Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said at a May 14 hearing of his space subcommittee that the proposed Space Force could play a role protecting commercial activities in space. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee expressed doubts any space-related legislation, or even spending bills, can make it through Congress this year.

At a Space Transportation Association event here Feb. 26, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) suggested differences between the House and Senate versions of a NASA authorization bill might be too great to reconcile, and put the blame on the House.

“In the Senate we’re moving forward with a NASA authorization, and we’re working on getting buy-in across stakeholders, and we’ll continue to push it forward. I think it is very doable in the Senate,” he said.

The Senate Commerce Committee favorably reported a NASA authorization bill in November, one that largely supports the administration’s human space exploration plans. That bill is pending consideration by the full Senate, likely through a procedure known as unanimous consent that allows for expedited passage so long as no senator dissents.

The leadership of the House Science Committee introduced its version of a NASA authorization bill Jan. 24 that differs significantly from the Senate version. It would require a human return to the moon by 2028, four years later than the administration’s plans, and focus lunar activities on only those needed to support a human mission to Mars in 2033.

“I will say I’m not sure where the House is going to be,” Cruz said.

“Neither am I,” chimed in Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas), a member of the House Science Committee who was in the audience at the event.

Cruz suggested that the House approach might threaten the bipartisan support that space policy has typically enjoyed in Congress. “An awful lot of the Pelosi House is profoundly partisan,” he said, referring to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “If they treat space as a partisan football, they will destroy the bipartisan cooperation that we’ve had going for a number of years.”

However, the differences in the NASA authorizations have been more on cameral than partisan lines. The House NASA authorization bill includes as original co-sponsors both the chairs and ranking members of the full House Science Committee and its space subcommittee. Republican leaders on the committee said they supported the bill, even if its content wasn’t what they would have drafted had they been in the majority, with the hopes of changing it as it makes its way through the House.

“There is, in fact, strong bipartisan support for the Administration & NASA’s Artemis program—not limited to the Committee—but Congress as a whole,” Weber himself noted in a series of tweets Feb. 21 criticizing one article about the bill.

Cruz was also skeptical about the prospects of a commercial space bill, the Space Frontier Act. The Senate passed that bill by unanimous consent in December 2018, but it died in the House when it failed to get the two-thirds majority needed for passage under suspension of the rules. Cruz reintroduced the bill last year, which was favorably reported by the Senate Commerce Committee in April.

However, Cruz said he was not pressing for the bill to be taken up by the full Senate because it wasn’t clear the House was interested in the topic. “I think it is a priority on the Senate side. With this leadership in the House, I don’t know,” he said. “Right now it doesn’t seem to be the same priority.”

Another obstacle, he said, is “jurisdictional turf battles” in the House, where both the House Science Committee and the House Transportation Committee have an interest in any legislation involving commercial space transportation. That’s not an issue in the Senate, where both aviation and space are in the jurisdiction of Cruz’s subcommittee.

A bigger issue than any authorizing legislation is appropriations. Cruz said he was heartened by the administration’s request for $25.2 billion for NASA in its fiscal year 2021 budget proposal but raised doubts any appropriations bills can make it through Congress during this election year.

“I don’t know if Congress, in this broken political environment, will have any appropriations,” he said. “It is entirely possible that we don’t see any appropriations passed in 2020.” In such a scenario, Congress would instead pass a continuing resolution that would set funding at the spending levels enacted for fiscal year 2020 for at least the first several months of 2021.

Despite the skepticism about the passage of legislation, Cruz said change is still possible. He noted that, after the administration proposed two years ago ending funding for the International Space Station by 2025, he chaired a series of hearings that found no support for terminating the station’s operations then. Provisions in several bills, including the Space Frontier Act and NASA authorization bills, would extend operations of the ISS to 2028 or 2030.

None of those bills have become law, but Cruz said the White House appears to have gotten the message. “Interestingly enough, that chatter about the ISS has disappeared,” he said.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...