NASA is signaling more restrictive use of Space Act Agreements (SAA), development-oriented contracting vehicles the agency has employed since 2006 to hasten development of commercial cargo and crew transportation services to support post-shuttle activities aboard the International Space Station.

The coming shift is just one of the challenges to emerge this month for commercial spaceflight providers and their proponents. Recently, key appropriators agreed to fund just $406 million of the Obama administration's $850 million fiscal 2012 request (AW&ST Nov. 21, p. 39). The SAA changes came in response to a Nov. 17 audit by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress.

A flexible feature of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, SAA initially enabled the agency to reimburse or share costs with nongovernmental partners to further its mission outside traditional contracts, leases and cooperative agreements. In 2006, NASA upped the ante with a third use of SAA—funded agreements with multiple traditional aerospace entities, as well as new space companies.

Over the past five years, NASA has spent or committed in the near-term more than $1 billion through flexible SAA on Commercial Orbital Transportation Services and Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) initiatives. The strategy is intended to stretch NASA's post-shuttle resources to provide for the development of the Space Launch System and Orion/Multi-Purpose Crew Launch Vehicle through traditional development contracts. With tight budgets looming for the foreseeable future, it is unclear whether the strategy will be successful, given NASA's desire to assure a competitive environment by nurturing at least two U.S. domestic suppliers of cargo and crew transportation services.

In the 18-page GAO report, “NASA: Key Controls NASA Employs to Guide Use and Management of Funded Space Act Agreements Are Generally Sufficient, but Some Could Be Strengthened and Clarified,” auditors urged NASA to put more rigor into its use of SAA.

In an unpopular course change, NASA has already informed its CCDev Round 2 participants of plans to revert to traditional Federal Acquisition Regulation agreements for further development activities and service agreements. The switch to fixed-price contracts for the third round mirrors a shift in the program from generic technical capabilities for orbital human spaceflight to the specific capability of reaching the space station, Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA Headquarters, told Aviation Week earlier this year (AW&ST Sept. 26, p. 40).

GAO recommends even more changes to address several shortcomings. Those include a lack of documentation justifying the agency's use of the less-restrictive SAA rather than traditional contracts for services, as well as the agency's level of financial commitment; insufficient clarity on how extensively agency officials are to consult the broader acquisition and risk-management policies of the agency when considering an SAA; and the absence of training for agency personnel responsible for executing SAA.

Indeed, NASA's policy states that either the mission directorate associate administrators, or the officials in charge of headquarters offices, or the directors of NASA centers—depending on where the agreement is initiated—have the responsibility for the negotiation, execution, amendment and termination of funded SAA. It also says these individuals may delegate agreement execution authority to signing officials [see chart].

GAO's assessment, prepared for the leadership of the Senate and House committees authorizing NASA expenditures, included a comparison with the more demanding restrictions required under similar agreements exercised by the Defense and Homeland Security departments.

In response to the GAO report, NASA General Counsel Michael Wholley acknowledged the need to remedy shortcomings. Said Wholley, “NASA's goal is to implement all recommendations during fiscal year 2012.”

Delegation of Authority on CCDev1 and CCDev2
CCDev1 CCDev2
Exploration Systems Exploration Systems
Mission Directorate Mission Directorate
Associate Administrator Associate Administrator
Commercial Crew Program Special Assistant to the Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems
Lead at NASA Headquarters
Source: NASA