At least partly (presumably) as a result of a letter sent by California Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, I am pleased to report that senior senator of Alabama Richard Shelby’s office has released a letter to the NASA administrator, dated this past Friday, in which he states his support of competition for the planned procurement of the first stage of NASA’s Space Launch System:

Dear Administrator Bolden:

I am writing you today regarding the Space Launch System (SLS) architecture, particularly the booster system. As you know, the Congress considers rapid development of a 130-metric ton lift vehicle a top priority, and expects NASA to develop that vehicle in the most efficient possible way. I believe that such an approach will lead NASA towards an SLS that utilizes high commonality between simultaneously-developed first and second stages, takes advantage of Ares investments, and respects the outcomes of recent competitions.

But while Congress’ first priority is facilitating development of the SLS described above as quickly as possible, it was never our intent to foreclose the possibility of utilizing competition, where appropriate. The 2010 NASA Authorization Act requires the use of existing contracts, workforce and hardware, but it does so only “to the extend practicable.” Where competitive concepts can be brought to bear without impacting mission schedules or compromising system performance, it is incumbent upon NASA to explore them.

I am concerned, therefore, that NASA is considering a Space Launch System architecture that relies on a booster system for the Space Shuttle. I am particularly concerned that this plan might be implemented without a meaningful competitive process. 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. Moreover, I have seen no evidence that foregoing competition for the booster system will speed development of the SLS or, conversely, that introducing competition will slow the program down.

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.

Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to your reply outlining NASA’s plans for the SLS booster, as well as more detail on the overall SLS architecture.


Richard Shelby
United States Senator

The Competitive Space Task Force applauds Senators Boxer, Feinstein and Shelby’s concern for both the taxpayers and those supporting robust competitive US space activities, and equally welcomes the competition he has requested, which properly done will indeed reduce costs of both the development and operation of such a system.


4 Responses to A Victory For Competition In The Senate

  1. John Kavanagh says:

    While this is better than sole-sourcing Solid Rocket Boosters again from ATK, if the SRBs are replaced by another booster procured as a cost+plus contract, the launch system will still be far more expensive than just buying commercial flights to launch more/smaller assembled-on-orbit payloads.

  2. Rand Simberg says:

    One step at a time…

  3. Henry Vanderbilt says:

    What John said. The clue here is Shelby coming on board the deal. California/Aerojet may be in, Utah/ATK may be out, but MSFC/Huntsville, the people who brought us Ares, remain in charge.

    The real competition needed here is between NASA management teams and procurement concepts. If we must have SLS (it’s still not clear we actually need it to do exploration) give the people who did COTS so successfully a shot at bidding against Huntsville for the project.

  4. Roga says:

    This is a fight over the pork barrel. Senators loath the idea of an actual rocket actually lifting off. Actual rockets blow up from time to time. This is about jobs, and any politician worth his salt would prefer a job ranking proposals to a job bending metal. The public eats up powerpoints; it can generally care less about hardware.

    John K, it’s pretty clear that commercial will be doing all the hauling in the foreseeable future. I suspect we will be seeing the last useful US government designed-and-built space launch system lift off later this year.

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