ASAP Identifies What NASA Got Right in COTS Program

In its 2013 annual report, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) calls the COTS program “extremely successful,” noting the space agency and its partners, Orbital Sciences Corporation and SpaceX, developed two new launch vehicles and cargo ships for less than the price of a single Space Shuttle flight.

The report provides a succinct synopsis of what NASA did right during the program:

It is important to point out that it was not simply the use of fixed-price Space Act Agreements that led to the Program’s success, although that helped to enable the successful outcome. Rather, NASA did a number of things right along the way, such as maintaining excellent program management, appointing well-qualified technical representatives to the PITs, providing the right amount of insight, requesting the right amount of information, and having the right number of Government attendees at industry meetings. Although the Government has much technical expertise to share, too much Government engagement can stifle industry innovation and/or significantly slow the “speed of decisions.” Finally, program flexibility made a substantial difference. One example of that was eliminating Rocketplane-Kistler as a partner when it failed to successfully complete program milestones and introducing Orbital Sciences Corporation to maintain competition for SpaceX. Another example was NASA’s willingness to combine SpaceX’s two demonstration missions into one when it became clear that all program objectives could be accomplished on a single flight.

“It would certainly not be appropriate for every Government program to use a COTS-type management philosophy, but we would encourage NASA (and other Government agencies) to consider adopting similar approaches where possible,” the report concludes.