"Specifically, the document requests responses about: "Competing exploration services in the mid-2020s timeframe and beyond if the market demonstrates such services are available, reliable, and consistent with NASA architectural needs." Ars understands this to mean that if private competitors such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance, or other companies produce less expensive rockets and spacecraft within the next five to seven years, NASA will consider using them in lieu of SLS and Orion."
"... Program officials are working toward an optimistic internal launch date of August 2021 for EM-2 - 20 months earlier than the Agency's external commitment date of April 2023. While we understand the desire to meet a more aggressive schedule, this approach has led the Program to defer addressing some technical tasks to later in the development cycle, which in turn could negatively affect cost, schedule, and safety."
Keith's note: What is odd about this SLS RFI and the earlier one concerning Orion is the timing. NASA is releasing them at the very end of the Obama Administration - days after an election that will result in a certain amount of tumult - at a time when White House and NASA senior staff are either gone, leaving, or on travel so as to avoid being in their office. Usually NASA does document drops in this way in the hope that no one will notice. Add in the fact that the due date is just 2 days before Christmas and that responders will need to work over Thanksgiving Day weekend. Do you really think NASA is at all that serious about getting the best possible responses?
Is NASA trying to squeeze its contractors ahead of a new administration that may pivot more toward private sector solutions? Is NASA trying to curry favor with a new administration in the hope that they will get budgetary relief to fix their problems? Or is NASA just plain embarrassed that they have to admit the obvious? There seems to be a pattern emerging. Just the other day Greg Williams from NASA HQ told a NASA Advisory Council subcommittee that NASA did not know what it would actually cost to send humans to Mars because they had only worked out the costs up to a cis-lunar mission. Seven years and NASA does not know how much #JourneyToMars will actually cost? Really?
These RFIs could have easily been issued several years ago since they ask for commercial alternatives to SLS/Orion. Indeed, if anyone at NASA had bothered to read the Commercial Space Act of 1998, Title II - P.L. 105-303 (this is posted on NASA.gov) - specifically Title II (a) - they'd see that they should have been seeking commercial alternatives all along: "Except as otherwise provided in this section, the Federal Government shall acquire space transportation services from United States commercial providers whenever such services are required in the course of its activities. To the maximum extent practicable, the Federal Government shall plan missions to accommodate the space transportation services capabilities of United States commercial providers."
Only now, after 7 years of delays, cost overruns, an inexplicably absent mission architecture, and false advertising via social media, does NASA admit that it may need to rethink how it is going to send humans to Mars. This has to be due to the fact that the whole plan (or lack thereof) is not going to work as "planned". Otherwise, why would NASA be asking for alternate ways of doing it?