Artemis, Space Situational Awareness Among Top Priorities for New Space Subcommittee Chair

Artemis, Space Situational Awareness Among Top Priorities for New Space Subcommittee Chair

Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) is getting a crash course in the breadth and complexities of issues facing NASA and commercial space as the new chair of the House space subcommittee. With one hearing behind him, he is gearing up for more to educate himself before making up his mind on thorny issues like who should own Human Landing Systems or what agency should be in charge of civil Space Situational Awareness.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Virginia)

Beyer succeeds Kendra Horn as chair of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. Although this is his seventh year on the committee, chairing the subcommittee is giving him a more expansive view of the issues facing NASA and the commercial space industry.

In an interview today, Beyer listed his top priorities as Artemis, Space Situational Awareness/Space Traffic Management (SSA/STM), and passing a new NASA authorization bill. But he is still in the information-gathering phase and has not firmly made up his own mind on the top space issues of the day.

For example, he wants to learn more about the debate over whether the Artemis Human Landing System (HLS) to put American astronauts back on the Moon should be owned by the government or the private sector.

NASA is procuring HLS through a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) where the government and private sector share development costs, but the company retains ownership and sells services to NASA and other customers.

Last year under Horn’s leadership the subcommittee marked up a NASA authorization bill that would have required HLS to be government-owned. The bill had support from both parties. It was introduced by the bipartisan leadership of the subcommittee and full committee — Democrats Horn (OK) and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX) and Republicans Rep. Brian Babin (TX) and Rep. Frank Lucas (OK).

A number of other provisions also were at odds with the Trump Administration’s concept of how to execute the Artemis program and the markup in January 2020 was quite rocky. The sponsors spent most of their time reassuring colleagues that the text was just a start and changes would be made before the full committee considered the bill in two weeks time.

But full committee markup never came. COVID did instead, putting the brakes on congressional hearings and legislative action. The bill died a quiet death. The Senate passed its own NASA authorization bill, which supported NASA’s PPP approach, in December hoping it would serve as a starting point for quick work early in 2021, but with all that happened on January 6 and the continuing focus on COVID and Biden’s vision for America’s future, the urgency in Congress has evaporated.

Beyer does hope to get a NASA authorization bill done this year, but not in the immediate future.

Science holds a great fascination. Beyer joked recently that he has been a science nerd all his life and wanted to be a theoretical physicist, but realized he was not smart enough so became a car dealer instead. His father started what became one of the largest dealerships in Northern Virginia and Beyer joined the family business before entering politics. He was Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor from 1990-1998, U.S. Ambassador to Liechtenstein and Switzerland under President Obama, and is now in his fourth term as the Congressman from Virginia’s 8th district in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.

In college, though, he minored in physics and his fascination with space science is palpable. His first hearing as subcommittee chair was on NASA’s Mars Perseverance mission last week, a good-news hearing to highlight NASA’s accomplishments.

Human space exploration is another passion. He brags he had a “Mars 2033” bumper sticker on his car until it fell off. As for the Moon?  Returning to the Moon is a good intermediate goal, but the next Apollo moment will come when humans land on Mars.

Up next are hearings on Artemis, NASA’s FY2022 budget request, and SSA/STM, though dates are not yet set.

The Artemis hearing will not focus specially on HLS, but on the program overall, particularly the detailed plan Congress keeps requesting from NASA. Beyer is open to learning more about the HLS issue before making a decision. He understands the concerns of colleagues like Johnson who firmly believe the government should own critical space hardware like it does military aircraft and tanks, and object to the government paying for development and then handing the keys over to the private sector partner that then asks for more money for services.

I appreciate the explosive growth of the commercial space sector and the contribution that makes. I want to be part of the community that’s encouraging private sector investment in space, but I have to say, in the short run, the chairwoman’s arguments seem to be pretty compelling.

Then again, he also acknowledges the success of commercial crew, acquired using the same PPP model. He wants the upcoming hearings to help sort it out.

Another top issue is SSA/STM. Beyer said Don Graves, the Deputy Secretary of Commerce, has asked to speak with him tomorrow about the Office of Space Commerce (OSC) and get feedback on who should head it. OSC Director Kevin O’Connell was a political appointee and left at the end of the Trump Administration.

The Trump Administration assigned the Department of Commerce to take over SSA/STM for civil and commercial uses from DOD in Space Policy Directive-3.  Trump’s Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, delegated it to OSC, which has been making progress on an Open Access Data Repository with the meager funds it had. It finally won a small budget increase in FY2021, but with the end of the Trump Administration, others beside O’Connell have left because they were on details or term-limited appointments.

Congress never passed a law codifying Commerce’s role and Beyer thinks there still is “a conversation to be had” about what agency should take it on — Commerce, FAA, or NASA.  He realizes NASA is not a regulatory agency, but does not rule out broadening its responsibilities. He plans to hold “at least two” hearings to air the options.

The future of the International Space Station and commercial efforts to replace it, as well as the balance among NASA’s various programs in science and human spaceflight are other issues he wants to pursue.

Beyer wants to include NASA in any infrastructure bill Congress passes.  President Biden is proposing the American Jobs Plan to “invest in America in a way we have not invested since we built the interstate highways and won the Space Race.” Beyer sees NASA as getting some of that money to deal with aging buildings and other facilities at its field centers.  He describes it as “getting two bites at the apple,” funding through the appropriations process plus in the infrastructure bill.

What seems to be lacking in his space worldview is any sense of urgency.  NASA is marching forward on acquiring HLS through a PPP. Although the contract is under protest, the Government Accountability Office must render a decision by mid-August, while Beyer does not anticipate any legislative action before then.  The space debris threat grows every day, but he seems in no hurry to determine what agency should be in charge of civil SSA/STM, never mind starting to remedy the problem.

COVID and the change in administrations and party control of the Senate certainly are impediments to quick action, but the clock is ticking.

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