Op-ed | H.R. 5666 will launch the U.S. in the wrong direction

by , and

In his Feb. 3 SpaceNews opinion piece,  Louis Friedman argues that the NASA authorization bill that recently cleared a House space subcommittee is best  direction for America in space. The bill, H.R. 5666, would require the United States to abandon the moon after a flags and footprints lunar landing (while effectively preventing commercial firms from participating). We could not disagree more.

Friedman builds his argument on the idea that the only purpose of human spaceflight is exploration, and the primary rationale for government-sponsored human spaceflight is geopolitical, especially international cooperation. Friedman is convinced that commercial development in space does not need humans, except for tourism, and he rejects space tourism as being for “only the wealthy.” 

The early days of aviation were also only for the wealthy, with the first 23-minute commercial airplane flight costing $500 in 1914. But today millions of people from all economic classes fly on commercial airlines. Additionally, space adventure tourists, like their aviation predecessors, will face very real risks, and some will not return. However, the experience and technology gained, if allowed to continue and protected from excessive regulation, will lead to lower costs for human access to space for an ever-growing portion of the Earth’s population. Space tourism has great potential for growth leading to job creation and a stronger economy, since reusable launch vehicles currently under development offer the potential to drop launch costs by a factor of 100X or more compared to just a few years ago; this will translate directly into dramatically lower cost, enabling more people to travel to space.

As leaders of the National Space Society, we are committed to a vision of a human future in space were people can live, work, and play — a future that is not limited to a tiny elite of government-funded scientists and test pilots. Such a future can only come into being through large-scale economic development of resources in space for the benefit of humans on Earth and in space. Although Friedman is correct that robots will play a critical and leading role in the economic development of space, we believe that humans should be incorporated into the cislunar economic sphere when economically justified. As new industries expand in space — starting with low Earth orbit megaconstellations, space tourism, in-space manufacturing, and moving forward with space solar power beamed back to Earth, and eventually lunar and asteroid mining — the number of humans working in space will grow organically, leading to permanent, economically self-sustaining settlements.

H.R. 5666 is a huge step backward from this future. NASA’s Artemis program is not an ideal plan for going back to the moon to stay, but it has many virtuous elements, notably allowing commercial firms to own and operate lunar landers that will put us on the path to future self-sustaining lunar industries, including tourism and mining. Sadly, H.R. 5666 guts all these provisions, forcing a return to the failed cost-plus monopoly contracting model in which a single favored government contractor provides a single government-owned lunar lander. Even worse, the House dictates to NASA a particular technical solution for lunar landers, while totally ignoring what may be the most cost-effective and capable system for return to the moon, the SpaceX Starship and Super Heavy launch systems, and effectively eliminating companies like Blue Origin (which is building a lunar lander with private money) from being part of the program. House leaders have also claimed that all firms are free to bid on the flags and footprints lunar lander dictated by H.R.5666, which is true, but since H.R. 5666 would force the firms to give up their lunar lander intellectual property to the U.S. government, this offer is empty and disingenuous.

Friedman’s willingness to leave the moon to “developing nations” while the U.S. moves on to Mars in an Apollo-like mission will result in the moon being dotted by lunar bases, mines, and other installations run by China, India, Japan and others. Part of the appeal is that since costs are lower, many more countries can participate in a return to the moon than in a Martian journey. NASA has done great work in building international support for Artemis, which we applaud. 

Friedman is convinced that human spaceflight to the moon is “far too expensive and does not benefit commercial goals.” Human spaceflight to the moon will be made artificially expensive by ignoring the lessons of NASA’s successful  Commercial Orbital Transportation Services and follow-on Commercial Resupply Services programs and relying on a single monopoly provider of cost-plus lunar landers that are not built for any potential commercial purpose. SpaceX has already announced a commercial lunar orbital tourist flight using Starship/Super Heavy. To assert that human spaceflight to the moon will “not benefit commercial goals” appears unsupported by the facts and ignores the lessons of the early days of aviation.

The National Space Society has called on the House to reconsider H.R. 5666, and the authors further urge the Senate to fight hard for their own, superior NASA authorization bill. Although developing a cislunar economy with sustainable commercially successful business operations on and around the moon might appear a distraction from traveling to Mars, in reality it would be the firm foundation of any serious Mars program since the usage of commercially proven technology will result in lower costs and greater safety.

It is questionable whether H.R. 5666 even represents a strong proposal for Mars exploration. The authorization bill envisions a crewed orbiter reaching Mars by 2033, with no plans for actually landing on Mars. Americans deserve a better approach. Fortunately, SpaceX is working, not just to orbit Mars while dreaming of far-future landings by a few astronauts, but to develop a self-sustaining settlement on Mars. In the past, NASA has suffered from a tyranny of little dreams. Artemis is not perfect, but it suggests the U.S. and humanity can have a larger future in space than Mr. Friedman offers. We believe that it is time to turn our backs on little dreams and a flags and footprints mission to Mars, to reject the flaws in H.R. 5666, to fully fund Artemis (including CLPS), and to work with innovative new space firms, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin rather than pretending they are not transforming our future in space.

 

Alfred Anzaldúa is a retired U.S. State Department diplomat and 30 plus-year veteran of space advocacy. He is the National Space Society executive vice president, chair of the policy committee, and deputy chair of the international committee. 

John C. Mankins is a member of the National Space Society board of directors, and an acknowledged expert in technology R&D management. He is also an expert in the field of space solar power. His 25-year career at NASA included 10 years at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and 15 years at NASA Headquarters.

Dale Skran is the chair of the National Space Society executive committee, a member of the NSS board of directors, and a technology entrepreneur. After a 17-year career at Bell Labs, he held executive positions at Ascend Communications, Sonus Networks, and CMware.