SpaceX’s Starship, which won a NASA award in April, is the biggest example of NASA’s use of services for the Artemis program but not the only one. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told a House committee June 23 that NASA is awaiting a decision from the Government Accountability Office on protests of the agency’s lunar lander contract before releasing more details on plans to return humans to the moon.

Testifying before the House Science Committee, Nelson said those plans will depend on whether the GAO upholds protests filed by Blue Origin and Dynetics of NASA’s award of a single Human Landing System (HLS) contract to SpaceX in April. The GAO has until Aug. 4 to rule on the two protests.

Nelson said at the hearing he had been working with Pam Melroy, the NASA deputy administrator who was sworn in June 21, and Bob Cabana, the longtime Kennedy Space Center director who took over as associate administrator in May, on various options depending on the outcome of the GAO protests.

“The three of us are already trying to make the plans so that, when the GAO decides, we can move out quickly depending on what the GAO decides as a legal matter,” Nelson said. He suggested on several occasions during the nearly three-hour hearing that he expected the GAO to make that decision on Aug. 4, although agency officials have said in the past the rulings on the HLS protests could come at any time up until the Aug. 4 deadline.

Nelson did not elaborate on the options that the agency is considering, including what it would do if the GAO upholds either or both protests. However, he said the agency would announce those plans shortly after the GAO rulings.

“Once we know the direction legally as a result of GAO, I will have a plan to announce according to what their decision is in order to try to have us there as quickly and as safely and as efficiently as possible,” he said.

NASA officials have previously discussed a review of the Artemis program, including refining dates for both the first Space Launch System launch, Artemis 1, as well as the first crewed Orion flight, Artemis 2. In a briefing after the “State of NASA” event June 2, Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said that review was being wrapped up and that the agency would update those launch dates “by the August timeframe.”

In addition to the GAO protests, another factor in NASA’s plans is the budget that will be available for HLS. As he has done in past hearings, Nelson argued for including about $5 billion for HLS in any jobs and infrastructure bill Congress takes up, along with a similar amount to repair infrastructure at NASA centers.

When some members of the committee questioned NASA’s commitment to the Artemis program by noting NASA’s budget request for HLS in fiscal year 2022 is significantly less than that the agency projected spending in last year’s proposal, Nelson blamed the change on Congress. NASA sought $3.4 billion for HLS in 2021, but Congress appropriated only $850 million in the final fiscal year 2021 spending bill.

“The cut to which you refer is a result of the Congress making the decision” to cut HLS funding in 2021, Nelson said in response to a question from Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) “Given the eggs that I’m presented in the basket, I’m trying to get us there and get us there quick.”

“If we are the beneficiary of your generosity, there definitely won’t be” any cuts in the HLS program, he promised another committee member, Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas). “If you all are generous, whatever vehicle you use — including the jobs bill as an alternative — then we’re going to try to rev it up.”

Nelson, as in past hearings, also mentioned China’s space ambitions as a competitive threat and motivation to fund Artemis. Asked by Rep. Carlos Gimenez (R-Fla.) if the U.S. was in a race to the moon with China, Nelson responded simply with, “Yes.”

One key member, though, warned that getting additional funding for HLS would not be easy despite competition from China and the potential use of a jobs bill to provide that extra money. “Finding an extra $10 billion for the Human Landing System is no easy task,” said Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), ranking member of the committee.

Lucas was critical of legislation passed by the Senate earlier this month that authorized a little more than $10 billion for HLS and directed NASA to select a second company. He warned that language, if enacted, could become an “unfunded mandate” if Congress doesn’t appropriate the funding authorized by the bill. “That’s why it’s important for NASA to propose realistic plans, budgets and schedules, and not rely on Hail Mary passes to save the day.”

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...