As the House of Representatives begins debate on funding legislation that would direct NASA to move quickly to pick a single commercial crew vehicle for public support, the commanders of three Apollo missions to the Moon endorsed the approach.

Neil Armstrong, Eugene Cernan and James Lovell, commanders of Apollo 11, 17 and 13, respectively, told Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds the U.S. space agency, that they support his panel’s approach to commercial crew vehicle development.

“It seems unlikely that NASA will receive significant budgetary relief in the foreseeable future,” the three retired astronauts wrote in a May 4 letter to Wolf. “Consequently, it is mandatory to maximize return on the limited funds available to access low Earth orbit. An early downselect would seem to be prudent in order to maximize the possibility of developing a crew-carrying spacecraft in time to be operationally useful.”

House members are scheduled to debate the Wolf panel’s response to NASA ’s fiscal 2013 budget request on Tuesday. Report language accompanying the Wolf bill, which was approved by the full House Appropriations Committee, calls for “an immediate downselect to a single competitor or, at most, the execution of a leader-follower paradigm in which NASA makes one large award to a main commercial partner and a second small award to a backup partner.”

NASA prefers to maintain competition among companies vying for funds under its commercial crew development (CCDev) seed-money effort as long as possible, in the belief that it will ultimately cost less to develop a vehicle that way. Under pressure from some of the CCDev competitors, the agency also opted to continue the program under Space Act Agreements, rather than using the more restrictive Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) approach.

Wolf ’s panel argued that a quick downselect would allow NASA to move back to the FAR procurement approach and avoid a complicated transition from funding more than one company under the Space Act to a FAR procurement. The three Apollo commanders , who earlier urged Congress to resist White House plans to hand off human access to the private sector, agreed that a Space Act procurement “would be unlikely to provide the documentation that we normally depend upon to provide high confidence in reaching our technical goals.”

“We all agree that our country has painted itself into a corner and does not now, nor will for many years, have a U.S. government craft suitable for carrying cargo or crew to the International Space Station,” the astronauts wrote. “The reputation of our country and the potential liability associated with carrying United States and international crews to and from the ISS dictates that we do everything possible to ensure that any commercial crew service meets standards equal to those that we would enforce would the craft be government owned and operated.”