NASA will get a little slack from Congress on how it may procure commercial crew transportation for astronauts headed to the International Space Station (ISS), but apparently no more money.

Administrator Charles Bolden and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that handles NASA funding, have negotiated a deal that lets the U.S. space agency pick “2.5 program partners” — two proposals for a full share of federal seed money to develop commercial crew vehicles, plus another company that will receive a “partial award.”

That is a change from earlier language from Wolf’s panel directing NASA to pick one competitor and at most a partially funded backup, in an effort to save money. But the new agreement — reflected in an exchange of letters released June 5 — does not include more money for the work.

Wolf’s letter to Bolden proposes a slight boost in fiscal 2013 funding for the commercial crew program (CCP) from the $500 million the House approved, but only to the $525 million level set by the Senate. Bolden’s response urges the Senate-House conference committee that will reconcile the two NASA funding bills to approve “a conference funding outcome for the CCP above the Senate-proposed level and closer to the president’s FY 2013 request.” That request called for $836 million in CCP funds for the coming fiscal year, and Bolden told Wolf in his June 4 letter that “it is important to note that the CCP will require increased annual funding in future years to accomplish the current program plan.”

The lawmaker and the NASA administrator also agreed that future commercial crew contracting will be handled under Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) rules instead of less-restrictive Space Act Agreements (SAAs). Last year NASA shifted gears and opted for SAAs instead of FAR procurements for the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) phase of the commercial crew development that NASA is evaluating.

Under the agreement, the 2.5 CCiCap winners announced this summer will work under FAR rules, and NASA will handle the FAR procurements “in a manner that will minimize substantive delays and programmatic risks.” The agreement, as stated by Wolf in a May 31 letter to Bolden, calls for the space agency to collect and evaluate financial data on CCiCap winners “to provide confidence that these partners are capable of meeting their obligations under the program.”

Wolf’s letter was dated the day a Space Exploration Technologies Inc. (SpaceX) Dragon cargo carrier splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean with a load of cargo from the ISS after becoming the first commercial vehicle to reach the orbiting laboratory. In his response to Wolf, Bolden said NASA is at work planning the transition to FAR-based contracts and expects to have it “substantively complete” before the CCiCap awards are announced.