Dynetics lunar lander
A Dynetics proposal for a human lunar lander selected for further study by NASA. Credit: Dynetics

WASHINGTON — While NASA’s decision to award lunar lander development contracts to three companies won praise from a Senate committee, the leaders of the House Science Committee said they remained concerned about NASA’s approach to returning humans to the moon.

NASA issued awards to teams led by Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX April 30 to begin detailed studies for landers under the Human Landing System (HLS) program. The three companies received fixed-price contracts valued at a combined $967 million to undertake 10-month studies of their concepts. That work will conclude with reviews in early 2021 where NASA will decide which company, or companies, will receive funding to continue lander development, with the goal of having a lander ready for a 2024 mission to send astronauts to the surface of the moon.

NASA’s use of public-private partnerships, including plans to purchase commercial landing services rather than the landers themselves, faces opposition from the House Science Committee. Leaders of the committee introduced a NASA authorization bill in January that, among other provisions, directs NASA to develop an integrated lunar lander that would be government-owned and launch on the Space Launch System. None of the three companies selected by NASA plan to use SLS to launch their landers.

“I am troubled that NASA has decided to ignore congressional intent and instead press forward with Human Landing System awards to try to meet an arbitrary 2024 lunar landing deadline,” Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chair of the House Science Committee, said in a May 1 statement.

Johnson criticized NASA’s use of commercial partnerships for the program. “The multiyear delays and difficulties experienced by the companies of NASA’s taxpayer-funded commercial crew program — a program with the far less ambitious goal of just getting NASA astronauts back to low Earth orbit — make clear to me that we should not be trying to privatize America’s Moon-Mars program,” she said, “especially when at the end of the day American taxpayers — not the private companies—are going to wind up paying the lion’s share of the costs,” she said.

“I was disappointed to see that NASA’s decision on lunar landing systems development starkly contrasts the bipartisan House NASA authorization bill and the advice of experts on minimizing risk and ensuring the highest likelihood of success in landing humans on the moon,” Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), chair of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, said in the same statement.

Horn also criticized a lack of a detailed plan and budget for the Artemis program. “Unfortunately, more than a year after their announcement to accelerate the Artemis program, NASA has yet to provide Congress a transparent architecture and technical and cost assessment, despite our repeated requests,” she said.

Horn’s subcommittee marked up the authorization bill in late January. In an interview a month later, Horn said the committee had made some changes to the bill, including those about a lunar lander development, but said then it was too soon to discuss them. However, she said the bill would still call for lunar landers to be government-owned.

At the time, Horn said she expected the House Science Committee to mark up the bill some time in March, sending it on to the full House for consideration. However, that markup has yet to take place as the House has been in recess since the middle of March because of the coronavirus pandemic, other than brief sessions to vote on legislation related to the pandemic.

The House comments on the HLS awards stand in contrast to the endorsement offered by the Senate Commerce Committee. “Making good use of commercial partnerships lowers the long-term cost of space exploration, and it allows the American aerospace industry to do what it does best — innovate,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), chair of the committee, said in an April 30 statement.

Industry also backs NASA’s use of commercial partnerships for lunar lander development. “This approach toward ensuring safety, while reducing cost and maintaining schedules, is consistent with multiple independent government reviews and the testimonies of numerous expert witnesses before Congress,” Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said in a May 1 statement to SpaceNews.

At the April 30 media briefing where NASA announced the awards, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said there was broad bipartisan support for the overall Artemis program. He said he talked to “a lot” of members of Congress in the days leading up to the lander announcement to inform them of NASA’s plans.

“Republicans and Democrats, the House and the Senate, they have all been very supportive of the effort to get to the moon,” he said. “We have a budget request that reflects that priority, and I have not heard anybody suggest that, because of the coronavirus pandemic, we’re going to have to cut NASA.”

What’s less certain, though, is whether NASA will get the additional funding it requested in fiscal year 2021 for lunar lander development and other elements of the Artemis program. Congress has yet to start work on appropriations bills that, even in normal circumstances, aren’t completed until the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1. That requires NASA and other agencies to operate on stopgap funding bills, known as continuing resolutions, that fund them at the levels of the previous fiscal year, often for several months.

In one scenario, Congress might elect to pass a yearlong continuing resolution that, unless it contains exceptions, would keep NASA at 2020 funding levels. In that case, it may become impossible to keep a 2024 human lunar landing on schedule.

Bridenstine, in the media teleconference, hoped NASA could be included in an infrastructure bill of some kind later this year intended to serve as an economic stimulus after the pandemic. “If we do an infrastructure package as a nation, I would like NASA to be part of that infrastructure package, and that’s what I’m going to be working for,” he said. However, there is no agreement yet among House and Senate leadership on the content, size or schedule for such a bill.

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...