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Making Commercialization More Difficult – Instead of Easier – at NASA

By Keith Cowing
NASA Watch
February 23, 2007

NASA GRC: Microgravity Aircraft Services: Draft Solicitation

“The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) currently provides reduced gravity flight services using NASA owned and operated aircraft. NASA will begin acquiring Reduced Gravity Aircraft services through outside sources.”

Editor’s note: The more I read the documents associated with this draft solicitation, the more convinced I am that the NASA civil servants who wrote this procurement are going out of their way to make it hard – if not impossible for a private contractor to meet these requirements. In so doing they serve to safeguard NASA’s current monopoly. It is no secret that the folks at JSC see the operation of their reduced gravity airplane as a God-given right (or at least one handed down by George Abbey) – one they will not easily give up.

Here’s an example: “Public law requires that any aircraft used by NASA to conduct aeronautical research be operated as a “Public Use” aircraft. NASA is therefore responsible to ensure the overall safety of the Contractors reduced gravity aircraft operations and maintenance.” Which ‘public law’ might that be? Does NASA have this same responsibility when its employees fly on commercial jets (and work on their latops) as part of their official duties? Where is this “aeronautical research” defined in public law?

If NASA can establish COTS for ISS commercialization (out of JSC) – indeed, if they can sign an MOU with Virgin Galactic regarding something as esoteric as personal spaceflight, why is it so hard to cut a deal with the private sector regarding services that have been understood and provided routinely in generic aircraft for decades?

Comments? Send them to [email protected]. Comments so far:

Editor’s note: This NASA JSC document Aircraft Operations Division. Doc. No.: AOD 33899 Doc. Version: Rev A, JSC Reduced Gravity Program User’s Guide, Date: February 2005 Page 22 of 2 notes:

“Section 2.3.9 – 2.3.9 Accident and Life Insurance Notification – All manifested C-9B reduced gravity personnel must be aware that the JSC does not operate the C-9B reduced gravity aircraft as a regularly scheduled common carrier. Most life and accident insurance policies cover only persons who fly on regularly scheduled airlines and do not cover persons involved in a research aircraft accident. Therefore, some life and accident policies may not cover a C-9B reduced gravity aircraft accident. Any person manifested to board the C-9B should determine, before boarding, whether his or her life and/or accident insurance provides coverage under such conditions.”

There’s also this: Interface Control Document NASA 931 KC135A, Doc. No. AOD 33898 Rev. Basic, Date: May 2002, Page 9 of 28, which notes:

Section 2.1 paragraph 2: The KC-135 is operated as a public aircraft within the meaning of the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, as amended. As such, it does not require or hold a current airworthiness certificate issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The KC-135 is not operated as a common carrier or as a military transport. Consequently, any individual manifested to board the KC-135 should determine before boarding whether their personal life or accident insurance provides coverage under such conditions. Also, since the aircraft will be used under test conditions, all researchers and test subjects will be fully informed of the test plans and all risks, hazards, and discomforts inherent to such tests prior to flight.”

However, people flying aboard planes provided by commercial contractors (Part 121 certificated operations) i.e. firms likely to bid on this RFP, would be perfectly protected by their accident and life insurance. Moreover, these commercially contracted planes are going to have already been certified for their range of commerical operations by the FAA – including parabolic flight. It would certainly seem that commercial jets would not only be better certified – along norms accepted for all commercial aircraft, they’d also afford better insurance protection to those people who fly on them.

“Public law requires that any aircraft used by NASA to conduct aeronautical research be operated as a “Public Use” aircraft. NASA is therefore responsible to ensure the overall safety of the Contractors reduced gravity aircraft operations and maintenance.”

Being in the airplane biz, maybe I can help. FAA regulations expressly cover commercial (and private) airplanes. Government (read non-commercial) agencies (like NASA and MIT, who I have experience with) operate as “public use” which means the planes are operating on a non-commercial basis.

However, if NASA are out-sourcing an operation, well that operator would be commercial (wouldn’t it) and so covered by FAA regulations. There would no doubt be some special conditions to cover this special type of operation. I would say that the first sentence in the quote refers to the past history of NASA operations, but the second is (IMHO) NASA needlessly interfering with the out-source contractor; they should (again, IMHO) require the out-source operator to be FAA registered and compliant.

The FAA provides for differences in operation between civil and government functions at phrase is in section 4C: (Emphasis is mine) “It is not sufficient to show that the passengers are being transported to perform one of the governmental functions; the use of the aircraft must be necessary for the performance of the mission.”

Conducting a modeling study using one’s laptop does not require the use of the aircraft. That study can be performed in the researcher’s office, lab, in the airport, etc. Obtaining experimental data, whether it is for reduced gravity, icing, airborne sampling, or aerodynamics, requires the aircraft.

Editor’s note: Why not have civil servants drive to their destination when they need to travel cross country? Or take a train? Could it be that they are required to travel by plane because their job is best done if they reduce travel time as much as possible. What about the planes NASA charters to carry people to/from Russia as part of the ISS program?

Editor’s note: The next paragraph (Section 5) is very interesting: “A government agency may, in appropriate circumstances, seek either a regulatory or statutory exemption. An applicant for an exemption should be directed to follow the exemption process set forth in Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) part 11. Agencies that apply for statutory exemptions are required to show that they have an acceptable aviation safety program to ensure safe operations. The aviation safety program should be submitted with the petition for exemption, following the procedures outlined in part 11. The Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) has jurisdiction over the applicants’ operation and will be asked to review the safety program and give an opinion on whether the program meets the requirements for issuing the exemption. The FSDO will be expected to provide written justification for its recommendations.”

First of all, NASA will not be operating these flights – a private contractor will. Second, imagine this: a government agency may seek either a regulatory or statutory exemption. Gee, does this mean that NASA can seek to change the rules if it thinks this is in everyone’s best interest? Imagine that.

NASA Watch founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.