Senate rejects effort to strip NASA lunar lander provision from authorization bill

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WASHINGTON — Senators overwhelmingly voted against a motion May 4 that would have dealt a setback in NASA’s efforts to select a second company to develop an Artemis lunar lander.

The motion, sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), would have instructed senators participating on a conference committee with the House on the United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) to remove a section authorizing funding for the Human Landing System (HLS) program and directing NASA to support at least two companies. The Senate passed the bill last June but must reconcile it with a House bill without any NASA authorization language.

In brief comments on the Senate floor during debate on the motion May 4, Sanders argued that the provision was a handout to Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, one of the bidders in the original HLS competition won by SpaceX in April 2021. “We can give $10 billion to Jeff Bezos, the second-wealthiest person in this country, who is the owner of the space company Blue Origin,” he said. “It does not make a lot of sense to give $10 billion to the second-wealthiest person in this country.”

The bill, strictly speaking, does not give $10 billion to Bezos. Instead, the portion of the bill Sanders sough to remove authorized $10.032 billion for fiscal years 2021 through 2025 to carry out the overall HLS program, supporting “not fewer than 2 entities” in the program. Funding would have to be appropriated on an annual basis, with $928 million already appropriated in fiscal year 2021 and $1.195 billion in 2022, primarily to support the SpaceX HLS contract.

NASA requested nearly $1.5 billion for HLS in 2023, including funding that would go to a second company to start work on a separate Artemis lunar lander. NASA is just starting the competition to make that second award, with Blue Origin one of several companies expressing an interest in competing. NASA anticipates selecting a winner in early 2023.

Opponents of the motion emphasized the importance they placed on competition in the HLS program. “NASA recognizes that competition makes us better. That’s why they asked us to fund this second provider for the lunar lander,” said Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) on the Senate floor. The Sanders motion “would take a sledgehammer to American ingenuity and the Artemis program.”

“This is about safety and it’s about redundancy and it’s about us authorizing the Artemis program,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee.

Sanders was unconvinced, arguing that the competition would be Blue Origin against SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk, currently the wealthiest person in the country. “Is that really the kind of space program that the American people want?” he asked. “I think not.”

Sanders, though, was unable to convince most of his colleagues. Only 17 senators, including Sanders, voted for the motion, with 78 voting against it. The motion did attract support from both ends of the political spectrum, with Sanders joined by fellow progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) but also by conservatives such as Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) Florida’s two senators, Marco Rubio (R) and Rick Scott (R), also voted in favor of the motion.

Earlier in the day, Joel Graham, a member of the staff of the Senate Commerce Committee, told a meeting of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) that a priority for the committee was passing a final version of USICA that retains the NASA authorization bill.

That included, he said, the HLS authorization language. “You have to have dissimilar redundancy. You have to have multiple approaches,” he said. “You have to have a competitive environment when you move into the services phase later on.”

He told COMSTAC that he had encountered “some pretty misleading talking points” about the HLS language, without elaborating. “The more I talk to member offices” about that section of the bill, “they get it.”