Rep John Culberson, R-Texas, visited an aerospace contractor called Oceaneering Space Systems in Houston, the Houston Chronicle noted. The congressman, who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee, expressed concerns about delays that have occurred in the development of the heavy-lift space launch system and the Orion spacecraft. Then, Culberson asked a strange question to an Orbital ATK executive that exposed the SLS’s potential obsolescence before it even flies.

What about reusability?

Culberson inquired whether or not the Space Launch System would be reusable.

Orbital ATK’s vice president for NASA Programs Brian Duffy had to admit that it was not. Culberson went on to note that both SpaceX and Blue Origin are working on reusable rockets which would be cheaper to build and operate. “If Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are successful in launching rocket bodies and engines four to 10 times, at least, that changes the whole equation,” he said. Musk and Bezos are the CEOs of SpaceX and Blue Origin respectively. Orbital ATK is one of the prime contractors for the Space Launch System, which is an expendable rocket.

What was Culberson trying to say?

One of the truisms about the Space Launch System is that while it may be by orders of magnitude more expensive than the commercial rockets either flying or about to fly, it enjoys a great deal of congressional support.

However, Culberson sounded like he was wavering just a bit in his support for the huge, heavy lift rocket.

SpaceX has already flown the Falcon Heavy, which is a rough equivalent of the initial version of the SLS. The company is already working on an enormous, reusable heavy lift launcher called the Big Falcon Rocket. Blue Origin will debut the New Glenn orbital rocket in a couple of years and the even heavier New Armstrong sometime after that.

As a sign that some of the SLS contractors are getting nervous, Boeing took out an ad touting the virtues of the SLS and specifically scorning the SpaceX Falcon Heavy. Ars Technica published an analysis of the ad that found it to be, at best, misleading.

Culberson was apparently trying to warn the contractors for the Space Launch System that congressional support for the project may dry up if they cannot cut costs and SpaceX and Blue Origin start flying rockets that are cheaper to build and operate.

That the SLS may not be competitive with commercial equivalent rockets has been noted by outside analysts for years. However, to have a member of Congress will control over how much money NASA spends imply the same thing is a shocking turn of events.