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NASA Chief: Space Agency Will Abide by New COTS Restrictions

Rocketplane Kistler Says It Has New Strategic Partner in the Wings
Artist's concept of Rocketplane-Kistler's K-1 Orbital Vehicle. (Image credit: NASA.)

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

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

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

"[T]heAppropriations Committees note that one of the two COTS contracts is currentlyin dispute, and are concerned by NASA's recent decision to re-compete thedisputed contract before all challenges have been resolved," the bill'sprovision states. "In doing so, NASA could potentially create a liabilityto fund three proposals instead of two as originally envisioned, increasing thecosts of this program to the taxpayers."

RpKappealed its COTStermination directly to NASA to no avail this fall and threatened to sueNASA in federal court, but so far has not done so. In parallel, RpK also hasfiled a protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office not because ofthe termination itself but because of NASA's intent to use a Space ActAgreement rather than a traditional government contract when it selects a newCOTS contender for funding.

Eightcompanies submitted bids to NASA by Nov. 21 for the $175 million that was freedup after the agency terminated RpK's COTS award.

While it isunclear whether NASA will be able to make a new award come February in light ofthe pending restrictions, NASA spokeswoman Beth Dickey said the agencycontinues to press ahead with proposal evaluations.

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

Therestrictions on the COTS money came as no surprise to NASA. Rocketplane Kistlerhad threatened this fall to lobby Congress for the restrictions unless theagency agreed to give the company $10 million it felt it was owed for progressit had been making on the K-1 reusable rocket before NASA terminated its COTSagreement.

A Senatesource said Nov. 19 that the COTS provision was intended first and foremost toprevent NASA from re-directing money it no longer needed in light of RpK'stermination.

"Thelandscape changed for this program and when the landscape changes the moneysituation can change," the Senate source said.

The COTScut is not going over well with space commercialization advocates.

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


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Brian Berger

Brian Berger is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews, a bi-weekly space industry news magazine, and He joined SpaceNews covering NASA in 1998 and was named Senior Staff Writer in 2004 before becoming Deputy Editor in 2008. Brian's reporting on NASA's 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident and received the Communications Award from the National Space Club Huntsville Chapter in 2019. Brian received a bachelor's degree in magazine production and editing from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.