House Subcommittee Clears NASA Authorization Bill, But It’s Just the Beginning

House Subcommittee Clears NASA Authorization Bill, But It’s Just the Beginning

The theme of today’s markup of a new NASA authorization bill by a House subcommittee can best be described as “calm down.”  The bill, introduced just days ago, provoked strong reactions from many quarters including NASA and industry. Key committee members spent the time this afternoon reassuring stakeholders that this is just a first step and there are opportunities to modify it.  Only a few non-controversial amendments were adopted today, but bigger changes can be expected in two weeks when the full committee considers it.

Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Oklahoma) chairing subcommittee markup of NASA authorization bill, H.R. 5666, January 29, 2020. Screengrab.

The bipartisan leadership of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and its Space Subcommittee introduced the bill, H.R. 5666, late Friday: subcommittee chair and ranking member Rep. Kendra Horn (D-OK) and Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) and full committee chairwoman and ranking member Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK).

As written, the bill eschews the Trump Administration’s plan to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024 as a first step towards sustainable lunar exploration and exploitation and eventual trips to Mars.  The Administration’s plan, Artemis, also calls for a strong focus on partnering with the commercial sector that is not enthusiastically represented in the bill.

Instead, this bill has a strong focus on NASA leading the human exploration of Mars, with astronauts in orbit around the Red Planet by 2033 — just 13 years from now.  It establishes a Moon to Mars program wherein lunar surface operations are limited to those that directly support that goal, although NASA may pursue other surface activities as long as they are accounted for separately.  It sets 2028 as the date for returning astronauts to the Moon, NASA’s original plan before Vice President Pence announced the Moon-by-2024 goal last March. The 2024 date is tied to the end of a second Trump term assuming he wins reelection.

The bill rejects the concept of relying on partnerships between NASA and commercial companies to build modular human lunar landing systems, launching the segments on commercial rockets, and assembling them at a small space station in lunar orbit, Gateway, that would also be built using Public-Private Partnerships.  The companies would retain ownership of the landing systems and NASA would purchase services from them.

The bill requires instead that the landers be owned by NASA and launched from Earth fully assembled using NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) with an Exploration Upper Stage. SLS and EUS are both built by Boeing.  SLS is significantly over budget and behind schedule.

That and other provisions that seem to undermine NASA’s new paradigm of partnering with industry rather than using traditional cost-plus contracts sparked some of the outcry from the commercial space industry.

Authorization bills like this set policy.  They recommend funding levels but do not actually provide money; only appropriations bills do that.  Strictly speaking, agencies like NASA should be authorized every year, but in practice it rarely happens other than for the Department of Defense.  NASA’s last authorization bill was for FY2017.

The policy provisions in these bills, however, remain in effect until or unless they are changed by subsequent authorization bills so are quite important. Enacting a policy that humans return to the Moon by 2028 instead of 2024 or use Boeing’s SLS/EUS instead of commercial rockets is significant.

Today, however, the Democratic sponsors of the bill, Horn and Johnson, downplayed what impact the bill would have on the Administration’s Artemis program and insisted its intent was not accurately conveyed in “some of the coverage” of the bill.  The Republican sponsors, Babin and Lucas, held the bill at arm’s length saying it was not what they would have preferred if Republicans controlled the committee, but since they do not, they are doing the best they can to work with the majority party to come up with a reasonable bill.

Horn said she wanted to be “crystal clear” that the bill does not reject the Artemis program or “pick favorites” among companies.

This bill is not about rejecting the Artemis program or delaying humans on the Moon until 2028. NASA can still work to safely get there sooner.  This bill is taking the fiscally responsible approach of focusing the Moon efforts on the goal of being the first nation to set foot on Mars. Thus far, NASA has provided little to no details as to what, specifically, it will do on the Moon or how any Moon activities will be extensible to Mars. This bill does not pick favorites, rather it encourages companies and industry to participate in our nation’s civil space program, which is led by NASA.  Rep. Kendra Horn

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine attended the markup.  Agency heads rarely attend committee meetings like this so his presence underscored how seriously NASA is taking the situation.  Bridenstine is a former Member of Congress from Oklahoma and served on this committee.  Horn and Lucas are both from his state.  After Horn’s statement, he tweeted his appreciation.

