Friday, June 3, 2011

California Senators Want SLS Put Out to Bid

California senators Dianne Feinstein (left) and Barbara Boxer.

Space News reports that California senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have sent a letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden urging that the propulsion component of the Space Launch System (SLS) be put out to open bid.

Click here to read the letter on

The senators wrote:

In this time of constrained budgets, it would be inexcusible to funnel billions of taxpayer dollars into a non-competitive sole-source contract for the new Space Launch System. By allowing a competitive process, NASA could realize hundreds of millions of dollars in annual savings, and billions in savings over the life of the program. Furthermore, a competitive process will build capacity and enhance the critical skills and capabilities at a wide range of aesrospace technology companies.

Given that the SLS design was dictated by other members of the U.S. Senate, it would appear improbable, if not illegal, for Bolden to take such a step. Feinstein and Boxer argue there's a loophole:

We believe a competitive process is consistent with the NASA Reauthorization Act of 2010. As you know, this legislation directed the agency to construct a new human rated spacecraft by 2016 while utilizing existing contracts where "practicable." However, NASA itself has already concluded that such a plan is not practicable. The January 2011 report issued by your agency entitled the Preliminary Report Regarding NASA's Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle concluded that "NASA does not believe this goal is achievable based on a combination of the current funding profile estimate, tradional approaches to acquisition, and currently considered vehicle architectures."

Based on this conclusion, we believe that it is not "practicable" to continue the existing contracts. 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.

Senate Commerce Committee members didn't react well last January to that report, issuing a joint statement which said they didn't care what NASA thought:

We appreciate NASA’s report and look forward to the additional material that was required but not submitted. In the meantime, the production of a heavy-lift rocket and capsule is not optional. It’s the law. NASA must use its decades of space know-how and billions of dollars in previous investments to come up with a concept that works. We believe it can be done affordably and efficiently – and, it must be a priority.

NASA went back to the drawing board. A May 12, 2011 Los Angeles Times article reported that "NASA's latest plan to replace the space shuttle would cost at least $10 billion during the next six years and would utilize recycled shuttle parts, with no guarantee the rocket would be used again."

... [F]or NASA, the plan has the merit of being a cheap — even at $10 billion through 2017 — and easy answer to a congressional mandate to quickly build a rocket out of parts used on the shuttle or developed for the now-defunct Constellation moon-rocket program.

The article noted that SLS is basically a government jobs program:

The intent of the law, championed by Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), was to keep shuttle contractors in business while preserving at least some of the shuttle jobs in Florida, Texas and elsewhere that are set to go away after the orbiter's last flight, now scheduled for June 28. An estimated 7,000 shuttle workers are expected to lose their jobs in Florida alone.

Some may view the Feinstein-Boxer letter as representing the interests of Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX, which announced on April 5 its intention to build the Falcon Heavy, described as the larget rocket in history other than the Saturn V moon rocket. But other aerospace firms also have operations in California.

UPDATE June 4, 2011Aviation Week reports on the Feinstein-Boxer letter:

Since completing the interim study, the agency has been evaluating alternatives to the shuttle- and Ares-based architecture directed in the law, including designs that would utilize liquid oxygen/kerosene propulsion systems. NASA also is weighing potential acquisition strategies for procuring the SLS, including alternatives to extending Ares and shuttle contracts.

Opening the heavy-lift rocket development to competition, however, would likely draw protests from lawmakers who represent states that stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars when the space shuttle retires with no immediate follow-on program in place. However, competition for the launcher would allow emerging and established aerospace firms – including Los Angeles-based startup Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Sacramento-based propulsion manufacturer Aerojet – to bid on the SLS program, for which Congress authorized nearly $7 billion through 2013 alone.

UPDATE June 5, 2011Space Politics blogger Jeff Foust adds this analysis of the Feinstein-Boxer letter:

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.)

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