Key House Democrats “Disappointed” with HLS Awards

Key House Democrats “Disappointed” with HLS Awards

The chairwomen of the House committee and subcommittee that oversee NASA expressed “disappointment” today with NASA’s decision to award contracts to build Human Landing Systems (HLS) for the Artemis program. The contracts are for public-private partnerships (PPPs) where the companies will own the systems and NASA will only purchase services. Bipartisan legislation already approved by the subcommittee would require that they be government-owned. The committee is also still awaiting a clear plan from NASA on how the Artemis program will be executed.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas)

Yesterday, NASA awarded $967 million in contracts to SpaceX and teams led by Blue Origin and Dynetics to refine their HLS concepts. NASA will later choose which companies will proceed to the next phase of actually building them.

The contracts follow the PPP model NASA is using for the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs that support the International Space Station (ISS) instead of traditional contracts where, under strong government oversight, companies build products for the government to own.  The Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft are being procured through the traditional contract route. The government pays all the costs of a traditional contract, while in a PPP the companies are expected to invest some of their own capital since they retain ownership and can sell services to other customers.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), chairwoman of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, and Rep. Kendra Horn (D-OK), chair of its space subcommittee, expressed concerns about the safety and cost effectiveness of relying on the private sector to develop and own the HLS landing systems. They also remain unconvinced of the need to get back to the Moon by 2024 as dictated by the Trump Administration and have been asking for a “transparent” explanation of how NASA can do it.

The date is politically driven. It would be the last year of a second Trump term if he is reelected in November.  NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine defends it for just that reason, arguing that previous attempts to resume trips to the Moon failed because it took too long and fell victim to changing political priorities across presidential administrations.

But the goal was announced just last year, giving NASA only 5 years to put astronauts on the Moon. Even the Cold War-driven Apollo program took longer than that. NASA had been planning on 2028.

Johnson and others criticize Artemis as being too rushed to ensure safety, a point she reiterated today.  Calling the deadline “arbitrary,” she supported returning to the Moon and going on to Mars, “but we need to do it sensibly and safely while we also protect the interests of the tax paying public.”  She is not convinced PPPs are the best approach. The commercial crew program is years late and how much the companies invested of their own money is unknown. A NASA official said several years ago only that the government was paying 80-90 percent.

“We should not be trying to privatize America’s Moon-Mars program, especially when at the end of the day American taxpayers—not the private companies—are going to wind up paying the lion’s share of the costs,” Johnson said today.

Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Oklahoma) at markup of H.R. 5666, January 29, 2020.

In January, Johnson, Horn and their Republican counterparts on the committee, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) introduced legislation that requires government ownership of the landers. It also mandates that they be launched from Earth in one piece, not in segments that would be assembled in lunar orbit.

Some of the contracts awarded yesterday are for concepts that require assembly in lunar orbit. Critics argue that adds unnecessary risk.

The space subcommittee approved the bill on January 29.

Horn said today that she “was disappointed to see that NASA’s decision on lunar landing systems development starkly contrasts the bipartisan House NASA Authorization bill and the advice of experts on minimizing risk and ensuring the highest likelihood of success in landing humans on the Moon.”

Horn added that NASA still has not submitted “a transparent architecture and technical and cost assessment” for the Artemis program despite repeated requests.

““Unfortunately, more than a year after their announcement to accelerate the Artemis program, NASA has yet to provide Congress a transparent architecture and technical and cost assessment, despite our repeated requests. The American taxpayer deserves to know their money is being spent wisely, especially if they are being asked to invest billions of taxpayer dollars in a private lunar landing system. Our nation should dream boldly and pursue aspirational goals but we have to do so thoughtfully and intentionally. I look forward to working with NASA in good faith to steer our nation’s space program in a direction that allows our country to achieve inspiring goals and explore space in a responsible and measured way.”  — Rep. Kendra Horn

In a statement this evening, Bridenstine’s press secretary, Matthew Rydin, told that the Administrator spoke with members of Congress from both parties prior to the HLS announcement, including some on the House SS&T committee. “NASA’s plan was received positively, and as Rep. Horn mentions in her statement, there continues to be broad, bipartisan support for safely returning humans to the Moon under the Artemis program.”

Rydin added that Bridenstine looks forward to providing additional briefings to Congress on NASA’s updated Artemis architecture.

Bridenstine is a former member of Congress from Horn and Lucas’s state of Oklahoma and served on this committee.

The legislation approved by the subcommittee is a NASA authorization bill, H.R. 5666.  The Senate also has a NASA authorization bill pending, S. 2800, but it is quite different.  It punts on the Artemis program specifically, endorsing human space exploration in a more general sense with an emphasis on Mars, not the Moon.  With COVID-19 and the congressional and presidential elections consuming much of the 2020 calendar, whether any NASA authorization bill will clear Congress this year is questionable.

However, if Johnson and Horn’s views are shared by appropriators, it could signal trouble for NASA getting the funding increase it needs not just this year, but for the next several years, to execute Artemis.  The FY2021 budget request alone is a 12 percent increase over current spending.  Bridenstine expressed optimism yesterday that NASA’s budget will not be impacted by the trillions being spent on COVID-19 relief.  Noting how small NASA’s budget is compared to the rest of government spending, less than half a percent, he said “We’re not going to be the solution to balancing the budget. … I don’t think we’re in any jeopardy.”

Horn said NASA’s decision is at odds with “the advice of experts on minimizing risk,” but the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) disagrees.

CSF President Eric Stallmer told via email that NASA’s strategy is consistent with expert advice.  CSF strongly supports NASA’s strategy of using “safe, affordable, and proven public-private partnerships. This approach toward ensuring safety, while reducing cost and maintaining schedules, is consistent with multiple independent government reviews and the testimonies of numerous expert witnesses before Congress.”

CSF represents more than 80 companies involved in commercial human spaceflight, including SpaceX and Blue Origin, two of the three contract winners yesterday.

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