So long, Richard Shelby, and thanks for all the pork

Retiring Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala.
Enlarge / Retiring Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala.
Scott J. Ferrell | Getty Images

Every other year, luminaries of the air and space community gather in France for the famed Paris Air Show, the largest aerospace exhibition in the world. The show offers visitors the chance to see new technology and the opportunity to mix and mingle.

For the leaders of the largest and most powerful aerospace companies in the world, there is also an opportunity to kiss the ring. This would come on the one evening of the Paris Air Show, during which the Alabama legislative delegation rented out the top floor of the Eiffel Tower for a reception to host aerospace dignitaries.

The star attraction atop the historic tower was a US senator, Richard Shelby. The chief executives of Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Dynetics, and other industry firms would come to meet with Shelby, to see and be seen, and to show the state of Alabama the love. As chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee in the US Senate, Shelby’s voice was that of God when it came to funding US defense and civil space contracts.

Now that era has come to an end, as Tuesday was Shelby’s final day as a US senator. His departure will shake up space policy in ways that are difficult to predict.

Seniority and space policy

Shelby was a senator from Alabama for nearly four decades, starting out as a Democrat and then switching parties to become a Republican in 1994. But his jam was never partisan politics. Shelby preferred dealmaking and working with lawmakers in both parties to fund the government in general and his priorities in particular. And over the years, Shelby brought home the bacon to Alabama, delivering large contracts to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the Army’s Redstone Arsenal, and large companies that agreed to do business in Alabama.

For the last decade, Shelby was arguably the most influential US government official when it came to space policy, dictating NASA’s continued development of the Space Launch System and focusing on an Apollo-like plan to return to the Moon. He did so over the last decade by lavishing more funding on the SLS rocket program, which was based at Marshall, than NASA asked for every year. He also held the line in 2019 when NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine suggested that due to delays with the rocket’s development, it might be better to launch the Orion spacecraft on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket.

After this hearing, Shelby was irate. He dressed down Bridenstine in private after the administrator’s public comments. Shelby was upset both at the potential sidelining of the SLS vehicle and the fact that no one from NASA had bothered to tell him about Bridenstine’s remarks in advance. A few weeks later, at a hearing before Shelby’s committee, Bridenstine was brought back into line. The video is worth watching to fully understand the power dynamics at play.

The then-NASA administrator appears before the Senate Appropriations Committee in May 2019.
The then-NASA administrator appears before the Senate Appropriations Committee in May 2019.
US Senate

“I believe we must have, with NASA, a unified and clear direction,” Shelby said during the hearing, as Bridenstine sat at the witness table. “Ambiguity, on options, I think only detracts from these efforts. Some of the recent comments made by you and others arguably created confusion. It has with me. Could you take a minute or two to elaborate on some of what we discussed in our meeting yesterday about SLS and how it’s the only launch vehicle capable of launching crew to land on the Moon?”

“We’re right in line on this,” Bridenstine replied before going on to sing the praises of the SLS rocket.

The ultimate power broker on US space policy had shown everyone who was boss when it came to NASA. And it was not the agency’s administrator.

No fan of commercial space

Shelby was a frequent critic of commercial space in general and SpaceX specifically. He did not believe private companies—especially those who did not do much business in Alabama—should receive government funding. Shelby frequently clashed with SpaceX founder Elon Musk and acknowledged that they had “fundamental differences” in their vision for space exploration.

Musk offered this blunt assessment of the Alabama senator and SpaceX on Tuesday: “Shelby did his best to hold back SpaceX.”

Shelby is being replaced by Katie Britt in the Senate, his former chief of staff. She has hired key staffers from Shelby’s team, including Clay Armentrout, who did a lot of work on space policy. Nevertheless, while Britt’s approach to space policy is unlikely to change, she will lack the clout and perch on the Appropriations Committee that Shelby used to great effect.

The new chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee will be Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Murray’s position and the experience held by Washington’s other senator—Maria Cantwell, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee—suggest that some of the political power on US space policy will shift from Alabama to the state of Washington. This may benefit the aerospace industry there, including Boeing and Blue Origin, but it’s not clear that anyone can hold back commercial space like Shelby sought to do.

In recent years, NASA has been moving toward a more services-based model of contracting—buying everything from spacesuits to lunar landers on a fixed price basis. Effectively, this means the agency is buying more commercial space services from companies rather than engaging in cost-plus contracts that allow the government much more say in how and where products are built. Shelby sought to block this, in part, because it reduced the ability of lawmakers to direct where jobs should go.

The absence of Shelby means this transition is likely to continue as long as the private sector can deliver quality products in a timely manner.

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