Is NASA pushing back against the Senate Launch System?

NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts recently released a study that concluded, essentially, that NASA won’t get back to the Moon any time soon using traditional cost-plus contracting arrangements. This is a not-so-subtle poke at the Space Launch System (SLS).

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SLS is sometimes referred to as the ‘Senate’ Launch System because the US Congress inserted itself into the design process for the rocket. SLS is required to use outdated technology in order to maintain jobs (and voters) at existing suppliers. Additionally, the rocket is being built using cost-plus contracting which basically means the taxpayers foot the bill for mistakes made by the contractor. Therefore it’s not surprising that the first SLS flight has been delayed repeatedly. If a contractor can charge the government for delays, why wouldn’t it extend the work as long as possible? In fact, one can argue this is the rational thing for the contractor to do in order to maximize revenues and shareholder returns. And the US Congress seems content to allow this to go on, as long as voters remain employed building a rocket to nowhere.

The problem, of course, is that a rocket to nowhere will never get the US (back) to the Moon. Nevermind Mars, the asteroids or building space villages. The good people at NASA realize this. While they love a big rocket (who doesn’t?) and yearn for the halcyon days of Apollo (and the supersized budgets that came along with it) they see what the private sector is doing and are beginning to hedge their bets. Extremely capable companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Astrobotic and ULA have big plans to build truly commercial infrastructure in orbit. They have the money to do it and they have a winning track record.

Indeed, NASA’s own Kennedy Space Center released another report in 2017 comparing recent space station cargo delivery contracts with older Space Shuttle cargo delivery services. Surprise, surprise: NASA concluded that the commercial fixed-price contracts were far cheaper and just as effective as the cost-plus Shuttle services.

In light of these commercial successes, NASA is at risk of being left behind, saddled by Congress with a rocket to nowhere. Unable or unwilling to come out and say so directly, some parts of NASA are beginning to push back by releasing reports stating that public-private partnerships and fixed-price contracting are the way to get America back to the Moon, and beyond. Expect to see more of this when Jim Bridenstine, a strong proponent of commercial space, is confirmed as the new NASA administrator.

The question becomes, however, what will all those workers (voters) do if SLS is cancelled? You don’t get votes by putting people out of work. So Congress won’t agree to cancel SLS until a viable alternative presents itself. Future posts will explore what NASA and their traditional contractors could work on instead of SLS in order to bring the benefits of space to the United States and the entire world.

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