Johnson added that the 2028 and 2033 dates should not be the focus.

And I would suggest that no one get too focused on the specific milestone dates proposed in the bill. If NASA is able to get to the Moon before 2028, or if it takes longer than 2033 for NASA to orbit Mars, that’s okay and is not precluded by this bill. I am more interested in maximizing the odds of success for this bold undertaking and making it as safe as any human journey into deep space can be, than I am in having NASA meet arbitrary deadlines. — Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson

The language requiring human lunar landers to be owned by the government is among the controversial aspects of the bill, but Horn held fast on that issue.  Citing the testimony of Apollo astronaut Tom Stafford and industry veteran Tom Young, two of the witnesses at the 10 hearings the committee has held on this topic, Horn insisted the government must own the landing systems and have complete insight and oversight over their development.

Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), at subcommittee markup of NASA authorization bill, H.R. 5666, January 29, 2020. Screengrab.

Perhaps the biggest surprise about the bill is that the top Republicans on the full committee and subcommittee, Lucas and Babin, are co-sponsors even though it appears at odds with the Trump Administration’s plans. Babin conceded that for him it is “not an ideal bill” and he will work with stakeholders, including the Administration, to improve it before full committee markup.

The bill supports the Administration’s bold goals of returning America to the surface of the Moon and on to Mars. The bill jumps-starts Artemis with the direction to create a Moon to Mars Program Office, something the Appropriators did not support in the recent Omnibus [appropriations bill]. The bill codifies the goal of returning to the surface of the Moon by 2028, something that the Senate was only able to support as a non-binding Sense of Congress. It is important to note that nothing in this bill inhibits NASA from returning to the lunar surface by 2024 if they can.  — Rep. Brian Babin

Lucas said he would not have co-sponsored the bill if he believed it would negatively impact Artemis.

During the drafting of this bill, I made clear my top priority is to ensure that this committee supports the Artemis program and that nothing in this legislation would be a roadblock to NASA putting astronauts on the moon by 2024. I would not have joined this bill as a cosponsor if I believed it inhibited NASA’s efforts to achieve this goal. Rather, I believe this bill provides NASA the authorities necessary to achieve this goal and continue progress toward the long-term goal of sending humans to Mars. — Rep. Frank Lucas

Both insisted that the bill authorizes a Gateway in the vicinity of the Moon (“cislunar space”) to support lunar missions. That language is not evident, however.

Babin said the bill “formally authorizes development of a Gateway in cislunar space, and allows for it to support missions to the Moon and Mars.”  Lucas said much the same thing.  In fact, it authorizes only a Gateway to Mars and specifies that it “shall not be required for the conduct of human lunar landing missions.”  So while it does not prohibit NASA from building a lunar Gateway, it does not authorize one.

Another complaint is that the bill does not support in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) of lunar materials or establishing lunar outposts, goals of both commercial companies and NASA  The bill does not prohibit them, but requires that if NASA wants to do that, the funding must be accounted for outside of the Moon to Mars program.  Babin pointed that out, saying it allows “unfettered” ISRU and a lunar outpost as long as they are accounted for separately.

The upshot is that the bipartisan sponsors have different opinions on what the bill does or does not do, but in their statements today, none explicitly rejected the Artemis program even though the bill as currently written seems to do just that.

One can expect substantial changes before it is approved by the full committee.  The bill covers everything NASA does, but the human spaceflight provisions are getting the headlines.

Full committee markup will take place in two weeks. The exact date was not announced, but it will be after President Trump submits his FY2021 budget request on February 10. That request will provide more clarity on how much the Administration is willing to allocate to achieving the Artemis goal of returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024. Even though Congress will ultimately determine the funding level, the request will illustrate the White House’s actual level of support versus rhetoric.

Whatever clears the full committee, the bill still must pass the House and Senate.  The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved a bill last fall that is quite different.  The Senate has not voted on it yet.  Whatever compromise might emerge from the two chambers, it then will have to be signed into law — or vetoed — by the President.

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