Omnibus Bill Puts the Brakes on NASA COTS Competition
Artist's concept of Rocketplane-Kistler's K-1 Orbital Vehicle.
Credit: NASA.

WASHINGTON - NASA could be forced to delay its selection of a new contender for space station resupply contracts if the $516 billion domestic spending measure approved Dec. 17 by the U.S. House of Representatives becomes law.

At least seven firms submitted proposals in November for $175 million in funding NASA plans to award by February under its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration program. The COTS program, established in 2006, aims to foster development of commercial space transportation services capable of delivering cargo and eventually crew to the International Space Station.

NASA selected two companies in mid-2006 to share $500 million in funding. One of those companies, El Segundo, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies, remains funded. But the other firm, Oklahoma City-based Rocketplane Kistler, had its COTS agreement terminated in October for failing to show sufficient progress toward planned 2009 flight demonstrations.

By pulling the plug on Rocketplane Kistler, NASA freed up the $175 million it plans to award to some other firm around February.

But report language accompanying the omnibus spending bill Congress hopes to send to President George W. Bush for his signature before Christmas directs NASA to postpone making a new COTS award until it resolves its dispute with Rocketplane Kistler, which has threatened to sue the U.S. space agency in federal court.

"[T]he Appropriations Committees note that one of the two COTS contracts is currently in dispute, and are concerned by NASA's recent decision to re-compete the disputed contract before all challenges have been resolved," the report language states. "In doing so, NASA could potentially create a liability to fund three proposals instead of two as originally envisioned, increasing the costs of this program to the taxpayers.

Therefore, NASA is directed not to select a new contractor until all challenges are decided. Further, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) is directed to perform a full review of COTS program expenditures and management."

The spending measure also cuts what NASA would get to spend on COTS next year by one-third, providing only $160 million of the $236 million it had requested for the program.

The restrictions should come as no surprise to NASA. Rocketplane Kistler had threatened this fall to lobby Congress for the restrictions unless the agency agreed to give the company $10 million it felt it was owed for progress it had been making on the K-1 reusable rocket before NASA terminated its COTS agreement.

Overall, the omnibus bill would provide the full $17.3 billion Bush requested for NASA, but would put more money into the agency's science and aeronautics programs at the expense of its exploration initiative, which includes the COTS program.

Among some of the other changes lawmakers included:

  • Requiring NASA to spend $42 million in 2008 on a robotic lunar lander project the agency canceled saying it neither needed nor could afford such a mission;

  • Directing the agency to spend at least $40 million next year getting started on a list of new Earth science missions recommended by a National Academy of Sciences panel;

  • Adding $38.4 million for the Space Interferometry Mission, a multibillion-dollar space telescope project that NASA wants to postpone indefinitely;

  • Directing NASA to spend an additional $24 million on research and analysis grants for space and Earth scientists.

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