Horn Hopeful for NASA Authorization This Year

Horn Hopeful for NASA Authorization This Year

Rep. Kendra Horn said today she is hopeful that a NASA authorization bill will pass this year. A bipartisan bill cleared her space subcommittee in January, but further action was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The House bill has many differences from a Senate version that also is awaiting action as the clock ticks down on the 116th Congress.

Rep. Kenda Horn (D-Oklahoma) during subcommittee markup of H.R. 5666, January 29, 2020. Screengrab.

Horn participated in a webinar sponsored by the Wilson Center and the Aerospace Corporation, taking time out from her fight for reelection in her Oklahoma district. She is the only Democrat in the Oklahoma congressional delegation. A former Space Foundation official, she is trying to win a second term in a district the Cook Political Report rates as a Democratic toss-up.

The House bill, H.R. 5666, is co-sponsored by the Democratic and Republican leadership of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and its Space and Aeronautics subcommittee, which she chairs. Despite the bipartisan nature of the legislation, the January 29, 2020 markup was lively and ended on a note that suggested many changes would be made during full committee markup.

That markup never came. The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything including the focus of committee action. A number of COVID-related hearings have been held, but the most recent markup was on March 12.

Asked about the status of the bill today, Horn expressed cautious optimism.

I think we’re going to hopefully get some movement on it after the election. Clearly COVID interrupted as we were working toward full committee markup, but it’s been interrupted and so we’re going to continue to work on it. I think, hopefully, after the election I will see some progress. But I’m going to keep working on it.  I don’t think it’s gone, we just have to get it moving.

One of the more controversial aspects of the bill is that it requires the Human Landing Systems (HLS) being built for NASA’s Artemis program to be government-owned. That is the opposite of what NASA is doing — using Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) where the companies retain ownership of the systems and NASA simply purchases services. NASA uses that model for the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs that support the International Space Station.  NASA selected three companies for the first phase of the HLS PPPs earlier this year.

Horn drew a distinction between how far the government should go in turning systems over to the private sector versus what is “inherently governmental” depending on the operational environment. PPPs are fine for low Earth orbit (LEO), “a place that we know,” but “deep space exploration is more challenging.” It is not a question of commercial or government, but rather of finding the “correct balance” between when the government, including Congress, has more insight and provides direction versus relying on the commercial sector to make most of the decisions.

We need to continue to develop our inherent capabilities and our industrial base and encourage more providers, but something that is in the nation’s interest, whether it’s national security or exploration and discovery and science, what should be inherently governmental. Those are the questions that I really think that we have to wrestle with.

Another area of controversy is the bill’s lack of support for the Trump Administration’s goal of landing astronauts on the Moon by 2024, just four years from now.  Its main focus is getting humans to Mars, with the Moon playing only a limited role.

Horn supports “bold and aggressive goals,” but also ones that are realistic and have sufficient funding. “We still haven’t seen a plan” that shows NASA is “set up and organized in a way to manage multiple, simultaneous, large development programs on such an aggressive schedule or mapping out the lunar and cislunar demonstrations that are needed.”  The Moon and Mars are where “we should be headed, but we will need to see the plan that shows it is actually possible.”

NASA submitted a plan — the Artemis Plan — to Congress two weeks ago. However it does not, for example, explain what testing will be required for the HLS systems before putting astronauts on board saying only that “the first crew landings will be considered demonstrations of the contractor HLS systems.”

Horn also said she does not expect any major changes in space policy if Joe Biden is elected next month. “I think we’re going to see a continuation, not a massive shift.”

The Senate version of the NASA authorization bill, S. 2800, was approved by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee almost a year ago, but has not been taken up on the floor. Committee Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) said at a hearing last week that she hopes the Senate will consider the bill this year.

Any bill not passed by the House and Senate by noon on January 3, 2021, when the 116th Congress ends, dies and efforts must start over in the new Congress.

That is, in fact, what happened with the most recent NASA authorization bill, the NASA Transition Authorization Act, which passed in 2017 just as the Trump Administration began. The House and Senate had been unable to finalize it by the end of the 114th Congress, but quickly picked up the ball and got it past the Senate in February and the House in March as the 115th Congress got underway.

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