Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), long time firm supporter of the very expensive and long-delayed Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, has announced that he will not run for office again when his term expires in ’22.
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
As the article makes clear, Shelby used his clout unceasingly to keep SLS funded. When NASA simply hinted in 2019 that it might switch to another rocket to launch Orion he made his displeasure known, and NASA immediately backed down.
His resignation now, at the same time that other members of Congress as well as the Biden administration appear to be separating the Artemis lunar program from SLS, is a strong signal that the political winds are blowing badly against SLS. Shelby has probably realized that he no longer has the same support for SLS in the rest of Congress that he once had, and knows there is a good chance it will go away, along with much of the pork he has been funneling to Alabama with it. When that happens, his chances of getting reelected drop precipitously. He probably doesn’t have to inclination to fight what might be a losing battle, especially at the age of 86.
The second static fire test of SLS’s core stage is presently scheduled for the fourth week in February. All had better go well, as time is running out in getting the rocket’s first launch off in ’21. Right now that schedule is very iffy. Further problems will make it impossible.
And any major failures would probably lead to the entire program’s cancellation. It would take years for SLS to recover the loss of the core stage, time the program does not have.
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