House Appropriators Want Second HLS, But Offer Meager Money

House Appropriators Want Second HLS, But Offer Meager Money

The House Appropriations Committee released its report on the Commerce-Justice-Science bill today explaining in more detail what it wants to give NASA for FY2022 and why. The question on everyone’s mind is whether Congress will provide enough money for NASA to pay for two contractors, not one, to build systems to land astronauts on the Moon. It did not last year. This year the House committee is proposing some, but not enough to meet a 2024 deadline.

NASA wants to procure Human Landing Systems (HLS) to take astronauts from lunar orbit down to and back from the Moon’s surface through Public-Private Partnerships. The acquisition model is similar to how it procured the commercial cargo and commercial crew systems that support the International Space Station (ISS).

As in those cases, NASA wants two contractors to ensure redundancy so they can still send cargo and crews to the ISS if one of the systems is sidelined by technical difficulties. NASA also wants to keep prices in check through competition since the companies retain ownership of the systems. NASA simply buys services. SpaceX and Northrop Grumman provide commercial cargo services. SpaceX and Boeing were selected for commercial crew. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is already operational. Boeing’s is still in development.

That was the plan for HLS. Two contractors. NASA picked three for design studies, expecting to downselect to two for the next phase of development. But for FY2021, Congress provided only one-quarter of the funding NASA requested: $850 million instead of $3.4 billion.

Consequently, NASA could select only one and it chose the lowest bidder, SpaceX. The other two competitors, Dynetics and Blue Origin’s National Team (including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper), are protesting the award. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) must rule on the protest by August 4.

Although it was Congress that cut the funding, the decision to award only one contract created a lot of congressional consternation. The Senate passed a NASA Authorization Act in June that authorizes $10 billion over 5 years to pay for a second HLS. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee that oversees NASA, and represents Blue Origin’s headquarters near Seattle, led the effort. The House has not acted on a NASA Authorization bill, and in any case funding comes through appropriations bills, not authorizations.  Attention thus is riveted on what the House and Senate Appropriations Committees do.

In its report, the House committee expressed concern about NASA’s decision to select only one contractor, but added just $150 million to the request: $1.345 billion instead of $1.195 billion.

Human Landing System (HLS).—The Committee includes no less
than $1,345,000,000 for the HLS, which is no less than
$150,000,000 above the request. The Committee is concerned by
NASA’s decision to downselect to only one proposal when it made
its selection for the HLS Option A award, and believes that continued
agency investment beyond the HLS Option A Contract Award
is vital to ensure continued competition among potential HLS providers.
The Committee is aware that NASA has issued a
NextSTEP–2 Appendix N for Sustainable HLS Studies and Risk
Reduction, and supports NASA’s efforts to continue robust competition
among potential providers for a future sustained HLS services

That is not nearly enough to fund a second contractor if the goal is to have two systems ready to support landing American astronauts back on the Moon by 2024. That goal was set by the Trump Administration and embraced by the Biden Administration despite widespread skepticism that it can be met technically, never mind budgetarily.

But NASA stresses that it selectied SpaceX only for the first landing. It plans many more landings and therefore more contractor opportunities in the future. It just released the “Appendix N” solicitation mentioned in the committee’s report for concept studies for future Lunar Exploration and Transportation Services (LETS). NASA will seek proposals “for repeatable HLS services in 2022.”  The $150 million plus-up for FY2022 presumably is for that phase. The committee is silent on the deadline for returning astronauts to the Moon.

Overall, the committee is proposing $25.04 billion for NASA, a $1.77 billion increase over FY2021 and $240 million more than President Biden requested.  The Exploration, Science and Aeronautics accounts get boosts compared to the request, a total of about $458 million, while Space Technology, Space Operations, and Safety, Security and Mission Services get cuts, a total of about $220 million.

In addition to the changes from the request reported earlier, the committee —

  • rejected the Administration’s proposal to terminate the airborne SOFIA infrared telescope, adding $85.2 million to keep it going, the same amount appropriated for FY2021;
  • added $68.6 million above the request (for a new total of $472.1 million) for Europa Clipper;
  • specified that not less than $143.2 million of the $197.2 million requested for Planetary Defense shall be for the Near Earth Object Surveyor Mission for launch in 2026;
  • added $34.8 million above the request (for a new total of $688 million) for Mars Sample Return;
  • added $20.2 million above the request for aeronautics (for a new total of $935 million);
  • cut Space Technology by $145 million from the request (for a new total of $1.28 billion), while adding $110 million for Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (the request was zero) and specifying that $75 million is for “Moon to Mars Landing Demonstrations” to “allow industry to compete for public-private partnerships focused on high-level, NASA-defined objectives”; and
  • cut Commercial LEO Development by $56 million (for a new total of $45 million) because “NASA lacks clear goals and metrics” for transitioning from ISS to commercial successors.

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