WASHINGTON — A Northern California congressman is asking a federal watchdog agency to investigate whether NASA’s decision to bypass competition and rely on existing contracts to build the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) violates federal procurement regulations.

U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) — a second-term Republican whose congressional district is adjacent to rocket propulsion firm Aerojet’s Sacramento headquarters — called for the investigation Sept. 22, the same day NASA released an SLS acquisition strategy that outlines its intent to use contracts awarded to Boeing, and rivals Alliant Techsystems (ATK) and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, under the space shuttle and now-defunct Ares rocket programs to acquire all major SLS elements except for the massive rocket’s payload adapters and fairings and advanced side-mounted boosters that could eventually replace the ATK-built solids that will power the early flights.

“I have serious concerns with NASA’s attempt to avoid holding a full and open competition to acquire the SLS,” McClintock wrote in a Sept. 22 letter to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress. “Instead, NASA is considering modifying and/or extending existing contracts for retired or cancelled programs resulting in one or more ‘de facto sole source awards.’ Some of these contracts were originally awarded on a sole source basis.”

Modifying existing sole-source contracts to build SLS, McClintock wrote, would violate the 1984 Competition in Contracting Act.

McClintock also wants the GAO to examine whether NASA could save money by conducting a full and open competition for SLS contracts.

Aerojet, the nation’s only supplier of both liquid- and solid-rocket propulsion systems, was denied a leading role on any of the major elements of the Ares family of shuttle-derived rockets NASA set out to build under the Moon-bound Constellation program President Barack Obama canceled last year.

Determined to avoid a similar shutout, Aerojet has lobbied for NASA to open SLS propulsion work to new competition rather than simply modify the sole-source contracts awarded under the Ares program to ATK and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, respectively, for shuttle-derived solid-rocket boosters and a cryogenic upper-stage engine.

Aerojet acknowledges discussing SLS with McClintock, but says it did not put the congressman up to writing the letter.

A group calling itself Tea Party in Space sent McClintock’s letter to reporters Sept. 26 along with a white paper making many of the same points. Andrew Gasser, the group’s president and national coordinator, told Space News that the white paper was in fact prepared for McClintock.

“The reason we chose Congressman McClintock is because he’s a true Tea Party congressional member of Congress who was not afraid to take on what we see right now as a sole source contract that’s nothing more than a bailout earmark for the shuttle industry,” Gasser said Sept. 29.

Julie Van Kleeck, Aerojet’s vice president for space and launch systems, said McClintock’s letter was not written on Aerojet’s behalf, nor does it completely square with Aerojet’s point of view on SLS.

Van Kleeck said Aerojet is focused on the competition NASA plans to hold for advanced strap-on boosters that would replace the five-segment solid-rocket boosters that will power SLS test flights starting in 2017.

“Aerojet has been very upfront and very open … advocating a strap-on booster competition. We have not been commenting on a reset of the entire vehicle or anything like that,” Van Kleeck said in a Sept. 28 interview. “We understand how important it is for SLS to move forward.”

Aerojet is not the only company bucking for new SLS contracts. Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, for example, have expressed interest in building the advanced side-mounted boosters NASA says it intends to buy for SLS missions beyond the initial flights. NASA plans to issue a risk-reduction solicitation this year to set the stage for a larger development contract the agency would solicit in the 2013-2014 timeframe.

Looking beyond the booster competition, Van Kleeck said Aerojet also wants a shot at building expendable versions of the RS-25 engines NASA plans to use in clusters of three to five to power the SLS rocket’s cryogenic main stage. NASA said Sept. 22 that initial SLS missions would use the reusable RS-25D space shuttle main engines that Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne has in its inventory. NASA has not said whether or when it would hold a competition for a contract to build expendable versions of the RS-25D. With just two SLS flights envisioned through 2021 and 15 RS-25s in inventory, NASA likely will not need additional engines before the mid-2020s.

McClintock, meanwhile, is not alone in calling for NASA to competitively award SLS contracts. California’s two U.S. senators did so back in May and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) urged NASA in June to solicit bids for the rocket’s propulsion elements.

But McClintock’s blanket opposition to SLS contract modifications puts him at odds with Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), the veteran lawmakers behind the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 (S. 3729) ordering NASA to build the SLS and its companion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle using existing Constellation and shuttle program contracts “to the extent practicable.”

McClintock voted in favor of the bill when it passed the House of Representatives Sept. 29, 2010 by a vote of 304-118.


Brian Berger contributed to this report.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.