As first reported by Space News last Thursday, California’s two senators have asked NASA to hold an open competition for the development of the Space Launch System (SLS), the heavy-lift vehicle Congress directed NASA to develop in the 2010 NASA authorization act. In their letter to NASA administrator Charles Bolden, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) asked that NASA “quickly open a competitive bidding process on the propulsion component” of the SLS. Citing NASA’s interim report to Congress in January about the development of the SLS, Boxer and Feinstein wrote that “we believe that it is not ‘practicable’ to continue the existing contracts” as recommended in last year’s authorization act. “Instead, we believe that NASA should open a competitive bidding process for the SLS to ensure that the agency obtains the best technology at the lowest possible cost.”
The release of the letter (actually dated May 27) coincided with the announcement that Aerojet and Teledyne Brown Engineering had formed a partnership to develop liquid-propellant rocket engines. The joint release by the two companies specifically notes that they “will pursue contracts for the manufacture of liquid rocket engines for NASA through the Space Launch System program” as well as other, unspecified customers. The agreement got an endorsement from a major congressional supporter of the SLS, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), who told the Huntsville Times, “The Teledyne-Aerojet team could have a critical role to play designing additional elements of the [SLS] system, and I hope NASA looks at their capabilities carefully.” (Teledyne Brown is based in Huntsville, while both Aerojet and Teledyne Brown’s parent, Teledyne Technologies, are headquartered in California, which may explain the senators’ interest in competing SLS components.)
But with a final report on NASA’s heavy-lift plans not expected until late this month or early July, NASA has not indicated if they’ll complete some or all elements of the SLS. Speaking at Women in Aerospace’s Aerospace 2011: The Road Ahead conference Friday in Arlington, Virginia, Doug Cooke, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems, said no decision has been made yet on competing the SLS design. “We are weighing the various acquisition approaches,” he said. Asked specifically about a full and open competition, he said, “I would not rule it out.”
The panel on which Cooke participated was billed as “Beyond LEO: The Battle of the Heavy Lift Vehicles”, but there was little evidence of any battles among the panel’s participants, which included representatives of Aerojet, ATK, Boeing, and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, in addition to Cooke and Senate staffer Jeff Bingham. The industry participants in particular believed it was time to make a decision on an SLS design and start developing. “The range of things we’re trying to decide between now is pretty small,” said Jim Chilton, vice president and program manager of exploration launch systems at Boeing.
“It’s time for a decision,” said Jim Maser, president of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, reiterating his desire for a near-term decision on the launch system he expressed a few months ago in a meeting with reporters. “We all have our opinions. NASA has the information. It’s time to move on.”
The panelists in general expected a decision on the SLS design this year, perhaps in the coming weeks, and also were optimistic the initial version of the SLS would make its first flight around 2016 as stated in the authorization act. Boeing’s Chilton, for example, said he envisioned SLS launching an Apollo 8-style “lap around the Moon” by early to mid 2017. Only Aerojet vice president Julie Van Kleeck offered a caveat: “I think we have the capability to do it in 2016 if we have the will.”
And will NASA have the will—and the funding—to develop and fly the SLS by 2016? Bingham, who said he was speaking for himself and not officially representing the views of the Senate Commerce Committee, said the authorization act supported the development of both the SLS and commercial crew development, but funding could put the two in conflict with each other. “There’s no issue with or conflict with those goals,” he said. “Where it becomes in conflict is in resources. When you only get so big a pie, and you start having to make priorities, that’s where you start having this push-and-shove between commercial and governmental. That shouldn’t be. That’s an artificial conflict that shouldn’t have to be there if we were properly resourced as an agency.”