WASHINGTON — The Senate approved June 8 a wide-ranging competitiveness bill that includes a NASA authorization act with a controversial provision about competition in the Human Landing System program.
By a 68-32 margin, the Senate passed S. 1260, The U.S. Innovation and Competitiveness Act. The bill, originally called the Endless Frontier Act, was primarily designed to bolster research and development activities, with an eye toward competing with China. It authorizes funding increases for DARPA and the National Science Foundation, and establishes a new technology directorate at the NSF.
During its markup May 12, the Senate Commerce Committee approved an amendment that added space-related provisions to the bill. It incorporated the Space Preservation and Conjunction Emergency (SPACE) Act, a version of legislation considered last year regarding space traffic management, directing the Office of Space Commerce to handle civil space traffic management. It also included a NASA authorization bill similar to the one the Senate passed in late 2020 but not taken up by the House.
One addition to that NASA authorization act, sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), was a provision requiring NASA to select at least two companies to develop lunar landers as part of its Human Landing System (HLS) program. NASA selected a single company, SpaceX, April 16, and agency officials said a lack of funding appropriated by Congress for fiscal year 2021 kept them from selecting a second company.
A revised version of that language, included in an amendment approved by the Senate just before final passage of the bill, changed elements of that HLS section. It explicitly preserves the award already made to SpaceX, while giving NASA 60 days, rather than the original 30, to select a second company.
Those changes, a congressional source familiar with the bill said, came from discussions with NASA. The agency has warned Congress it wasn’t feasible to make a second award within 30 days, hence the longer timeline, the source said. The specific amount authorized, $10.032 billion, also came from discussions with the agency.
The revised language appears to have alleviated NASA’s issues about the bill. “We’ve been working closely with the committee on the language that Sen. Cantwell did add,” said Alicia Brown, associate administrator for NASA’s Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs, at a May 26 Washington Space Business Roundtable webinar.
“What’s on the Senate floor now they don’t have any concerns with,” she said, noting that NASA Administrator Bill Nelson had discussed the bill with Cantwell, thanking her for the more than $10 billion authorized for HLS in the bill. “It’s more than we’re expecting in the president’s budget and could really help us accelerate a sustained lunar program.”
That revised language, she said, “gives us enough flexibility to implement the program in a way that closely tracks with how NASA would like to implement it.”
Nelson, in a statement after the Senate passage of S. 1260, praised the bill but did not directly address the HLS language in it. The bill “is an investment in scientific research and technological innovation that will help ensure the U.S. continues to lead in space and sets us on a path to execute many landings on the Moon in this decade,” he said. “I applaud the Senate passage of the bill and look forward to working with the House to see it passed into law.”
While NASA supported the revised HLS provision, some in the Senate did not. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) criticized the provision as a “Bezos Bailout,” a reference to Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, one of the losing bidders in the HLS competition. He introduced an amendment “to eliminate the multi-billion dollar Bezos Bailout” by stripping the HLS provision from the bill. The amendment, however, was not taken up by the full Senate.
“I’ve got a real problem with the authorization of $10 billion going to somebody who, among other things, is the wealthiest person in this country,” Sanders said on the Senate floor last month. Sanders ultimately voted against the bill.
While the provision was frequently described as providing $10 billion to Blue Origin, the bill instead authorizes $10 billion for the overall HLS program that would support two companies, including SpaceX’s existing $2.9 billion award. Moreover, while the bill authorizes $10 billion from 2021 through 2025, funding would have to be appropriated on an annual basis, with no guarantee Congress would provide that amount over a five-year period.
The bill will have to be reconciled with the House, which is considering legislation narrower in scope than the Senate bill and likely not to include a NASA authorization act. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), chair of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, has previously stated that he wants to take up his own version of a NASA authorization bill later this year.
“Hopefully we can get a NASA authorization bill signed into law some time this Congress,” Brown said.