What does Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) have in common with California’s two Democratic senators? He, like Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, is now calling on NASA to hold an open competition for the development of the Space Launch System (SLS). In a letter to NASA administrator Charles Bolden last Friday, Shelby said that while he wants the SLS developed as quickly as possible, he does not want “to foreclose the possibility of utilizing competition, where appropriate”, noting that the language in the NASA authorization act passed last year calls for the use of existing contracts and other resources “to the extent practicable”.
Shelby was particularly critical in the letter to the possibility of basing the SLS on shuttle hardware. “Designing a Space Launch System for heavy lift that relies on existing Shuttle boosters ties NASA, once again, to the high fixed costs associated with segmented solids,” Shelby writes.
“I have seen no evidence that foregoing competition for the booster system will speed up development of SLS or, conversely, that introducing competition will slow the program down,” Shelby concludes in his letter to Bolden. “I strongly encourage you to initiate a competition for the Space Launch System booster. I believe it will ultimately result in a more efficient SLS development effort at lower cost to the taxpayer.”
Shelby’s conclusion is similar to the one in another letter to Bolden from Boxer and Feinstein in late May, where the two also called for “a competitive bidding process” for the SLS. In some respects, though, it’s not that surprising: when Aerojet and Huntsville-based Teledyne Brown Engineering announced a joint venture earlier this month to develop rocket engines for various projects, including SLS, it got an endorsement from Shelby. “Congress directed NASA to develop a 130-metric ton Space Launch System with a first and second stage that leverage our Ares investments. The Teledyne-Aerojet team could have a critical role to play designing additional elements of the system, and I hope NASA looks at their capabilities carefully,” Shelby said in a comment provided to the Huntsville Times when the joint venture was announced.