“I have a hard time seeing how the Europa lander project continues without Culberson.” Casey Dreier, senior space policy adviser for The Planetary Society. Credit: SpaceNews illustration

WASHINGTON — Key members of the House and Senate say they continue to work on space-related legislation, including a NASA authorization bill, but the two branches of Congress appear to remain far apart on their bills.

At the time the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, stopping most legislative activity other than relief measures and other critical legislation, the House Science Committee was considering a NASA authorization bill. A full committee markup of the bill, introduced in January, was expected in March but never scheduled.

The committee may soon take up the bill. “We’re about to take it up and mark it up in the full committee,” Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), chair of the House space subcommittee, said at a June 24 meeting of the Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing (ACCRES) held online. “We’re continuing to work towards that end. I think it is important to get that through.”

That bill made waves when it was introduced in January because, in part, of its provisions regarding NASA lunar lander development. That bill directed NASA to own and operate the lander, rather than use public-private partnerships as it has been doing through the Human Landing System program. It also favored a lander that could be launched on a single Space Launch System rocket, rather than launching components on commercial vehicles and integrating them in lunar orbit or at the lunar Gateway.

Horn said in an interview in late February that, since a subcommittee markup in late January, the committee had made changes to the bill, including the lunar lander provisions, but declined at the time to discuss the details since those changes were still being developed

That markup may be done through a remote hearing, rather than one held in person. “We have just begun having remote hearings over the past couple of weeks” by both the full committee and her subcommittee, which held one on commercial air travel June 23. “I am hopeful that we will be able to take this up and get it through this year.”

Horn said her subcommittee may also continue a series of hearings it started before the pandemic on space traffic management issues. “Space domain awareness and space traffic management are going to continue to be at the forefront,” she said.

The House version of a NASA authorization bill differs sharply from a Senate version that the Senate Commerce Committee approved last November. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chair of the Senate space subcommittee, criticized the House in February for failing to cooperate on the legislation, claiming the Democrat-led House treats “space as a partisan football.”

Cruz repeated that criticism in a separate presentation to ACCRES June 23. “At the beginning of this Congress, I was hopeful that we would continue to see the same bipartisan, productive cooperation on space that marked my first six years in the Senate,” he said. “That hasn’t proven to be the case.”

He focused his comments at the meeting on a separate bill, the Space Frontier Act, which deals with commercial space issues, such as revisions to the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992 that governs commercial remote sensing. In the previous Congress, the Senate approved the bill by unanimous consent but the bill failed to get a two-thirds majority required in the House to pass by suspension of the rules.

Cruz introduced a new version of the bill last year that the Senate Commerce Committee approved but has yet to be taken up by the full Senate. Cruz tried to include the bill as an amendment to a defense authorization bill, but that effort failed, which he blamed on the House.

“The House has all but refused to tackle, or even begin to take on, the big issues important to space,” he said. “They’ve tried to directly scuttle legislative efforts in the Senate to move the ball forward.”

In the House, Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), ranking member of the space subcommittee, has continued to advocate for a bill he introduced called the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, which includes some of the changes in the Senate’s Space Frontier Act. Speaking at the ACCRES meeting June 23, he argued the bill is needed to update the 1992 act that provides the basis for commercial remote sensing regulations.

“The bill updates the regulatory process and reorganizes the Department of Commerce to enable a 21st century commercial remote sensing industry in the United States,” he said. The bill, introduced last year, is pending action by the House Science Committee.

Such legislation, though, is likely to remain secondary to “must-pass” legislation, including future pandemic relief measures, a defense authorization bill and fiscal year 2021 appropriations. The House Appropriations Committee is expected to start markups of its 2021 spending bills as soon as the week of July 6.

The lack of appropriations hearings during the pandemic has meant there’s little insight into how members of Congress will respond to NASA’s $25.2 billion budget proposal released in February.

“I don’t think I have a better crystal ball than anyone else,” said Jim Reuter, NASA associate administrator for space technology, when asked about prospects for an appropriations bill during a June 29 webinar organized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

He expected NASA to at least start the year on a continuing resolution that funds agency programs at fiscal year 2020 levels, something that has become commonplace in the appropriations process. “We’ve very optimistic about the activities that are going on” regarding appropriations in Congress, he added, saying he hoped the appropriations would be finalized “shortly after” the November election.

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...