Democratic senators ask White House to continue Artemis lunar lander program

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WASHINGTON — Eleven Democratic members of the U.S. Senate have asked President Joe Biden to maintain “robust funding” of NASA’s Human Landing System (HLS) program given uncertainties about how the agency will proceed with that effort.

The Feb. 3 letter argued that development of the human lunar landers should continue as “an essential step” for returning humans to the moon, but did not explicitly endorse the goal of a 2024 human landing set by the Trump administration in 2019.

“Major space exploration efforts have faced disruption as administrations have changed and priorities shifted. It is now time for stability if the nation is to make progress on these initiatives,” the letter stated.

The status of the HLS program is in flux given both the change in administrations and the limited funding Congress provided for it in the fiscal year (FY) 2021 appropriations bill enacted in December. NASA sought $3.3 billion for HLS in 2021 but Congress provided only $850 million, suggesting NASA will have to revamp the program by stretching out schedules or reducing the number of companies involved in the effort.

NASA has also delayed a decision on which of the three companies that won base period contracts in April 2020—Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX—will receive “Option A” awards to proceed with lander development. NASA issued two-month no-cost extensions to the three companies Jan. 27, extending contracts that were set to expire at the end of this month.

The senators called on NASA to proceed with the selection without delay. “The decision on which companies will advance to the development phase was originally intended to occur within the next 30 days, and we urge that decision not be delayed,” they wrote.

The senators also asked the White House to fund HLS in NASA’s fiscal year 2022 budget request, citing the nearly $1.5 billion invested in the program to date. “We recommend robust funding in FY 2022 for continuation of the HLS program and the timely selection of companies to advance to the next stage of development and demonstration contracts,” they wrote, but did not offer a specific figure, instead asking at the end of the letter for “all necessary funding for HLS.”

The letter was led by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), whose state is home to Blue Origin. Also signing the letter were Michael Bennett and John Hickenlooper of Colorado, home to Lockheed Martin, which is part of the Blue Origin team, as well as Maxar, Sierra Nevada Corporation and United Launch Alliance, which are part of the Dynetics team.

The other senators who signed the letter were Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.)

Notably absent from the list of signatories were Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, the two Democratic senators from California, where SpaceX is based. Also absent from the letter were key Senate appropriators, such as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who chairs the commerce, justice and science appropriations subcommittee, whose jurisdiction includes NASA.

While administrations traditionally release budget requests in early February, that process is delayed when a new administration takes office. In 2017, the Trump administration released a high-level “skinny” budget request in March, followed in May by the traditional detailed request. The Biden administration hasn’t announced a schedule for its fiscal year 2022 budget request, and its nominee to lead the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, is awaiting confirmation by the Senate.

The Biden administration has not offered guidance on HLS, the overall Artemis program or other civil space activities since taking office Jan. 20. At a Feb. 3 briefing, a reporter asked White House press secretary Jen Psaki if the Biden administration would continue the Artemis program.

“I am personally interested in space. I think it’s a fascinating area of study, but I have not spoken with our team about this particular program, so let me see if we can get you a more informed overview of that,” Psaki responded.