- The Washington Times - Monday, June 16, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

NASA lives in the shadow of its former glory, the remembrance of the days when the nation held its breath every time a rocket left Cape Canaveral and cheered every touchdown. Now the space shuttle has been mothballed, and prospects of a new ship to carry Americans to space are tarnished by setbacks and cost overruns. The only way an American astronaut can get into space now is to hitch a ride on a Russian rocket.

But U.S.-Russian relations are so frayed that such rides are no longer an option. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said in April that NASA could “bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.” Depending on how the Senate feels, NASA might need to start work on that trampoline.

Private space vehicles could be the better answer. SpaceX recently rolled out a manned capsule — privately funded — that could replace Russian Soyuz flights as the preferred way to take American astronauts into the heavens. Both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences regularly deliver cargo to the International Space Station in unmanned vehicles. A provision added by a Senate committee to the bill that funds NASA could keep these private rockets grounded.

The provision is complex and deals with how these companies are paid for helping the federal mission in space. Businesses contracting with NASA to ship cargo to the International Space Station are paid now on a fixed price, based on what the agency calculates the service is worth. If the contractor performs the service for less than that amount, the business keeps the profit. If not, the business — not the taxpayers — takes the loss.

Many other NASA contracts (including those to design manned spaceflights that run over budget) are cost-plus-fixed-fee in which the contractor is reimbursed for reported costs, plus a set percentage for profit. In this system, contractors can’t lose, and the taxpayers can’t win.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican, would require commercial spaceflight contractors to provide the government with figures of both the fixed-price cost as well as the cost-plus prices they would receive if paid by that method. Requiring private spaceflight contractors to calculate this additional, irrelevant set of numbers would consume thousands of man hours to calculate the complex, esoteric cost-plus system.

Mr. Shelby says all this extra effort is about transparency for taxpayers. Aerospace engineer Rand Simberg writes on the Reason Magazine website that it’s more likely to be about protecting NASA’s Space Launch System, an $18 billion rocket program with no defined mission. The program is headquartered at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and its employees are Mr. Shelby’s constituents.

Launching this “Rocket to Nowhere” will cost taxpayers at least a half-billion dollars every time it lifts off — if it ever does. Better the rockets’ red glare than the glare of government red tape. It’s only fair, and in the long run more efficient, that private firms get a fair opportunity to compete for America’s space business.

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