NASA IG: Commercial partners don't quite copy

NASA is well on its way to kick-starting a commercial space industry to get people in and out of orbit, but needs to clarify requirements to commercial developers, deal with potential conflicts of interest better and cooperate more with the Federal Aviation Administration, the space agency's inspector general said on Thursday.

The last space shuttle launch is scheduled for next week; after that, the United States must rely on Russia to get astronauts to the International Space Station and back to Earth again. NASA needs to work fast to fill this void, space agency Inspector General Paul Martin said in his report released on Thursday.

"NASA faces an imperative to nurture development of a U.S. commercial transportation service to reestablish the nation's ability to access low Earth orbit and the Space Station as soon as possible," Martin wrote.

"While NASA has over 50 years of experience with contractor-built, government-owned space vehicles, the agency has never procured transportation for its astronauts aboard a commercially developed vehicle. Of primary concern in this new paradigm is how the agency will work with its commercial partners to ensure that commercially developed vehicles meet NASA's safety and human-rating requirements," the report states.

Martin said NASA is making good progress but faces some challenges. For instance, the space agency issued health and medical, engineering, and safety and mission-assurance requirements for contractors in December.

"However, NASA has not finalized the processes Agency officials will use to verify that commercial partners have met these requirements and subsequently certify that a commercial partner's vehicle can safely transport NASA personnel," the report reads.

Other communications could be better, too, Martin suggests. "Specifically, NASA should clearly articulate to its commercial partners as soon as possible all requirements for commercially developed systems and the processes NASA will use for certifying such systems," he wrote.

He also suggests "robust communication with the emerging commercial spaceflight industry" to make sure NASA has enough oversight. And the agency needs to resolve some potential conflicts of interest with the FAA over regulating flight, he said.

"Finally, NASA must consider whether to continue purchasing additional seats on the Russian Soyuz vehicle as a contingency to possible delays in obtaining commercial crew transportation," Martin wrote.

"Currently, NASA has purchased seats on the Soyuz vehicle to ensure continued U.S. access to the Space Station through June 2016. Because of the long lead-time required for procuring Soyuz seats and planning a mission to the Space Station, NASA would have to make the decision to purchase additional seats in 2013, approximately 3 years before commercial systems are expected to be ready," the IG report says.

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