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Obama funder gets insider deal at NASA

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Photo - Elon Musk, the entrepreneurial tyro behind electric automaker Tesla Motors, is also the prime mover behind the Falcon9, the first privately funded and developed rocket used by NASA to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. (AP Photo)
Elon Musk, the entrepreneurial tyro behind electric automaker Tesla Motors, is also the prime mover behind the Falcon9, the first privately funded and developed rocket used by NASA to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. (AP Photo)
News,Watchdog,Richard Pollock

Questions are being raised about NASA's relationship with Silicon Valley whiz Elon Musk in the wake of his Falcon 9 rocket delivering only half of the promised cargo on its first mission to the International Space Station.

The rocket lost power from one of its nine engines shortly after its Sunday launch and only delivered 882 of the promised 1,800 pounds of resupply cargo for the space station.

The contractors are saying 'give us some seed money, trust us.' - A former NASA astronaut

Manufactured by Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp. ("SpaceX"), the Falcon 9 also failed to deliver as promised when it placed a prototype Orbcomm OG2 satellite into a lower orbit than required.

The satellite was a secondary payload on the widely heralded first-ever launch of a privately owned and developed rocket on a NASA-funded mission to the space station.

These are not the Falcon 9 project's first setbacks, as it is at least two years behind schedule and three previous test launches were cancelled.

The questions being raised in the wake of the equipment failures, however, concern the Falcon 9's mission funding instead of its technology, with some critics charging NASA made a sweetheart deal that lacks transparency and accountability.

Space X is one of three well-publicized Musk firms, the others being electric vehicle maker Tesla Motors and SolarCity Corp., a rooftop solar power panel manufacturer. Collectively, the three Musk firms have received more than $1.5 billion in government funding since President Obama took office in 2009.

Last year, Musk gave $5,000 to Obama for America and $35,800 to the Obama Victory Fund, but he has also contributed heavily to Democratic and Republican congressional incumbents and challengers.

Under Obama, NASA uses Space Act Agreements (SAA), which lack the financial transparency and competitive bidding requirements bidders face under the government's Federal Acquisition Regulation (DAR) system.

In a statement to The Washington Examiner, NASA spokesman Trent Perrotto defended SAAs, saying they put "flexibility in the hands of the providers."

But others, including space program experts and congressional critics from both parties, argue that SAA is a carte blanche handover of public money without litmus tests, design specifications, financial audits and adequate safety oversight.

A former NASA astronaut complained in an interview with the Examiner, that design and financial details under SAA are beyond the reach of government officials.

"The contractors are saying 'give us some seed money, trust us,'" said the former astronaut, who requested anonymity.

Thus far, NASA has awarded at least $2.1 billion in SAA money to private space companies, including a total of $824 million to SpaceX.

Michael D. Griffin, the former NASA Administrator under President George W. Bush, slammed SAA funding, saying it is a system "for which NASA cannot set requirements, cannot direct design features, cannot control management practices (and) cannot require financial audits."

His comments came in a prepared lecture Sept. 6 at Georgia Tech University,

Obama administration officials once told Congress NASA would use FAR funding for manned space flight, but in December 2011 reversed course and said the agency would continue to use the SAA program.

Rep. Jerry Costello, senior Democrat on the House subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, told a recent hearing of the panel that he worries about that reversal.

"I am concerned with NASA's reversal in its commercial crew acquisition strategy, using Space Act Agreements (SAA), instead of Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR)-based contracts for design activities and its possible affect on astronaut safety, which is of paramount importance."

Rep. Donna Edwards, D-MD, also a member of the House space subcommittee, told the Examiner that "NASA needs greater oversight than the Space Act Agreements can provide to ensure cost controls, safety, and reliability of these programs."

The space agency may now be re-thinking SAA use. Perrotto told the Examiner that NASA, depending on future results, "plans to transition to a FAR-based contract early next year."

A SpaceX spokesman declined comment for this story.

Richard Pollock is a member of The Washington Examiner's special reporting team.

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