Aviation Week reports that NASA is closer to a preliminary design for the Space Launch System, but may introduce an element of competition to the process.
NASA has selected a shuttle-derived vehicle with two existing liquid-oxygen/liquid-hydrogen stages as its reference design for the heavy-lift Space Launch System that Congress has ordered it to build for exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit, but it will hold a competition between liquid- and solid-fuel boosters to get it off the pad.
Administrator Charles Bolden on Wednesday endorsed the basic concept developed by launch vehicle experts at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), and sent it on to the White House Office of Management and Budget for confirmation.
The confirmation would pit Utah's ATK solid rocket booster maker against "an engine to be developed by Aerojet in Sacramento, Calif., and manufactured by Teledyne Brown Engineering in Huntsville, Ala." according to the article.
It would also pit Utah's senator Orren Hatch against Alabama's senator Richard Shelby and California senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.
The revelation helps explain why Feinstein and Boxer sent a June 3 letter urging the booster process be opened to competition. It was followed by a June 10 letter by Shelby urging the booster be competed.
Hatch is chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and is believed to have used his influence to pressure NASA into using the ATK-designed solid rocket booster for the defunct Constellation and the proposed SLS.
It's just more proof that Congress views the government's human space flight program's priority as directing pork to their districts.
UPDATE June 20, 2011 — While I was out of town, the Orlando Sentinel on June 17 published an article about the speculated SLS design.
As soon as next week, NASA will announce the design for its next big rocket, and anyone who has seen the space shuttle should recognize the key pieces — as the vehicle includes much of the same 30-year-old technology ...
That NASA selected this model is not a complete surprise: a 2010 law all but requires agency engineers to reuse shuttle parts or remnants from the now-defunct Constellation moon program, and the design does that. But it also commits the agency's future to hardware — like the main engines taken from the space shuttle — that was designed in the 1970s.