NASA OIG Finds Serious Problems With SBIR Program

The NASA Office of Inspector General’s audit of NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program has turned up a number of problems, including millions of dollars of unallowed expenses by contractors and weak fraud detection and prevention controls.

Results

Our review found that while NASA’s initial choice of SBIR award recipients appeared objective and merit-based, its oversight and monitoring of awards was deficient. Specifically, SBIR awards in 2008 contained an estimated $2.7 million in unallowable and unsupportable costs, including travel and equipment expenses. In addition, we found that NASA officials lacked adequate procedures to ensure SBIR applicants’ past performance had been considered when selecting recipients of approximately $85.7 million in “Phase 2” SBIR funds. Federal acquisition rules require consideration of past performance. Finally, NASA has not implemented appropriate internal controls to prevent fraud and abuse in contract awards. Consequently, some SBIR award recipients may have received multiple SBIR awards from different Federal agencies for the same research or NASA may have received highly questionable research products for its contract money.

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NASA SBIR Program Funds Mars Sample Return Technologies

NASA faces a number of technical challenges to overcome for is Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission. One can get a good sense of what those obstacles are by looking at the Small Business Innovative Research projects that the agency selected to fund earlier this month.

Below are summaries of the projects that were selected. They are broken down into key phases of the mission: aerocapture, entry, descent and landing; sample collection and surface operations; planetary ascent; and orbital rendezvous with the return vehicle.

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Aurora Wins SBIR, STTR Awards for Mars and CubeSat Sample Return Technology

Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation was one of the big winners when NASA announced its intention to negotiate SBIR and STTR agreements earlier this month. Four of the company’s SBIR proposals were among those chosen for negotiations along with an STTR proposal.

One of the SBIRs involves a collaboration with MIT to develop a system to capture a Martian sample return capsule launched from the surface of the Red Planet for a NASA mission. The STTR proposal is a collaboration with the Georgia Institute of Technology Center for Space Systems to develop a system to allow small small probes to return experiments from Earth orbit.

Details for both projects are shown below. I’ve also included information about three other SBIR projects that include an ISS battery recharging system, catalytic combustors for very high altitude air-breathing propulsion, and propulsion control sampling algorithms.

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Andrews Space Works on Aerocapture System for Planetary Probes, ISS Cargo Return

NASA recently announced that it would be conducting contract negotiations for 350 projects under its SBIR and STTR programs, which are aimed at promoting space technology development and transfer by small businesses. Parabolic Arc will be looking at a number of the proposals involving NewSpace companies that it regularly covers or which encompass interesting technologies.

This post takes a look at a hypersonic entry system for spacecraft aerocapture that is being developed by Andrews Space. The system could be used for spacecraft sent to other worlds as well as cargo return by space freighters such as Cygnus, ATV and HTV.

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NASA Inspector General Auditing SBIR Program for Fraud, Waste and Abuse

A report submitted to NASA’s management last month titled, “NASA’s Top Management and Performance Challenges,” reveals that the space agency’s Inspector General is currently auditing the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program for fraud, waste and abuse:

Contract Management. NASA spends approximately 85 percent of its $18 billion budget on contracts and awards. Given the significant amounts of taxpayer funds at risk, continued findings by the OIG and GAO identifying systemic weaknesses in NASA’s contract management practices illustrate that this issue remains a top Agency challenge.

For example, the OIG has identified instances of fraud, waste, and abuse by program participants that bring into question the effectiveness of the internal controls in NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program. OIG investigations have found that some award recipients received multiple SBIR contracts for essentially the same research and provided duplicate deliverables or questionable research products. An ongoing OIG audit of NASA’s SBIR Program is examining whether Program management has implemented adequate internal controls to ensure the contract funds are appropriately spent. In addition, the audit is reviewing whether SBIR contracts contain unallowable and unsupported costs.

Parabolic Arc will let you know when the Inspector General releases the audit.

