House Science Committee prepares to take up NASA authorization bill

by

WASHINGTON — The full House Science Committee will likely take up a NASA authorization bill later this month that a key member says will incorporate some changes to the original bill, but likely retain major provisions directing NASA’s human space exploration program.

In a Feb. 28 interview, Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), chair of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, said she expected the full committee to mark up H.R. 5666, the NASA Authorization Act of 2020, in the “next couple of weeks,” although a specific date had not yet been set. Horn’s subcommittee approved the bill on a voice vote Jan. 29.

Since that subcommittee markup, Horn said that she had been working with “a lot of different stakeholders” to clarify aspects of the bill. “There were some interpretations that we did not intend to be in the bill,” she said.

She cited as one example the perception that, with language calling for a human return to the moon by 2028, it was blocking NASA’s goal of a 2024 return under the Artemis program. “I think that is important for us to be really clear on,” she said. “This bill was not slowing down or derailing Artemis.”

The original version of the bill generated criticism, though, for changes in how NASA would implement the Artemis program. It largely rejected NASA’s plans to use public-private partnerships to develop lunar landers, which would be operated by companies with NASA purchasing services similar to the commercial crew and cargo programs. Instead, it called for a government-owned lander design, specifically an integrated lander launched on a Space Launch System Block 1B rocket.

She said the specific changes to the bill are still being developed, and thus it was too soon to discuss them in detail. “A few of the concerns that were raised during the subcommittee markup are some of the areas where you can expect to see some work happening,” she said. Those concerns included the lunar lander provisions in the bill.

However, she suggested that she still wanted any lunar lander or landers developed for Artemis to be government-owned. “We cannot do it without commercial companies or contractors, but that does not mean that that is a commercial good or service that already exists that we are purchasing,” she said.

She compared development of key assets for NASA to military hardware developed by contractors. “That doesn’t mean that our submarine fleet or any of our aircraft are owned by commercial entities. They’re products and property of the United States government because it is for our national security, just as the core components of our nation’s space program are government-owned, and should be government-owned.”

Horn dismissed criticism that the bill was “anti-commercial” and didn’t address the views of commercial space companies. “It was factually and flatly incorrect to say that we did not consult stakeholders,” she said. “We spent a year in hearings. We had meetings throughout the year. We talked to experts. We did the work.”

She also disagreed with claims that the overall NASA authorization process could become partisan. Her Senate counterpart, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chair of the Senate space subcommittee, said Feb. 26 he worried that the “Pelosi House” — a reference to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — might make the bill a partisan issue. “If they treat space as a partisan football, they will destroy the bipartisan cooperation that we’ve had going for a number of years,” he warned.

Horn said development of the bill, whose original sponsors include both the Democratic and Republican leadership of the House Science Committee and its space subcommittee, remains bipartisan. “I’ve not seen any indication of that,” she said of any partisan tensions about the bill. “One of the things that’s remarkable, and that I love, about space is that it’s not a partisan issue. It shouldn’t be.”

“We will continue to work in a bipartisan effort to strengthen NASA and do our part as authorizers to ensure the greatest likelihood for success,” she said. “We look forward to completing a NASA authorization that is through both chambers and signed into law this year.”

Horn said her subcommittee also plans to be active this year on other space issues, such as space situational awareness and space traffic management, a topic of a subcommittee hearing in February. She defended the pace of the subcommittee’s work on both the NASA authorization and other issues, saying they were complex topics that required careful study.

“It’s about ensuring that we take action expeditiously, but understand the challenges that we’re facing,” she said. “In this day and age where people want really quick answers and solutions, sometimes that feels like we’re not taking action, but we are. We’re going to keep it moving.”