Boeing lander
Boeing says its lunar lander can be launched as a single spacecraft on a SLS Block 1B rocket, reducing the number of launches and dockings needed for mission success. Credit: Boeing

WASHINGTON — The leadership of the House Science Committee introduced a NASA authorization bill Jan. 24 that seeks to significantly alter NASA’s current plans to return humans to the moon and make them part of an effort to send humans to Mars.

The bill, designated H.R. 5666 and introduced by Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), chair of the committee’s space subcommittee, seeks to put a human return to the moon within the context of a larger “Moon to Mars” program that would no longer have the goal of returning humans to the surface of the moon by 2024, as Vice President Pence announced in March 2019.

“The Moon to Mars program shall have the interim goal of sending a crewed mission to the lunar surface by 2028 and a goal of sending a crewed mission to orbit Mars by 2033,” the bill states.

NASA’s current plans for returning to the moon call for the development of a lunar Gateway in orbit around the moon, which would serve as a staging area for expeditions to the lunar surface. The bill would instead call this facility the “Gateway to Mars,” and allow it to be based elsewhere in cislunar space. The Gateway would also not be required to support lunar landings.

NASA last fall solicited proposals for its Human Landing System program, where the agency would support development of one or two commercial landers, buying landing services from those companies. While companies had the option of not using the Gateway for an initial landing, the Artemis 3 mission in 2024, the agency stated that the Gateway would ultimately be used to aggregate lunar lander elements.

The bill would direct NASA to have “full ownership” of a lunar lander rather than buy services from companies. It would also require at least one uncrewed and one crewed test flight of the lander, something not explicitly required by NASA in its current plans.

Moreover, the bill directs NASA to develop a human lunar lander “as an integrated lunar landing system carried on an Exploration Upper Stage-enhanced Space Launch System,” known as SLS Block 1B. That suggests a design that most closely resembles one proposed by Boeing, who proposed launching an integrated lander on a single SLS, rather than using commercial launch vehicles to launch lander elements that are then aggregated at the Gateway.

While the bill would direct NASA to perform at least two crewed lunar landings a year, the bill makes clear the agency’s activities at the moon would primarily be those required to support a later human mission to Mars. The bill directs NASA to identify “the minimum set of human and robotic lunar surface activities that must be completed to enable a human mission to Mars” and how NASA will complete those activities within five years of the first crewed landing under the program.

In particular, the bill deemphasizes plans to make use of resources like lunar ice at the moon, something NASA has argued is vital since rolling out the Artemis program. NASA is developing a rover called VIPER that would launch in 2022 to study water ice deposits in permanently shadowed craters at the south pole of the moon, a precursor for future human missions there.

“Lunar in-situ resource utilization shall not be considered as risk reduction for the initial crewed missions to orbit and land on Mars,” the bill states. Such activities “shall not be included in the Moon to Mars Program and shall be budgeted separately from the Moon to Mars Program.” The bill similarly restricts any development of a “continuously crewed lunar outpost or research station.”

“Americans should be the first to set foot on the Red Planet, and H.R. 5666 moves us closer to that goal by directing a steady and sustainable course of action,” Horn said in a statement announcing the bill’s introduction.

The bill’s cosponsors include Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chair of the House Science Committee, as well as Reps. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), ranking member of the full committee and Brian Babin (R-Texas), ranking member of the space subcommittee. “Space should not be a partisan issue, and I am proud of the across-the-aisle teamwork which made this legislation possible,” Horn said in the statement.

“The NASA Authorization Act of 2020 supports the Administration’s bold space exploration goal to return to the Moon and go on to Mars while maintaining NASA’s other important science and aeronautics work,” Babin said in the same statement.

The 102-page bill covers the full gamut of NASA’s activities. Another section of the bill would extend NASA’s authorization to extend the International Space Station from 2024 to “at least 2028.” Other sections endorse a diverse range of NASA science missions, including those like the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) and Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Pathfinder missions that the administration has sought to cancel in recent NASA budget requests. The bill also endorses a range of planetary defense programs related to potential hazardous near Earth objects, as well as the search for “technosignatures” from extraterrestrial civilizations.

The House space subcommittee is scheduled to mark up the bill Jan. 29. The full committee would then take up the bill before going to the full House. Any NASA authorization bill that passes the House would have to be reconciled with a Senate bill introduced in November that seeks far fewer changes to NASA’s exploration programs.

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...