By Dietrich Knauth
Law360, New York (August 7, 2014, 9:40 PM EDT) — U.S. funding and support for commercial space companies, often with the goal of graduating those companies into more typical government contracts, have increasingly blurred divisions between commercial and public projects in the space industry, a panel of attorneys at the American Bar Association’s annual public meeting said Thursday.
The panel in Boston noted that the mixing of Space Act agreements with more typical contracts governed by the Federal Acquisition Regulation has created more opportunities for the growing space industry, while also creating new regulatory challenges for the agencies involved in regulating space launches.
“What you’re seeing here, with FAR contracts and Space Act agreements more broadly, is a new blurring of the lines between government and commercial programs,” Chuck Dickey, general counsel for Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co.
A recent example of that blurring is NASA’s Orion program, which aims to build a next-generation space shuttle that can take astronauts to Mars and beyond, according to Dickey. Test launches for the program began with indemnity provisions governed by the FAR contract and the company’s NASA contract, but later launches have involved the Federal Aviation Administration’s requirements for indemnifications and waivers of liability, which are more often used in commercial space launches, Dickey said.
Space Act Agreements are not subject to the competition or pricing rules in FAR and allow NASA to pursue a wider variety of partnerships in its quest to support America’s nascent commercial space industry.
Agreements under the act are generally classified as funded agreements, in which NASA pays contractors who are working in support of a NASA mission; non-reimburseable agreements, in which NASA and its partners bear their own costs for joint projects; and reimburseable agreements, in which contractors pay NASA to borrow NASA facilities or expertise to support a commercial project.
Julie Jiru, a contracts officer with Space Exploration Technologies Inc., said that NASA support in Space Act projects like the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services and Commercial Crew Development program have helped SpaceX win contracts for a NASA commercial launch market that didn’t exist until recently. The law allows companies to turn the tables on the normal government contracting by hiring out NASA expertise to support commercial goals that line up with NASA’s mission.
“When we talk about government contracts in general, it’s usually thinking of what does the government want from you — what do you do for the government, what are the requirements, etc.,” Jiru said. “The reimbursable space act agreement is fantastic, because it’s finally about us and what we want. We get to choose the technology and expertise we want from the government in order to advance and improve our own space technology.”
The agreements share one thing with typical government contracts though, Jiru said. They allow the government to leverage its weight to get favorable terms; namely insisting on upfront payment for its services.
“It wouldn’t be government contracting if it wasn’t a little contradictory,” Jiru said. “By ‘reimbursable’ Space Act agreement, what the government means is ‘prepaid’ Space Act agreement.”
The increasing mixture of NASA contracts and NASA-supported commercial launches makes it more difficult for the FAA to handle cross-waivers, which essentially prevent any of the parties involved in a space launch from suing each other for damage or liability during a launch or reentry, according to FAA attorney Sabrina Jawed.
It is not uncommon for NASA to contract with a company like SpaceX or Orbital Sciences Corp. to send “a black box of stuff” into space, but NASA’s secrecy about some of its payloads makes it difficult for the contractors to obtain necessary waivers, Jawed said.
“This causes a big issue because we at the FAA have a regulatory requirement that SpaceX or Orbital Sciences gets the signature of every customer on the cross waiver, and they have to do this prior to launch,” Jawed said. “They’re required to do this by law, but how are they going to do this if have no idea what’s in the black box?”
Thus far, the FAA has been issuing waivers to the regulatory requirement since NASA has a similar cross-waiver and can typically assure FAA that it has appropriate waivers in place with the party that is unknown to the launch contractor, Jawed said.
The FAA and NASA must also coordinate with the Air Force, since commercial launches can use Air Force facilities, or the Air Force could put payload on a commercial launch vehicle or possibly share a payload with a commercial launch company. For those launches, the FAA coordinates with the Air Force to ensure that safety is being upheld through a formal Memorandum of Understanding between the agencies.
“Our rules trump, but we defer to the Air Force” as long as any deviations from shared procedures can be looked at and approved by the FAA, Jawed said.
Both NASA and the Air Force use contracts to push companies into the space launch market. NASA has used the COTS program to help develop vehicles that it now hires to deliver cargo to the International Space Station, and the Air Force uses its Orbital/Suborbital Program-3 (OSP-3) to fund less challenging launches while testing companies for riskier work under its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.
“There’s a real statutory framework and policy framework for supporting the commercial space industry,” said Patricia Ewing, senior counsel for Orbital, which has transitioned to ISS supply contracts along with SpaceX. “Both NASA and DOD have certain contract vehicles that they use that are structured in a way to help support the commercial space industry. The prime example of that is the space station resupply contracts.”
Both Orbital and SpaceX spent a lot of money in getting their space vehicles off the ground, but NASA’s support made the current commercialization possible, Jiru said.
“It’s great to see how the reimbursable Space Act agreements basically work in concert with the government FAR contracts in order to make out industrial base stronger, and that in turn makes the U.S. as a whole stronger in space,” Jiru said. “There was no marketplace or business case for going into ISS resupply, so in order to demonstrate and get that capability, funding from the government was needed in order to help companies start that because that ‘s a very, very expensive endeavor, especially if you didn’t have a client for it.”
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