WASHINGTON - U.S. congressional investigators arescrutinizing NASA?s decision to give Zero Gravity Corp. (Zero-G) a shot atconducting the type of weightless flights for researchers and astronauts thespace agency traditionally has conducted aboard its own aircraft.
Accordingto a congressional staffer involved in the investigation, lawmakers arequestioning Zero-G?s commitment toNASA, and sources familiar with the matter said the committee is skepticalthat commercial flights are cheaper than NASA continuing to use its own plane.
Zero-G, which has flown around 5,000 privatecitizens aboard a specially equipped Boeing 727 aircraft since launchingits parabolic flight service in 2004, signed NASA as a customer in Januaryfollowing an open competition in which the Las Vegas-based company was the solebidder.
AlthoughNASA could buy up to 80 flights from Zero-G this year, the agency is onlycommitted to buying a single week?s worth of flights for around $300,000. Themaximum potential value of the so-called indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantitycontract is $25.4 million, assuming NASA exercises its option to extend thedeal to five years.
The House Science and Technologyinvestigations and oversight subcommittee opened an investigation of the Zero-Gdeal in April after Democratic staffers traveled to Houston?s Johnson SpaceCenter for a briefing on the agency?s parabolic flight program.
Johnsonoperates the C-9 transport aircraft that NASA acquired from the U.S. Navy in2003 and spent nearly two years and several million dollars modifying. Thetwin-engine jet will continue the parabolic research and training flights theagency has conducted for more than 50 years while it determines whether Zero-Gcan provide the service.
NASAannounced in 2007 it was looking for alternatives to operating itsown parabolic aircraft. Although as many as three companies responded tothe request for information NASA released prior to the formal solicitation, Zero-Gwas the only company to submit a bid.
Now thatthe contract has been awarded, Congress is zeroing in for a closer look.
Rep. BradMiller (D-N.C.), chairman of the investigations and oversight subcommittee,sent two letters to NASA Administrator Mike Griffin April 15 requestingmaterials related to the Zero-G deal.
Miller?sfirst letter, according to sources familiar with the document, includedmultiple allegations disputed by Zero-G, among them that the company conducteda weightless flight for the makers of the ?Girls Gone Wild? video series.
Zero-G haslong denied any association with what the makers of ?Girls Gone Wild: UltimateRush,? trumpeted as ?the world?s first naked flight in zero gravity? when thevideo was released in 2006. Mantra Films, the Santa Monica, Calif.-basedproducer of the ?Girls Gone Wild? series, said the featured flight wasconducted from Moscow and not by Zero-G.
?Zero Gravity Corp. can fly you inVegas or Florida. We chose to go to Moscow because they would allow the nuditywe needed while Zero Gravity would not,? Eric S. Deutsch, senior vice presidentof production for Mantra, wrote in a May 1 e-mail to SPACE.com.
The falseallegation about Zero-G?s participation in the ?Girls Gone Wild? flightprompted a retraction of Miller?s letter the same day it was sent. Millerimmediately sent a second letter without the ?Girls Gone Wild? reference, saidDan Pearson, majority staff director for the investigations and oversight subcommittee.
?We didn?twant to be unfair to the company,? Pearson said. The letter also questions whetherpaying Zero-G for parabolic flights is a better deal for NASA?than flying the C-9, according to sources.
NASAofficials provided two CDs with e-mails and documents pertaining to theparabolic flight services procurement April 30, said Pearson, adding that theinvestigations and oversight staff had examined about half of the informationby May 2.
?Thedocuments reviewed by the committee to date raise questions about thecommitment of Zero-G to carrying NASA?s work forward,? he said.
Thesubcommittee staff expects to complete its review the week of May 4. Theinvestigation could lead to a staff report and release of the documents or acongressional hearing, depending on the findings, Pearson said.
In a May 1 statement, Zero-G ChiefExecutive Officer PeterDiamandis said Zero-G is investing $1 million to modify its 727 ?to conduct NASA flights this summer.
Diamandissaid he was confident congressional investigators would come to understand thatthe procurement was on the up and up and that flying with Zero-G is a good dealfor NASA.
?Given the scrupulous professionalismshown by all NASA staff throughout the long and deliberate procurement process,we are confident that the committee will find that NASA has acted carefully andcost-effectively, and in a manner that will ultimately save U.S. taxpayers?money and provide them high scientific value and also economic and educationalbenefits,? Diamandis said in the statement.
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