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WASHINGTON (FLORIDA TODAY)- NASA's increasing use of unconventional contracts to carry out some of its most important work is drawing heavy scrutiny on Capitol Hill.

Several key Republicans are questioning whether the contracts, known as Space Act agreements, are compromising safety and security, or squandering tax dollars in order to speed development of missions or foster international partnerships.

NASA Inspector General Paul Martin also has begun an audit of how well the agency manages its more than 1,500 agreements with domestic and international partners. His findings are not expected until early next year.

The contracts allow NASA to reach a "legally binding commitment" with an outside entity for a specific service, such as education outreach, experiments on the International Space Station, or the leasing of NASA facilities - without having to competitively bid for it. They've been around since the space program began in 1958.

Lately, they've been used to accelerate development of NASA's ambitious Commercial Crew and Commercial Cargo programs that work with private companies to replace the mothballed space shuttles with space taxis that will ferry astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station. Under the agreements, the Obama administration has allocated $1.5 billion to three firms.

Under a traditional Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) contract, NASA auditors and engineers work closely with aerospace companies every step of the way to make sure detailed specifications are met.

Under these funded Space Act agreements, companies are paid to achieve certain milestones set by NASA. But how they get there is left largely to the contractor. It costs less, but the firms get to keep the intellectual property rights of their products, and there's a risk a problem could go undetected until later in the development process.

Some lawmakers, such as Alabama GOP Sen. Richard Shelby, who view the agreements as little more than blank checks.

"These agreements lack transparency and incorporate significant schedule leniency," he said at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing last month on NASA's budget request for fiscal 2014. "Traditional government contracts provide full insight and control over the contractors and the product throughout the process to protect the government's investment and, ultimately, the taxpayer."

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