Bob Zubrin’s Company Snags Three SBIR Awards for Lunar, Martian Projects

NASA recently announced that it would be conducting contract negotiations for 350 projects under its SBIR and STTR programs, which are aimed at promoting space technology development and transfer by small businesses. Parabolic Arc will be looking at a number of the proposals involving NewSpace companies that it regularly covers or which encompass interesting technologies.

This post looks at Pioneer Pioneer Astronautics, a Colorado-based company run by Mars Society Founder Robert Zubrin. NASA selected three of the company’s SBIR proposals, including ones related to nitrous oxide micro-engines, Martian water extraction, and lunar oxygen production. Descriptions follow after the break.

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NASA Funds Space Tether Research as Part of SBIR, STTR Programs

NASA recently announced that it would be conducting contract negotiations for 350 projects under its SBIR and STTR programs, which are aimed at promoting space technology development and transfer by small businesses. Parabolic Arc will be looking at a number of the proposals involving NewSpace companies that it regularly covers or which encompass interesting technologies.

This post looks at proposals put forth by Tech-X Corporation of Colorado and Tethers Unlimited of Washington for the purposes of de-orbiting and maneuvering spacecraft and reducing orbital debris. Two of the projects involve tethers, while a two others focus on developing magnetoplasmadynamic (MPD) thrusters and predicting hall thruster operational lifetimes. Tethers Unlimited has an additional project involving integrated power, propulsion, and pointing for CubeSats for which there is no public information.

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NASA SBIR Contract to Fund XCOR Composite Fuel Tank Development

XCOR's Lynx suborbital vehicle

NASA recently announced that it would be conducting contract negotiations for 350 projects under its SBIR and STTR programs, which are aimed at promoting space technology development by small businesses. Parabolic Arc will be looking at a number of the proposals involving NewSpace companies that it regularly covers or which encompass interesting technologies.

COMPANY:XCOR
LOCATION:Mojave, Calif.
PROPOSAL TITLE:Cryogenic Composite Tank Fabrication for Reusable Launch Vehicles
SUBTOPIC TITLE:Advanced Composite Tank and Materials Technologies

TECHNICAL ABSTRACT

XCOR has conducted extensive research and development, and material characterization analysis of a nonflammable, high-strength, lightweight thermoplastic fluoropolymer composite material, trademarked NonburniteTM, which is suitable for making reusable, reliable, low cost cryogenic tanks and structures for space flight service.

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Masten Wins NASA Contact for Lunar Lander Testbed Development

Masten's Xombie vehicle

NASA recently announced that it would be conducting contract negotiations for 350 projects under its SBIR and STTR programs, which are aimed at promoting space technology development by small businesses. Parabolic Arc will be looking at a number of the proposals involving NewSpace companies that it regularly covers or which involve interesting technologies.

COMPANY:Masten Space Systems
LOCATION:Mojave, Calif.
PROPOSAL:Terrestrial Plume Impingement Testbed
SUBTOPIC TITLE:Robotic Systems for Human Exploration

TECHNICAL ABSTRACT

Masten Space Systems proposes to create a terrestrial plume impingement testbed for generating novel datasets for extraterrestrial robotic missions. This testbed would allow rocket plume interactions with lunar, martian, and asteroid surface simulants in a fully instrumented, easy to access, and low cost environment using Masten Space’s existing VTVL suborbital launch vehicles.

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NASA Negotiating 350 Small Business Technology Contracts

NASA PROGRAM UPDATE

NASA is negotiating contracts with 350 small businesses that had the best proposals to address critical research and technology needs for agency programs and projects. The proposals are part of NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research Program, known as SBIR, and the Small Business Technology Transfer program, known as STTR.

“The SBIR and STTR programs help facilitate innovative research and technology development among America’s most creative small businesses,” said Bobby Braun, NASA chief technologist at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “These Phase 1 awards will serve as seed funds for transformative research and technology projects that have the potential to mature new products and services of great benefit to NASA and the nation.”

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