Shelby Supports SLS Competition While Contractors Worry in California

Sen. Richard Shelby

In an effort to improve the prospects of contractors in his own state, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby is urging that NASA undertake competitive bidding for parts of the Space Launch System, specifically solid-rocket boosters produced in Utah. In a letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, the Republican senator wrote:

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.

The solid rocket boosters that Shelby is so concerned about are built by ATK in Utah. Recently, Teledyne Brown Engineering and Aerojet announced they are teaming up to compete for SLS contracts. Teledyne Brown has its main office in Huntsville while Aerojet also has an office in the city.

Shelby’s concern for cost is touching; however, it was Shelby and his colleagues who are forcing NASA to build the giant SLS that it has neither the need nor the money to build. The space agency would prefer to start from scratch and to build a heavy-lift booster at a later time that would be sized to whatever missions it decides to do. However, that would hurt employment in too many states in the near term.

Meanwhile, the prospects of competition for the SLS contracts is spreading fear through Southern California:

Hundreds of aerospace jobs in the San Fernando Valley are in jeopardy if the two U.S. senators from California succeed in canceling contracts for NASA’s next manned space program.

In an effort to reduce the federal budget, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer sent a letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden late last month suggesting the agency scrap the existing $1.4 billion contract with Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne and instead solicit competitive bids for the project.

The company, which employs 2,200 employees at its facilities in Canoga Park and Chatsworth, is in the process of building engines for the space program. It received the contract in 2006.

President Jim Maser said losing the contract would force Pratt & Whitney to cut engineering, manufacturing, program management and financial support jobs. It also would increase the cost and delivery time of a replacement engine, he said.

“If the decision is made to cancel all existing Constellation contracts…the result will be several hundred more PWR employees receiving layoff notices and hundreds of California-based suppliers who will be impacted as well,” Maser said, in a June 9 letter to Feinstein and Boxer.

Although PWR would be adversely affected, another Southern California company, SpaceX, stands to gain if it submits the winning bid.

Sen. Richard Shelby’s Letter to NASA

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.

Sincerely,

Richard Shelby
United States Senator