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Shelby commercial crew provision in NASA spending bill sparks outrage

Sen Richard Shelby
Sen Richard Shelby
Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

According to a Thursday story in USA Today, a provision in the Senate version of the appropriations bill that funds NASA may inhibit the ability of commercial space companies to deliver spacecraft in a cost effective manner. The provision was slipped into the bill by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Al. It would require participants in the commercial crew program “to submit ‘certified cost and pricing data’ similar to what's required in traditional contracts NASA uses for other services.“ Some space advocates regard it as a poison bill designed to cripple the government funded commercial space program.

The commercial crew program operates under what is called a “Space Act Agreement” that sets milestones for the development of the commercially developed spacecraft but leaves the details up to the various companies. This allows a certain flexibility that in turn keeps development costs down. However it trades that with a lack of NASA oversight that Shelby suggests may cause problems to arise undetected. Shelby’s move seems to be an attempt to force the commercial crew participants to behave more like traditional NASA contractors.

Many commercial space advocates are having none of it. Space blogger Rand Simberg fired off an angry post entitled “Dick Shelby, Putin’s New Pal.” The implication is that Shelby’s provision, if it is allowed to stand, would perpetuate the monopoly that Russia has on human space flight to and from the International Space Station. This has become of a particular concern due to recent Russian threats to withdraw from the ISS program in 2020.

One commercial space group, the Space Access Society, is accusing Shelby of protecting the heavy lift Space Launch System, which it regards as “wasteful” and as being threatened by the government funded commercial space craft such as the SpaceX Dragon and the Boeing CST-100. This may be a bit of a stretch. The SLS is designed to send astronauts in the Orion spaceship beyond low Earth orbit. None of the commercial spacecraft have that capability without a complicated and risky architecture that involved many multiple launches and the use of space based fuel depots.

The appropriations bill goes before the full senate after which it must be reconciled with the House version of the NASA spending bill. The House version does not have the Shelby provision. However it is slightly less generous than the Senate in funding the commercial crew program.