Good and bad. Heaven and hell. Ice cream and Brussels sprouts. Falcon 9 and paper rockets. Space Act agreements and government procurement contracts. Popular opinion seems to clump NASA Space Act Agreements (SAAs) in with all that is good and right with the world while traditional FAR-based contracting is viewed as something to be avoided. In order to find out why space act agreements are viewed so positively, let’s take a look at what an SAA is, the different flavors they come in and what they’re used for.
What is a Space Act Agreement?
When Congress created NASA, they gave the agency the ability to “enter into…contracts, leases, cooperative agreements, or other transactions as may be necessary in the conduct of its work and on such terms as it may deem appropriate….” NASA uses its “other transactions” authority to form agreements with private companies, other government agencies, and universities to carry out specific objectives. These agreements are commonly known as Space Act Agreements because the law creating NASA and giving them “other transaction” authority is commonly known as the Space Act.
SAAs may take the form of contracts, grants, cooperative agreements, or other relationships. NASA and its partner in an SAA can start from an essentially blank slate in order to create their agreement. This provides enormous flexibility in identifying milestones, establishing responsibilities, and sharing workloads.
SAAs establish how NASA resources like personnel, equipment, and testing facilities may be used to achieve the specific goal defined in the SAA. For example, University of Colorado and BioServe Space Technologies entered into an SAA to spur use of the International Space Station (ISS) as a national lab. Under their 2008 agreement, NASA provided rides for BioServe experiments to the ISS. BioServe agreed to reimburse NASA for the launch services.
Three flavors of SAA: Reimbursable, Nonreimbursable, and Funded
SAAs generally come in three flavors: reimbursable, nonreimbursable, and funded.
In nonreimbursable agreements, NASA and its agreement partner use limited NASA and partner resources to achieve some goal which furthers NASA’s goals. Under a nonreimbursable SAA, NASA and the partner company work together but no money is exchanged. The partner company gets free access to (limited) NASA resources! Nonreimbursable SAAs are sometimes used when NASA is willing to provide technical expertise and facilities, like wind tunnel time, but is unable to provide additional funding. ATK has entered into several nonreimbursable SAAs related to NASA’s ongoing effort to develop commercial space launch systems. These agreements allow NASA to provide technical expertise to ATK as they develop their Liberty launch system.
Reimbursable SAAs allow the partner company a bit more flexibility, but at a cost. The partner company may use NASA’s resources for their own purposes, but the company must reimburse NASA for the use of NASA resources. NASA can’t provide anything under a reimbursable SAA unless the resources are not “reasonably available” in the US commercial market. BioServe’s 2008 SAA met this requirement because, at the time, the Space Shuttle was the only US launch vehicle capable of docking with the ISS!
Funded SAAs are the most attention grabbing because they are currently used to fund CCDev, CCiCap, and COTS. Funded SAAs are only permitted where NASA’s goals cannot be achieved via any other type of agreement, such as a FAR contract, grant, or some other type of SAA. A funded SAA involves NASA providing resources and funds to a partner company. The funds and resources are used to further NASA’s goals, like creating a commercially developed cargo delivery system for the ISS. Funded SAAs, like the agreements that partially funded SpaceX’s development of the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule, are used “only sparingly”, when traditional funding methods are inappropriate.
Can they be used for anything?
NASA’s charter and other federal laws like the Chiles Act prevent NASA from using SAAs for most contract formation. The process for entering into a Space Act Agreement is laid out in NASA’s 170+ page Space Act Agreements Guide. Despite the hurdles, about 250 Space Act Agreements are signed a year, providing may companies, universities, and other government agencies access to the unique skills and equipment NASA has. Space Act Agreements have helped develop the Dragon capsule, next-generation robonauts, and opened up the ISS for use as a research lab.
Many Space Act Agreements are available on NASA center websites. For example, Kennedy Space Center has released the CCDev Round 2 Space Act Agreements here. Space Act Agreements from COTS have been published by Johnson Space Center here.