Richard Shelby, senator with major influence over NASA, to retire

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WASHINGTON — Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), an influential senator who has long been an advocate for some NASA programs and critic of others, announced Feb. 8 he will not run for reelection next year.

Shelby said in a statement that he would not seek a seventh term in the Senate in 2022. In a statement he didn’t give a reason for deciding not to run again other than stating, “For everything, there is a season.” There had been widespread speculation, though, that he would not seek reelection, particularly because he had not raised any money for that campaign.

The 86-year-old Shelby was first elected to the Senate in 1986 after eight years in the House. Shelby served in the House, and the first eight years in the Senate, as a Democrat, switching to the Republican party in 1994.

Shelby is best known in the space community for his role shaping NASA programs as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. That has included stints as chairman of the commerce, justice and science subcommittee, whose jurisdiction includes NASA, as well as of the full committee. With Democrats in control of the Senate, he is currently the ranking member of the full committee.

“I have worked to enhance Alabama’s role in space exploration and the security of our nation,” Shelby said in the statement announcing his decision not to run for reelection.

That’s included support for programs based at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, such as the Space Launch System. “As chairman of the appropriations committee, I have more than a passing interest in what NASA does. And I have a little parochial interest, too, in what they do in Huntsville, Alabama,” he said at a March 2019 industry event where he introduced Jody Singer, director of Marshall. “Jody, you keep doing what you’re doing. We’ll keep funding you.”

Later that same month, that support for SLS, and influence he had, was demonstrated once again. After then-NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine suggested at a Senate hearing that NASA might use a vehicle other than SLS to launch Orion on an uncrewed test flight then known as EM-1, and now called Artemis-1, Shelby stepped in. “While I agree that the delay in the SLS launch schedule is unacceptable, I firmly believe that SLS should launch the Orion,” he said.

Almost immediately thereafter, Bridenstine stated that SLS was “a critical capability for this country,” and the proposal to use a different vehicle for that mission, a move intended to keep its launch on schedule for 2020, was later dropped. The Artemis-1 launch, using SLS, has now slipped to late 2021 and may be further delayed by issues during the Green Run test campaign for the SLS core stage.

While an advocate for SLS, Shelby has been a critic of some of NASA’s commercial initiatives, including cargo and crew transportation to the International Space Station. He was a long-running skeptic that companies could transport NASA astronauts safely, raising concerns as recently as a May 2019 Senate hearing, where he questioned NASA allowing SpaceX to lead the investigation of a mishap during a static-fire test of thrusters on a Crew Dragon spacecraft that destroyed the vehicle.

Shelby’s support for programs like SLS has won him support from much of the space industry. However, that backing of SLS and criticism of commercial initiatives has made him less welcome in other corners of the industry.

“The answer is not SLS, ever,” said Steve Jurvetson, a member of the board of SpaceX, in comments after a talk Feb. 8 at the 2021 SmallSat Symposium. He noted that NASA estimated that, at best, it can perform two SLS launches a year for the foreseeable future. “That alone is the kiss of death for any timetable to get to the moon or Mars.”

Shelby’s retirement will likely create a wide-open race for the Republican nomination to succeed him, with the winner of that primary election the odds-on favorite to win the general election. Among the potential candidates is Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), who serves on the House space subcommittee but is facing a resolution to censure him for his efforts to block the certification of President Joe Biden’s electoral college victory last month.

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), who is the ranking member of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, said he is not planning to seek Shelby’s seat. Aderholt has been a similarly strong advocate for NASA programs like SLS.

Shelby made clear that, while he is not running for reelection, he does not plan to retire before his term concludes at the end of next year. “I have two good years remaining to continue my work in Washington,” he said in his statement. “I have the vision and the energy to give it my all.”