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NASA Aims to Ease Doubts Over Private Space Taxis

WASHINGTON? NASA is reassuring commercialspace firms that it will be a supportive customer for privately builtspacetaxis even as it cautions that Congress could stymie efforts to fosterdevelopment of such vehicles.

Duringan Aug.19 industry event at NASA headquarters here, agency officialssaid 35companies had responded to a May 21 NASA solicitation seeking input onthefledgling commercial crew initiative that U.S. President Barack Obamahasproposed for a $5.8 billion investment over the next five years.

"Webelieve that we can fund up to fourproviders with that $5.8 billion," Phil McAlister, NASA's commercialcrewplanning lead, told an audience of mostly space industry executives andadvocates attending the forum. "This is going to be a challengingprogramfor both NASA and the private sector, and if somebody stumbles alongthe way wewould like to have other providers that hopefully we can rely on." [6Companies That Could Launch Humans Into Space]

Commercialspace advocates ? including thecompanies aiming to build the private space taxis and launchers NASAsays itneeds ? remain upbeat despite a series of legislative setbacks in theU.S.House and Senate, which pared back Obama's commercial crew request indraftlegislation moving through Congress and revived elements of theMoon-boundConstellation program Obamaseeks to abandon.

"Ofcourse, there is a lot of discussionhere in D.C. and throughout the nation on what this program is going tobegoing forward," McAlister said. "We are going to adjust if necessary,but this is sort of the baseline program that we are putting togethertoday."

McAlistersaid if NASA is directed to investless money in commercial crew than the nearly $6 billion it hasrequested, itwill have to re-evaluate its plans.

"However,competition is a fundamentalaspect of the strategy," he said. "I don't want to say exactly whatwe would do, but we would have to trade schedule for the potential forcompetition, and I would say competition is a very strong driver."

McAlisterand other NASA planners arepressing ahead with commercial crew despite its uncertain future,laying thegroundwork for an unorthodox procurement strategy that bears littleresemblanceto the way NASA buys spacecraft today.

Duringthe event, NASA officials from theKennedy Space Center in Florida and Johnson Space Center in Texas vowedto workclosely with industry to define human-rating requirements for NASAastronautsriding in commercial vehicles and said they would adopt a hands-offapproach tooverseeing their development, much like the agency has with theCommercialOrbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.

UnderCOTS, Hawthorne Calif.-based SpaceExploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Dulles, Va.-based OrbitalSciences Corp.are leveraging roughly $500 million in NASA seed funding to build anddemonstrate new rockets and spacecraft designed to resupply theinternationalspace station. Once those demos are completed, SpaceX and Orbital areobligatedto make regular cargo flights to the station under fixed-pricecontracts wortha combined $3.5 billion.

NASAofficials had little to say about thethorny issue of indemnification, or shielding commercial launch serviceproviders against catastrophic third-party liability claims. They alsowarnedprospective commercial partners that NASA expects complete, end-to-endsystemsintegration for the new space taxis, including ground and launchoperations,mission planning, space station operations, crew training and vehicleand crewrecovery.

"Thecommercial partner is going to beresponsible for everything, and we expect a fully integrated solutioninsupport of commercial crew," said Maria Collura, a deputy in the spacetransportation office at Kennedy Space Center.

Inaddition, private companies would beexpected to reimburse NASA if they choose to use government-ownedfacilities orinfrastructure in executing commercial crew missions.

"Thereis some uncertainty regarding theavailability of NASA facilities," Collura said, encouraging privatefirmsto alert individual NASA centers regarding anticipated infrastructureneeds sothey can "plan accordingly, and hopefully reduce the costs overall."

Whilefunding for commercial space taxisremains in flux on Capitol Hill, three of the four NASAspending bills moving through Congress would direct theagency toimmediately embark on development of a government-owned spaceexplorationsystem leveraging shuttle heritage and Constellation designs that couldbeready by around 2015 to serve as a backup to commercial systems,potentiallyundermining the business case for commercial crew.

BrettAlexander, president of the CommercialSpaceflight Federation, an advocacy group here, said if Congressultimatelydirects NASA to build a government-owned crewed system, it must notcompete withthe private sector.

"Itis absolutely important that NASAclarify that it is planning to buy commercial services when thoseservices areavailable and not rely on the government service to do it," he toldSpaceNews Aug. 19, adding that the Orion crew exploration vehicle Congressappearsinclined to continue funding is too costly and over-designed forroutine crewand cargo runs to the space station.

ThePlanetary Society, a Pasadena,Calif.-based space advocacy group, is urging lawmakers in an Aug. 19openletter to support the Obama administration's commercial crew plans andtorefrain from requiring NASA to begin developmentof aheavy-lift launch vehicle before a specific deep spacedestination has beenselected.

"[W]eare concerned that the path onwhich the legislative process is proceeding will lead to an incompleteplan,which would be worse than no plan at all," the letter states.

Thisarticle was provided by Space News,dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

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