run like a normal FAR acquisition.

    The main advantage that NASA has is that it will make selections by August under its current RFP. That will be before Congress can formally set the FY 2013 budget or weight in with budget language that would require FAR or a single provider.

    With Space Act Agreements already signed and being executed, it would be harder for Congress to set those conditions or to justify a really low budget for commercial crew. It won’t stop them from trying, but it will make the effort all that more blatantly absurd.

  • warshawski

    Further to my earlier post the safety issue is a read herring to divert attention from the great progress comercial crew is making. See comments from Phil McAlister, director of the Commercial Crew Program at NASA headquarters:

    NASA has said that Space Act Agreements do not give the agency legal authority to dictate design requirements to contractors. However, the Commercial Crew Program office in December published a document called the CCT-1100 Series — a list of agency standards and certification procedures that it expects would-be providers to follow if they expect to win flight services contracts down the road.
    “Everybody knows what our requirements are going to be if they ultimately want to sell their services to NASA,” Phil McAlister, director of the Commercial Crew Program at NASA headquarters here, told Space News March 2. “They know right now, today, which requirements they’re going to have to meet