Two Senators Seek GAO Review of NASA Commercial Cargo Contracts

Two Senators Seek GAO Review of NASA Commercial Cargo Contracts

Senators Cory Gardner (R-CO) and David Vitter (R-LA) are asking the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to undertake a “full review” of NASA’s commercial cargo contracts.  Both contractors, Orbital ATK and SpaceX, are recovering from launch failures that affected resupply of the International Space Station (ISS).

The request for a GAO review is the latest in congressional expressions of concern about NASA’s commercial cargo program.

Gardner and Vitter sent their letter to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, the head of GAO, yesterday (September 1).  They ask eight questions centering on the cost and operational impact on the ISS program of the two commercial cargo launch failures and “the demonstrated, statistical reliability of contracted commercial launch systems to provide subsequent launch services at reasonable and expected reliability levels.”

Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket exploded 15 seconds after liftoff on October 28, 2014.   SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket failed 139 seconds after liftoff on June 28, 2015.  Both were carrying cargo spacecraft, Cygnus and Dragon, respectively, loaded with supplies, equipment and scientific experiments for the ISS.  Neither rocket has returned to flight yet. 

Orbital ATK will use two Atlas V rockets to loft Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the ISS in December 2015 and March 2016 while its Antares rocket fleet is being outfitted with new engines. Orbital ATK contracted for the Atlas V launches from Colorado-based United Launch Alliance (ULA), a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

SpaceX’s plans for return to flight are not firm.

The Orbital ATK and Space X cargo launches to ISS are under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.   NASA issued a solicitation for the next round of commercial cargo launches, CRS-2, in September 2014.  A decision was expected in June, but that slipped to September and now to November.  In addition to the incumbents, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Sierra Nevada are reported to be among the bidders.

The Senators said that the fact there are no operational U.S. commercial cargo providers at the moment “shows the immediate and urgent need for appropriate oversight and corrective action prior to restarting operations.”  However, while they see the need for an independent review, “we also believe that the current missions and pending contracts should continue to proceed uninterrupted.”  The reference to pending contracts presumably means CRS-2.  No deadline is requested for GAO to complete its review other than asking for a “prompt” response.

Four cargo spacecraft can resupply the ISS.  In addition to the two U.S. systems, Russia’s Progress and Japan’s HTV take cargo to the crews.  (The European Space Agency no longer launches its ATV cargo spacecraft.) 

Russia had its own failure with the Progress M-27M mission on April 28, 2015, but Progress M-28M was successfully launched in July.   Japan’s HTV5 mission enjoyed a flawless launch on August 19 and is now attached to the ISS along with Progress M-28M.

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