House subcommittee advances NASA authorization bill

by

WASHINGTON — The House space subcommittee approved a NASA authorization bill Jan. 29 that has attracted criticism from NASA and some in the space industry, although members said they plan to continue to refine the bill.

The space subcommittee of the House Science Committee approved H.R. 5666, the NASA Authorization Act of 2020, on a voice vote. That vote came after members considered several amendments to various aspects of the bill, from establishing a space resources institute to amending the 2017 NASA authorization act to use the “Artemis” program name NASA adopted last year.

The amendments, though, did not address the most controversial aspects of the bill, which involve NASA’s human exploration program. The bill does not formally endorse the administration’s goal of returning humans to the moon by 2024, instead setting a 2028 date for a lunar return while also calling for a human mission to orbit Mars in 2033.

The bill directs NASA to align its Artemis program to support that Mars goal, deemphasizing any plans for a permanent human lunar outpost or use of lunar resources. It also calls for the human lunar lander that NASA proposes to develop to be government owned, rather than developed as a public-private partnership with NASA buying landing services.

“Let me be crystal clear: this bill is not about rejecting the Artemis program or delaying humans on the moon until 2028,” argued Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), chair of the subcommittee and lead sponsor of the bill, in her opening remarks. “NASA can still work to safely get there sooner.”

The intent of the bill, she said, is to take “the fiscally responsible approach of focusing the moon efforts on the goal of being the first nation to set foot on Mars.” It addresses, she said, the lack of details that NASA had provided about its lunar activities and how they will be “extensible” to later Mars missions.

Other members of the committee, from both parties, agreed that the bill was not intended to reject a 2024 human return to the moon. “I would suggest that no one get too focused on the specific milestone dates proposed in the bill,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chair of the full committee. “If NASA is able to get to the moon before 2028, or if it takes longer than 2033 for NASA to orbit Mars, that’s okay and are not precluded by this bill.”

“Absolutely nothing in this bill inhibits or prohibits NASA from returning to the lunar surface by 2024, if we can,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), ranking member of the space subcommittee.

However, both Babin and Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), ranking member of the full committee, said they were not completely happy with the bill. “The bill before us is not the NASA reauthorization the Republicans on this committee would have offered if we were the majority,” Lucas said. “However, I recognize that we are in the minority and the legislative process offers opportunities to improve the legislation.”

That includes the provisions about the human lunar lander program. Babin said the language in the bill for that program could be “strengthened” to make use of public-private partnerships.

Other members of the subcommittee shared those concerns about the lander program. “I have heard from many commercial shareholders in the state of Florida and around the country that the bill, as written, would severely limit commercial competition and participation in the moon-to-Mars program,” said Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), who added he had been working with Horn to resolve those concerns. “We’re not there yet, but I am optimistic we will be soon.”

Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) also said he had issues regarding the lunar lander language in the bill. “Without more flexibility for NASA than currently provided for the lunar lander programs,” he said, partnerships with industry “may be in jeopardy.” He added he was also concerned about “ambiguous language” regarding the Gateway program in the bill, which renames it the “Gateway to Mars.”

In an unusual move, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who served on the House Science Committee while a member of Congress, attended the markup session. In one tweet, he noted Horn’s comments that the bill doesn’t reject a 2024 return to the moon. “Thank you, Chairwoman Horn!” he wrote.

In a Jan. 28 interview, Bridenstine said one overarching issue with the bill was a lack of flexibility given to NASA to implement those goals of returning to the moon and going to Mars. “It’s fairly prescriptive. We would like more flexibilities on what we do on the surface of the moon and flexibilities in how we do our contracting,” he said. At the time, he said he was just starting to talk with committee members about those concerns.

The language about the lunar lander program in particular has attracted criticism from the space industry and advocacy groups. “The Society is concerned that H.R. 5666, as written, would disrupt and delay a planned return of U.S. astronauts to deep space,” The Planetary Society, a space exploration advocacy group, said in a Jan. 28 statement. “To that end, The Society recommends that the committee remove the provisions restricting activities and limiting competition for exploration capabilities.”

“The bill eliminates commercial options for lunar lander operations while inappropriately dictating to NASA a particular technical design,” the National Space Society, another advocacy organization, said in a Jan. 27 statement, calling on the House Science Committee “to reconsider this bill and build on the successful model of development programs” like commercial cargo and crew.

The bill now goes to the full House Science Committee for consideration. No date has been set for a full committee markup, but it’s likely to be no sooner than the week of Feb. 10.