In what could be a boost for the commercial rocket launch industry, Congress has approved legislation by an Orange County congressman that will push the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to buy more private launch services.
Rep. Ron Packard's "Launch Services Purchase Act," folded into legislation that continues congressional authorization for NASA programs, passed both the House and Senate on Thursday. It will almost certainly be signed into law by President Bush.
"Six months ago, I would not have predicted that we'd get it done," said Packard (R-Carlsbad), who represents southern Orange County as well as northern San Diego County. "But we got essentially all we wanted." The Packard bill is an attempt to address the concerns of commercial rocket manufacturers, who have complained that the cost of doing business with NASA has been driven up by the agency's complex purchasing procedures and its insistence on tightly managing all phases of launching even the smallest satellites.
Packard has argued that the situation has hurt the efforts of cost-conscious rocket makers seeking to compete in the international satellite launch market. If NASA bought more launch services using commercial procurement procedures, costs would be reduced for both the government and the rocket builders, Packard has said.
Under commercial procurement, a rocket builder generally provides a full range of launch services and controls most phases of the launch.
Under traditional government procurement, the rocket builder provides only the rocket. And rather than simply meeting performance standards, the rockets must conform to strict and complex specifications.
Before the mid-1980s, virtually all government satellites were launched by NASA on rockets purchased from independent firms.
"Where this will all lead is hard to say," said Tom Williams, spokesman for McDonnell Douglas Space Systems in Huntington Beach, which builds the Delta class of rockets. "At first blush," the Packard legislation "appears to be a move toward supporting the commercial launch industry."
With the market for satellite launches contracting and with foreign competition growing, "it's been very difficult for this American company," Williams said.
McDonnell Douglas is one of the nation's big three rocket manufacturers; the others are General Dynamics Space Systems of San Diego, which builds Atlas-Centaur rockets, and Martin Marietta Commercial Titan of Denver, which builds the Titan.
The Packard legislation highlights a widening rift between the U.S. Department of Transportation and NASA over the direction of federal commercial space policy.
The Department of Transportation, which licenses all commercial rocket launches in the United States, has supported efforts to aid private rocket builders who want to do business with the government on a commercial basis.
Stephanie Lee Miller, director of the Department of Transportation Office of Commercial Space Transportation, said of Packard's legislation: "I think Congressman Packard's proposal in general will be beneficial to the U.S. commercial launch industry. The government is the largest customer (for private rocket launch services), and by buying its launches commercially, it can provide a stronger base for the industry and more predictability of demand."
NASA has argued that legislation like Packard's is unnecessary because the agency already awards launch contracts on a commercial basis whenever practical.
"I haven't seen the final product, but we didn't think it was needed," said Charles R. Gunn, of NASA's unmanned space program. "It seemed to me it was mostly telling us to do things that we have put in place a long time ago. . . . I don't think it's going to have any effect."
Rocket builders argue, however, that what constitutes a commercial launch contract is in the eye of the beholder and that the Packard bill will codify in law the procedures that they want NASA to follow.
Specifically, the Packard legislation would require NASA to contract for commercial launch services in all cases except those in which the unique abilities of the space shuttle are required or those in which launching commercially would pose a threat to a scientific experiment.
The new law would require NASA to abandon complex military procurement specifications whenever possible and to rely instead on general performance specifications.
"This will send a very positive signal to the space industry," Packard said, "because now they know the door is open to them, and they can look in that direction without feeling in conflict with NASA."