NASA’s plan to sole-source most elements of the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket has led one member of Congress to complain to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). “I have serious concerns with NASA’s attempt to avoid holding a full and open competition to acquire the SLS,” Congressman Tom McClintock (R-CA) wrote in a September 22 letter to the GAO, provided by the advocacy group Tea Party in Space (TPIS).
McClintock wrote that he believed NASA’s plans to procure key elements of the SLS through modifying existing contracts made them “de facto sole source awards” that could be in violation of the 1984 Competition in Contracting Act, which allows sole source awards only when there is a “single responsible source” to meet government needs. “I am aware of multiple potential contractors who have expressed intent to compete for any available SLS contracts, and who should have every opportunity to do so,” McClintock wrote, without identifying those contractors. (McClintock’s northern California district does include part of the Sacramento metropolitan area, which is home to Aerojet, a company that has sought competition for at least the SLS’s booster rockets.)
In a “Space Launch System Acquisition Overview” released the same day as McClintock’s letter, NASA states that SLS procurements “will include utilization of existing assets to expedite development, as well as further development of technologies and future competitions for advanced systems and key technology areas specific to SLS evolved vehicle needs.” This includes using existing Ares contracts for the boosters, core and upper stages, and avionics, as well as using existing RS-25D (SSME) main engines for the core stage and continuing the J-2X development contract for the upper stage engine. As previously indicated by NASA, though, there will be a competition for “advanced boosters” for use after the initial SLS flights (which will use the five-segment SRBs developed for Ares), as well as “competitive acquisitions” for spacecraft and payload adaptors and the rocket’s payload fairing. More details about NASA’s SLS acquisition plans are expected at an industry day this Thursday at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.
McClintock asked the GAO to investigate NASA’s SLS procurement plans, including if NASA determined any cost difference between modifying SLS contracts and holding a full and open competition for SLS components. He also asks the GAO to consider making its own independent cost estimate of the SLS, “given the concerns raised by the independent Booz Allen Hamilton” cost estimate completed this summer.
TPIS praised McClintock’s complaint in a press release, asking other organizations affiliated with the Tea Party movement to call on the GAO to stay the SLS procurement until the agency can complete its investigation. “Every thoughtful member of Congress should join Congressman McClintock in challenging the spending of $32 billion in taxpayer funds without free and open competition,” said Andrew Gasser. (The $32 billion appears to reference reports of internal NASA estimates for the cost of the overall program; announced plans call for $3 billion a year through at least 2017 on SLS, the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, and related programs.) TPIS’s disgust with SLS can be summarized in this one sentence from Gasser: “This SLS bailout earmark is Solyndra on steroids.”