Richard Shelby’s War Against SpaceX


Last week, a U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee passed an FY 2015 bill for NASA, one with ominous portents for the Commercial Crew program.  As pointed out in several media sources, the bill contains a “poison pill” provision which appears to be deliberately calculated to increase the administrative costs of the program to contractors, with SpaceX in particular being the prime target.

The bill would force NASA to administer the contracts under extremely onerous FAR guidelines with quarterly reporting requirements, a move which would essentially take the “commercial” out of “commercial crew” and turn it into a classic NASA/defense acquisition project which would all but guarantee rising costs and a delayed time frame. NASA has previously stated that it would administer FAR with a “light hand.” Now that hand may be holding Thor’s hammer, with the taxpayer reeling from every blow.

The Space Access Society has a good explanation of the background here, and a follow up piece, here. It has also been reported in a concise blog piece in the Houston Chronicle, and in Florida Today.

The executive director of the Commercial SpaceFlight Federation, Alex Saltman also came out strongly against the provision, quoted in the Florida Today piece saying

“The language would effectively change an efficient and lean commercial program into a traditional government procurement with all of the associated overhead and cost,”


“In addition, if this language were to become law before NASA awards the latest commercial crew contracts, NASA would likely have to restart the procurement with these new rules, pushing back the program up to a year and sending hundreds of millions of more taxpayer dollars to Russia for Soyuz rides,” Saltman added. “If the language were to go into effect after the awards, NASA could be tied up in contract renegotiations and challenges for months if not years.”

While Senator Shelby claims the language is not seeking to target SpaceX, and he is only concerned with “transparency,” his record strongly suggests otherwise.

Senator Shelby’s animosity towards SpaceX is no secret, and has been on full display in multiple Senate hearings, including the most recent March 5th hearing featuring testimony by both Elon Musk and ULA President Michael Gass. It goes much further than that however, stretching back to the very first Falcon 9 launch in June of 2010 as then reported by Politico:

“Belated progress for one so-called commercial provider must not be confused with progress for our nation’s human spaceflight program. As a nation, we cannot place our future spaceflight on one fledgling company’s definition of success.”

And before that

“this commercial provider cannot deliver the trash from the space station much less take humans into space and back,”

Four trips to ISS later, it might be time to revise and amend his remarks, but somehow that does not seem likely.  While it is understandable that the Senator might be somewhat ambivalent towards SpaceX, particularly considering the trouble it has caused United Launch Alliance, as Elon Musk pointed out back in 2010, ULA stood to benefit from Commercial Crew in any event.  That may have changed. With the future of the Atlas V now in doubt due to its reliance on a Russian main engine, and the House version of NASA’s FY 2015 appropriation’s bill calling for a down select to a single provider, could it be that no longer confident of a role going forward, an anti-SpaceX coalition has emerged which is just as to happy see the entire program delayed, or its budget blown up, as media reports claim?

Given the close relationship between Shelby and ULA, again on display during the March 5 hearing, it seems rather implausible that the language could have ended up in the bill over the latter’s strongly voiced opposition.  Or is it really all just about the Space Launch System, and the growing fear that as the NRC Mars report pointed out again last week, there is simply no way the nation can afford a SLS flight rate high enough to ensure safety without massive and highly unlikely increases in NASA’s budget?

If it is the latter, and the language stays in the final bill, then make no mistake, the long smoldering conflict between NewSpace and Arsenal Space, recently papered over, is about to re-ignite.

There is also this to consider. The common assumption is that even as it drives up prices and slows progress, Shelby’s language will primarily benefit Boeing, which has a long history in defense and space contracting, not all of which is happy.  That may very well be the case.

On the other hand, Elon Musk made his original fortunes in information technology, and has had plenty of time to see this coming. It is not unreasonable to suspect that SpaceX may be more prepared for this than most expect. Furthermore, with a large percentage of the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft fabricated in house, SpaceX does not have to reach nearly as deep into pools of sub-contractor pricing as Boeing, SNC or ULA. (And they don’t have to translate it from Russian either.) Furthermore, having succeeded in COTS/CRS thus far, and deeply engaged in the equally political fight to enter the EELV program, SpaceX is not exactly a stranger to government reporting requirements.

It may turn out then, that while necessarily having to raise its prices to NASA to comply with Shelby’s edict, just as it does to the Air Force to accommodate its own more stringent mission assurance requirements,  SpaceX may still find a way to turn it to their own advantage with little of the enormous gap in booster pricing having been eaten away. Having already publicly quoted its price for a prospective Bigelow station mission at $26.25 million, Elon Musk already has a point of comparison to illustrate the price of Shelby’s crusade.

In that case, the “transparency” put on display will be just what one hostile Senator in the minority, an unusually accommodating majority, and an Administration which does not seem particularly engaged have cost other NASA stakeholders.

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6 Comments on "Richard Shelby’s War Against SpaceX"

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  1. Wayne says:

    I watched Shelby spew his bought and paid for garbage at the U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on competition in national security satellite launches on March 5, 2014.

    Obviously Boeing and Lockheed owns this piece of Work Lock Stock and Barrel !!!

    He calls himself a Republican but he has in fact vividly shown his true colors on that very day of the 5th of March!

    For Shelby to profess a political position of Less Government and Capitalism via the Republican Party and then say at that very hearing that ULA’s non-compete 36 Core Block buy was not an issue that had anything to do with MONEY!!! He said that what mattered was assured access to space and the security of the United States… He Out and Out “Said” that competition and our Tax dollars meant absolutely nothing as it relates to what ULA is charging for its Launch services which just so happens to be about $380 Million a SHOT!!!

    So… Now he all of a sudden says the COST does in fact Matter???

    Compared to SpaceX’s $90 Million a shot why would he ask for Greater Transparency Accountability when he could care less about such exorbitant ULA Launch costs?

    Does he truly think no one can connect the dots here?

    Really? I’m Thinking (Both Side of His Mouth from which he speaks is in your Face!)

    How Blatantly Pathetic He is!!!

    There might just be bounce back and or Boomerang effect here on Boeing and Lockheed if they too have to show Accountability and Transparency as well… To such an extent that there might be the potential of exposing their raping and pillaging of the American Tax Dollar…

    The Good Ole Boy Shelby might want to be careful of getting exactly what he asked for… He could have potentially just shot himself in the proverbial foot despite himself!!!

  2. Xopher Halftongue says:

    As much as I dislike the Social Justice Warrior Outrage Machine(TM), I think finally, there’s going to be an actual practical use for it in this case. Being an old time Southern Democrat turned GOPe, Shelby is a prime target for a trumped up charge of “racism”, “misogyny”.

    • Dick Eagleson says:

      Not normally much of a fan of identity politics, but, as it happens, SpaceX’s Hawthorne, CA assembly plant is located in the congressional district of the Hon. Maxine Waters who is both black and female. So there’s your racism and misogyny two-fer if anybody wants to run with it. Cue Rev. Jesse. Cue Rev. Al.

  3. Stewart Money says:

    That’s taking it quite a bit too far, and something no-one deserves. Let the facts speak for themselves.

  4. Xopher Halftongue says:

    That’s taking it quite a bit too far, and something no-one deserves. Let the facts speak for themselves.

    That doesn’t work in politics. And I noticed that the poster using the name “R7 Rocket” has posted my suggestion on ArsTechnica. Good.

  5. Xopher Halftongue says:

    Just think, the Social Justice Warriors will actually do mankind a service instead of a disservice this time. Poetic.

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