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NASA Seeks Public-Private Product Partnerships

Agency pursues private partnerships to develop commercial space products despite budget uncertainty.

NASA's Next 5 Missions
NASA's Next 5 Missions
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NASA is looking for private firms interested in forming unfunded partnerships to develop commercial space products and services for human space exploration.

A synopsis of the partnership program seeks proposals only from U.S. private firms, nonprofits and commercial providers that wish to enter into Space Act Agreements (SAAs) to develop "integrated space capabilities." NASA didn't expand on what such space capabilities would look like, only saying that they would not be individual technologies or subsystems. The SAAs aim to bring these emerging products and services to government and non-government customers within approximately the next five years, NASA said.

The document explains to some extent what the unfunded portion of the agreement would entail. In summary, there will be no exchange of funds and each party will bear the cost of its participation. Although no funds will go to the partners, in exchange they would get access to NASA's expertise and resources, including technology and data. A spokesperson for NASA said the agreements will "enable that experience to be leveraged as new space capabilities are developed by private U.S. companies, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will be successful."

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But, even as the agency ramps up work with the private sector, it's caught in the middle of a budget battle that could jeopardize the financing needed for the Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

In recent years, NASA has placed major emphasis on the CCP, established by the Obama administration to help the U.S. develop spacecraft that can transport astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and other low Earth orbit destinations. NASA currently has a $424 million agreement with the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) to use its crew transportation services through 2017. The ultimate goal, however, is to send astronauts to space from U.S. soil.

Budget uncertainties could delay NASA's plan. The president in April proposed a federal budget of $17.7 billion for the space agency in fiscal year 2014. The money was to fully fund the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) needed to carry astronauts to deep space. The House Appropriations Committee confronted that proposal on July 17 by approving a bill that would cut more than $1 billion from NASA's budget, which totals $16.6 billion. The House bill could also take away $321 million from the CCP.

"This proposal would challenge America's preeminence in space exploration, technology, innovation and scientific discovery," NASA's associate administrator for communications, David Weaver, said in a blog post responding to the bill. "We are especially concerned the bill cuts funding for space technology -- the 'seed corn' that allows the nation to conduct ever more capable and affordable space missions."

Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies has suggested allocating $18 billion to NASA, which is $1.4 billion more than the budget proposed by the House. In a publicly issued statement, the Senate said more funding would provide "better balance for all of NASA's important missions." It's still not clear what the final outcome will be, as NASA's fiscal 2014 budget proceeds through Congress next.

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