WASHINGTON — California’s U.S. Senate delegation wants NASA to ditch existing propulsion contracts associated with the now-defunct Constellation program and open a new round of competitive bidding for the systems to be used on the heavy launcher Congress has directed the agency to build.

“We write to ask that NASA quickly open a competitive bidding process for the propulsion component of the new Space Launch System (SLS),” Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) wrote in a May 27 letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

The competitive process could save “billions of dollars” over the life of the SLS program, the lawmakers wrote.

In the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law in October, Congress ordered NASA to build a heavy-lift vehicle capable of sending astronaut crews and cargo to deep space by 2016. The rocket is also to serve as a backup launch vehicle for sending crews and cargo to the international space station. In the same legislation, Congress ordered up a new crew capsule, the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).

Lawmakers said that “to the extent practicable,” NASA should use existing contracts — including those awarded under Constellation — to build the new government-owned craft. The law also dictates that NASA make use of infrastructure and technology left over from the space shuttle, which is slated for retirement this summer.

In their May 27 letter, Boxer and Feinstein concluded “it is not ‘practicable’ to continue the existing contracts” to build the next U.S. heavy-lift launch vehicle. The senators based their conclusion on a NASA report from January wherein the agency said it would probably not be able to build a new heavy-lift vehicle and crew capsule to Congress’ specifications by 2016.

“I can confirm that we did receive the Senators’ letter,” NASA spokesman Michael Braukus wrote in an email to Space News. He added that “a response is being prepared” to the lawmakers’ request.

Under Constellation, the Moon-bound program terminated last year by Obama, NASA was developing two rockets, the Ares 1 crew launch vehicle and its larger cousin, the heavy-lift Ares 5. Both rockets featured derivatives of the giant solid-rocket boosters used on the space shuttle and the J-2X upper-stage engine, based on Apollo-heritage technology.

Although plans to field the Ares 1 have been shelved, the contracts on key elements of the vehicle — the developmental foundation for the Ares 5 — remain in place. Alliant Techsystems of Minneapolis is responsible for the shuttle-based solid-rocket core propulsion stage, while Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne of Canoga Park, Calif., was developing the J-2X. Houston-based Boeing Space Exploration was responsible for overall integration of the second stage. All three companies are awaiting NASA decisions on how to proceed with the SLS.

On May 24, NASA officially announced that it would rechristen the Constellation-era Orion space capsule as the MPCV, thereby salvaging an existing $8.15 billion contract with Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems. NASA has said that the Orion contract, with a few modifications, can fulfill Congress’ 2010 crew capsule mandate. The agency has poured about $5 billion into Orion to date.

But the agency has been less certain about the use of existing contracts for the SLS, despite the fact that the vehicle requirements as laid out in the law closely resemble those of the Ares 5. Propulsion provider Aerojet of Sacramento, Calif., which did not have a major role in Ares, has expressed strong interest in competing on SLS, and NASA officials worry that using existing contracts to develop the vehicle could draw a bid protest.



NASA Wary of Bid Protests in Developing Heavy-lift Approach

U.S. Lawmakers Press NASA on Heavy-lift Rocket, Crew Capsule

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.