Language differences in the House and Senate versions of the appropriations bills funding NASA in fiscal 2013 leave open the question of how much competition NASA will be able to afford, and for how long, before it selects one or more commercial spacecraft to take astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

The Republican-led House Appropriations Committee adopted language April 26 directing NASA to move quickly to choose one or at most two vehicles, and to focus funding on getting to flight as quickly as possible.

Language approved earlier by the Senate Appropriations Committee, where Democrats hold the chair, is less specific on the question of commercial crew competition, urging the agency to “ensure that multiple competitors remain, but also … be mindful that, faced with a stagnant future budget, NASA should not take on obligations to more companies than can be practically supported.”

The House version, which heads to the full chamber next month, would appropriate $500 million for commercial crew development within its $17.6 billion topline for NASA. The Senate bill would spend $525 million on commercial crew, and $19.4 billion on NASA as a whole — including a shift in weather-satellite procurement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the space agency.

Hoping to begin delivering crew to the ISS as paying passengers on commercial space taxis in 2017, NASA requested $836 million as the government’s share of commercial crew development. But the House panel noted that the $500 million figure was set in the fiscal 2010 NASA authorization act that President Barack Obama signed after it won bipartisan support in both houses of Congress.

Since then NASA has allowed companies competing in the third round of commercial crew development — known as Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) — to proceed under the Space Act Agreement mechanism. But the agency also has indicated it will go to a more rigorous Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) approach in final contracting to ensure the selected vehicles are safe for human spaceflight. In its report accompanying the NASA bill, the appropriations panel says the agency has no clear plan to make the shift in procurement strategies.

“As a result, the strategy presents a significant risk of costly, lengthy delays as NASA attempts to retroactively assess competitors’ designs on safety and other standards and companies attempt to make changes in fully mature integrated designs to address instances in which NASA cannot verify that a necessary qualification criterion has been met,” the House report states.

Instead, the panel says, an “immediate downselect to a single competitor” or the use of a leader-follower approach with a main choice and “a second small award to a backup partner” would address many of the problems it sees in the existing approach.

A tighter focus would allow NASA to trim its commercial crew spending and shift the funds to other priorities, the panel suggests, while “potentially enabling that competitor to produce a final capability faster than otherwise possible.” It would also eliminate the confusion in shifting from Space Act to a FAR procurement, and would fit better with the constrained budgets ahead.

“In a climate of decreasing non-defense discretionary spending, the committee does not believe that the administration’s proposed budget runout for commercial crew is sustainable,” the panel states. It “directs” NASA to go to an “immediate downselect” and FAR-based contracts.

That sets up a partisan issue in the NASA appropriations conference that will pit House Republicans against the Democratic administration’s desire to keep the commercial crew competition open for as long as possible.