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Seven House Republicans Call on White House to Ensure Safety of Astronauts

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Feb-2012
Updated: 29-Feb-2012 05:38 PM

Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) and six other House Republicans wrote to Presidential science adviser John Holdren today asking him to ensure NASA is able to impose safety standards for astronauts flying on space transportation systems developed and operated by the commercial sector.  They also urged Holdren to expedite a request to Congress for another waiver to the Iran-North Korea-Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA) to allow NASA to purchase additional services from Russia to support the International Space Station (ISS).

In addition to Olson, the letter is signed by Representatives Steve Palazzo (R-MS), chair of the space and aeronautics subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee; Lamar Smith (R-TX); Randy Hultgren (R-IL); Steve LaTourette (R-OH); Mo Brooks (R-AL); and Ted Poe (R-TX). 

The letter responds to comments made at a February 17 hearing before the full House SS&T Committee where chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) asked Holdren whether it was true that NASA could not impose safety standards on the companies competing for "commercial crew" contracts under the type of procurement approach NASA is currently using, called Space Act Agreements (SAAs).    Holdren said it was his understanding that NASA retained responsibility for the safety of its astronauts and if there was a problem in the agreements, "I am sure we will fix it."  The letter goes on to explain that SAAs do not permit NASA to impose design or safety requirements.   The Congressmen ask Holdren to "heed your own advice" from the hearing and "take immediate action to remedy the situation."

NASA officials acknowledge that they are limited in what they can tell companies to do under SAAs and argued strongly last year that the agency needed to switch to a traditional procurement mechanism -- firm fixed price (FFP) contracts -- instead.  However, in December, NASA did an about-face saying that they needed to continue with SAAs because of budget uncertainties.  SAAs provide more flexibility than FFP contracts.

With the end of the shuttle program, NASA no longer can launch anyone into space and is relying on the commercial sector to develop their own systems to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) later this decade.  Until then, NASA is purchasing transportation services from Russia.   NASA is limited in what it can purchase from Russia in connection with the ISS because of language in INKSNA, a law that seeks to dissuade Russia from providing assistance to Iran, North Korea and Syria. 

NASA has had to obtain waivers from Congress in order to purchase the services it now receives from Russia.  That waiver expires in mid-2016.   NASA informed Congress last fall that it will seek another extension and today's letter urges Holdren to expedite that request so Congress can consider it this year.  "Without a timely resolution ..., NASA and our international partners could face the need to de-crew the ISS.  Such a dire outcome would put the Station at significant risk to its safety and long term viability...."

The members asked for a response from Holdren within 30 days.


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