House Panel Second Guesses NASA's Zero-G Contract Award
The airborne roller coaster is a specially modified 727.
Credit: Zero Gravity Corp

WASHINGTON - U.S. congressional investigators are scrutinizing NASA?s decision to give Zero Gravity Corp. (Zero-G) a shot at conducting the type of weightless flights for researchers and astronauts the space agency traditionally has conducted aboard its own aircraft.

According to a congressional staffer involved in the investigation, lawmakers are questioning Zero-G?s commitment to NASA, and sources familiar with the matter said the committee is skeptical that commercial flights are cheaper than NASA continuing to use its own plane.

Zero-G, which has flown around 5,000 private citizens aboard a specially equipped Boeing 727 aircraft since launching its parabolic flight service in 2004, signed NASA as a customer in January following an open competition in which the Las Vegas-based company was the sole bidder.

Although NASA could buy up to 80 flights from Zero-G this year, the agency is only committed to buying a single week?s worth of flights for around $300,000. The maximum potential value of the so-called indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract is $25.4 million, assuming NASA exercises its option to extend the deal to five years.

The House Science and Technology investigations and oversight subcommittee opened an investigation of the Zero-G deal in April after Democratic staffers traveled to Houston?s Johnson Space Center for a briefing on the agency?s parabolic flight program.

Johnson operates the C-9 transport aircraft that NASA acquired from the U.S. Navy in 2003 and spent nearly two years and several million dollars modifying. The twin-engine jet will continue the parabolic research and training flights the agency has conducted for more than 50 years while it determines whether Zero-G can provide the service.

NASA announced in 2007 it was looking for alternatives to operating its own parabolic aircraft. Although as many as three companies responded to the request for information NASA released prior to the formal solicitation, Zero-G was the only company to submit a bid.

Now that the contract has been awarded, Congress is zeroing in for a closer look.

Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), chairman of the investigations and oversight subcommittee, sent two letters to NASA Administrator Mike Griffin April 15 requesting materials related to the Zero-G deal.

Miller?s first letter, according to sources familiar with the document, included multiple allegations disputed by Zero-G, among them that the company conducted a weightless flight for the makers of the ?Girls Gone Wild? video series.

Zero-G has long denied any association with what the makers of ?Girls Gone Wild: Ultimate Rush,? trumpeted as ?the world?s first naked flight in zero gravity? when the video was released in 2006. Mantra Films, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based producer of the ?Girls Gone Wild? series, said the featured flight was conducted from Moscow and not by Zero-G.

?Zero Gravity Corp. can fly you in Vegas or Florida. We chose to go to Moscow because they would allow the nudity we needed while Zero Gravity would not,? Eric S. Deutsch, senior vice president of production for Mantra, wrote in a May 1 e-mail to SPACE.com.

The false allegation about Zero-G?s participation in the ?Girls Gone Wild? flight prompted a retraction of Miller?s letter the same day it was sent. Miller immediately sent a second letter without the ?Girls Gone Wild? reference, said Dan Pearson, majority staff director for the investigations and oversight subcommittee.

?We didn?t want to be unfair to the company,? Pearson said. The letter also questions whether paying Zero-G for parabolic flights is a better deal for NASA?than flying the C-9, according to sources.

NASA officials provided two CDs with e-mails and documents pertaining to the parabolic flight services procurement April 30, said Pearson, adding that the investigations and oversight staff had examined about half of the information by May 2.

?The documents reviewed by the committee to date raise questions about the commitment of Zero-G to carrying NASA?s work forward,? he said.

The subcommittee staff expects to complete its review the week of May 4. The investigation could lead to a staff report and release of the documents or a congressional hearing, depending on the findings, Pearson said.

In a May 1 statement, Zero-G Chief Executive Officer Peter Diamandis said Zero-G is investing $1 million to modify its 727 ?to conduct NASA flights this summer.

Diamandis said he was confident congressional investigators would come to understand that the procurement was on the up and up and that flying with Zero-G is a good deal for NASA.

?Given the scrupulous professionalism shown by all NASA staff throughout the long and deliberate procurement process, we are confident that the committee will find that NASA has acted carefully and cost-effectively, and in a manner that will ultimately save U.S. taxpayers? money and provide them high scientific value and also economic and educational benefits,? Diamandis said in the statement.

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