NASA’s inspector general and the lawmaker who chairs the subcommittee that controls the agency’s purse strings in the House are reviewing the Space Act Agreements (SAAs) that have been the agency’s procurement vehicle of choice for support of the emerging “new space” industry, in part because they require less rigorous oversight than standard government purchases of goods and services.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chair of the House Appropriations commerce, justice and science subcommittee, said Feb. 26 an initial review by his staff of the agency’s 1,573 active domestic and international SAAs raised some questions that he expects to pursue “in the coming weeks.”

“I was struck by the broad scope of the agreements that the agency has entered into – as well as the unusual nature of some of the agreements,” Wolf wrote to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

Wolf termed as “overdue” an audit “evaluating NASA’s management of its Space Act Agreements” that NASA Inspector General Paul Martin announced Feb. 25, but said he was pleased that the IG’s office will investigate “whether reimbursement is being properly sought and received and whether compliance with export control laws is being rigorously monitored and enforced.”

Martin’s notification said IG auditors also will “review internal controls as they relate to the overall objective” of the SAAs, which were established in the 1958 law establishing NASA.

Wolf’s letter to Bolden follows hard on the heels of his request for an investigation into the way the Justice Department and FBI handled whistle-blower complaints about technology security at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. While the focus of that request was on charges that Ames managers didn’t follow International Traffic in Arms Regulations in protecting sensitive technology under their control, the whistle-blower also has alleged improper use of NASA funds through SAAs to give Google executives use of the field center’s airfield for private aircraft.

The focus on SAAs reflects growing interest among House Republicans in the way NASA is managed. House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) also signed the letter that grew out of the whistle-blower complaint. And Wolf is scheduled to testify Feb. 27 before the space subcommittee of Smith’s panel on his Space Leadership Preservation Act, which would set NASA up under a board of directors and an administrator with a six-year term.

“I believe it is important for the Congress to have transparency into which entities NASA has entered into SAAs and the scope of those agreements, whether direct payments, technology transfer or data sharing,” Wolf wrote to Bolden on Jan. 14, seeking the list of SAAs then in effect.

In responding to that letter, Seth Statler, associate administrator for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, said the agency had 563 active international agreements under SAAs, and another 1,010 SAAs with domestic entities. While the international agreements are handled as “no-exchange-of-funds” barter deals, the domestic SAAs sometimes involve direct payments or cost sharing with private partners.

Statler said 59% of NASA’s domestic SAAs were fully reimbursable, with all but three of the remainder being collaborative “non-reimbursable” agreements in which each party pays its own costs. Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX are in funded SAAs worth a total of $1.1 billion if all milestones are met to develop commercial crew vehicles.