NASA Chief: Space Agency Will Abide by New COTS Restrictions
Artist's concept of Rocketplane-Kistler's K-1 Orbital Vehicle.
Credit: NASA.

WASHINGTON - NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said his agency would abide by the restrictions the U.S. Congress has imposed on the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, a $500 million demonstration project aimed at fostering private-sector solutions to NASA's space station re-supply quandary.

"We will, of course, comply with the laws that are passed, but we certainly will redress this issue with Congress," Griffin said Dec. 20 in a written response to a query from Space News. "NASA will fight for this program, which is critically important to America's future as a space-faring nation. COTS is intended to help spur the development of commercial space capability, particularly transportation services to and from the International Space Station, which would enhance strategic U.S. access to Earth orbit and ultimately provide substantial savings to taxpayers."

A $555 billion domestic spending bill that cleared Congress Dec. 19 and now heads to the White House where President George W. Bush is expected to sign it into law includes the $17.3 billion Bush requested for NASA. But the bill also cuts about a third of the $236 million NASA had requested for the COTS program for 2008 and bars the space agency from making a new COTS award until it resolves its dispute with one of the two original COTS awardees, Rocketplane Kistler (RpK) of Oklahoma City.

"[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 bill's provision 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."

RpK appealed its COTS termination directly to NASA to no avail this fall and threatened to sue NASA in federal court, but so far has not done so. In parallel, RpK also has filed a protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office not because of the termination itself but because of NASA's intent to use a Space Act Agreement rather than a traditional government contract when it selects a new COTS contender for funding.

Eight companies submitted bids to NASA by Nov. 21 for the $175 million that was freed up after the agency terminated RpK's COTS award.

While it is unclear whether NASA will be able to make a new award come February in light of the pending restrictions, NASA spokeswoman Beth Dickey said the agency continues to press ahead with proposal evaluations.

"NASA is still working toward a February 2008 selection date, keeping in mind that this any selection depends on resolution of the protest at the Government Accountability Office," she said Dec. 20 in an e-mail message.

The restrictions on the COTS money came 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.

A Senate source said Nov. 19 that the COTS provision was intended first and foremost to prevent NASA from re-directing money it no longer needed in light of RpK's termination.

"The landscape changed for this program and when the landscape changes the money situation can change," the Senate source said.

The COTS cut is not going over well with space commercialization advocates.

"COTS is the critical path to station utilization for Americans. It needs more money not less," said Bob Werb, the Space Frontier Foundation's chairman. "If we aren't going to stimulate the creation of cheap access to station and aren't going to fund station utilization, we might as well just cancel the [international space station] now."