Latest NASA Authorization Bill Supports Artemis, But Omits Cantwell’s HLS Provision

Latest NASA Authorization Bill Supports Artemis, But Omits Cantwell’s HLS Provision

The revised version of the NASA authorization bill being considered by the Senate right now is quite different from what passed previously. For example, although it still strongly supports the Artemis initiative to return humans to the Moon, it no longer authorizes $10 billion over the next five years for a second Human Landing System. Now part of the CHIPS+ bill, it could pass the Senate before the August recess.

The 1,054-page Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) act, H.R. 4346, cleared a key Senate procedural vote earlier this week and a vote on final passage is expected next week. Some science-related portions that were part of the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) were added at the last minute so the current bill is dubbed CHIPS-Plus or CHIPS+.

The Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft for the Artemis I mission on the launch pad with their destination, the Moon, in view. Photo credit: NASA/Cory Huston.

The 2022 NASA Authorization Act is Title VII.  It covers all of NASA, but one key feature is that it explicitly authorizes Artemis. The language stresses that the goal is not just to get astronauts back on the lunar surface, but to go to Mars and it requires NASA to establish a “Moon to Mars” program.

The most recent NASA authorization act was enacted more than five years ago in March 2017 at the very beginning of the Trump Administration before Trump’s Space Policy Directive-1 restored the Moon as a destination for U.S. human spaceflight. The Obama Administration had eschewed the Moon as “been there, done that” and instead set its sights on getting astronauts in orbit around Mars by the mid-2030s as set forth in Obama’s 2010 National Space Policy.

The 2005, 2008, 2010 and 2017 NASA authorization bills authorized expanding human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit with Mars as the long-term goal, but this bill is more specific.

It requires NASA to establish a Moon to Mars Program that includes “Artemis missions and activities, to achieve the goal of human exploration of Mars” with a Program Office and Program Director.  To date, NASA has chosen not to establish Artemis as a “program.” Rather it is a set of individual projects. The approach has been criticized by the Government Accountability Office, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, the NASA Office of Inspector General, and the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee for lacking an integrated approach and a single individual with authority and accountability.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) with his “Mars 2033” bumper sticker at a House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing, March 2022.

The bill also explicitly states that each Artemis mission must demonstrate or advance a technology or operational concept that will enable human missions to Mars. The linkage between the lunar Artemis missions and the longer-term goal of sending humans to Mars is somewhat controversial. NASA describes Artemis as leading to “sustainable” exploration and utilization of the Moon, but some lunar advocates worry NASA may shortchange investments needed for lunar sustainability in order to get to Mars. Congressional interest in getting to Mars as soon as feasible is pretty strong, however, as exemplified not only by the language in this bill, but by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) and the “Mars 2033” bumper sticker he displays at just about every House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing on NASA.

But the Moon is the first stop and NASA is getting ready for the first launch of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft as early as August 29. The uncrewed test flight is to be followed by a crewed test flight in 2024 and the first Artemis landing in 2025, returning astronauts to the Moon 53 years after the Apollo 17 crew departed.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) at a February 9, 2022 Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on NASA Accountability and Oversight.

NASA already has contracted with SpaceX for the Human Landing System for that flight, but NASA wants two HLS providers for redundancy and competition. The original Senate-passed version of this bill included an authorization of $10 billion over 5 years for a second HLS. Because the provision was drafted by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), chair of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, it was viewed by many as directed towards Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, headquartered in Washington. At the time, Blue Origin was anxiously trying to get NASA to give it an HLS award.

Although the bill did not mention Blue Origin, and authorization bills do not actually provide any money (only appropriations bills do that), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was particulary incensed at what he saw as a giveaway to a billionaire. Sanders’s amendment to delete that section failed, but it nonetheless is omitted from this version.

NASA now has another effort underway to acquire additional HLS systems. They are being procured through Public-Private Partnerships where the companies own the systems and the government simply purchases services. Not everyone is convinced PPPs are the best way to procure HLS and other hardware needed to achieve the nation’s goal of returning to the Moon, preferring traditional contracts with closer oversight and accountability by NASA.

This new version of the bill, in fact, directs NASA to develop criteria “for determining whether NASA should make, manage, or buy key capabilities within the Program or engage with international partners to access such capabilities.” It further directs that only government astronauts may carry out Artemis human lunar landing missions including surface and in-space activities.

This version does not include any funding recommendations for NASA.

Other highlights include restoring NASA’s Enhanced Use Leasing authority for 10 years, an issue that got sidetracked a few months ago, as well as —

  • extending from 2024 to 2030 the U.S. commitment to International Space Station operations, while also requiring a comprehensive assessment of the “vitality” of the ISS to operate that long;
  • stating that U.S. policy is to maintain world leadership in civilian aeronautical science and technology and aerospace industrialization;
  • requiring establishment of space nuclear power and propulsion programs;
  • requiring periodic reports on the industrial base for civil space missions and operations;
  • requiring establishment of an Independent Program Analysis and Evaluation Office (NASA abolished its Independent Program Assessment Office and its umbrella Office of Evaluation in 2015) with the Moon to Mars Program as one focus; and
  • requiring NASA to proceed with development of the Near Earth Object (NEO) Surveyor mission for launch in 2026 “or as soon as practicable” (NASA proposed a two-year delay in its FY2023 budget request, but House appropriators also endorsed keeping the 2026 launch date).
Illustration of the NEO Surveyor space telescope dedicated to locating asteroids that could threaten Earth. Credit: University of Arizona

The Senate originally passed a NASA authorization in June 2021 as part of the USICA. That bill’s primary purpose was helping the United States compete with China in science and technology. Initially named the Endless Frontier Act (S. 1260), it was focused on creating a new technology directorate at the National Science Foundation, but morphed into a massive bill that included the 2021 NASA Authorization Act.

The House passed the America COMPETES Act (H.R. 4521) that more or less was a companion measure to USICA, but didn’t include a NASA authorization. The Senate adopted a modified version of USICA in May 2022 and the two chambers held a conference committee meeting that month to reach a compromise. But opposition to the bill’s pricetag led Senate leaders to change course and come up with a much narrower bill focused on helping the U.S. semiconductor industry that was judged more likely to pass. That is the CHIPS bill, but after the Senate agreed to add back some of the science-related provisions from USICA, many began calling it CHIPS+.  At the moment, the Senate is scheduled to take the next step, a procedural vote to invoke cloture, on Monday with a final vote expected by the end of the week.

Then it has to go to the House.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), chairwoman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, which led the drafting of the America COMPETES Act, issued a press release saying CHIPS+ “represents months of bipartisan and bicameral negotiations” that may not include everyone’s priorities, “but that is the nature of compromise.”  She praised Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) and committee Republicans for their “constructive collaboration,” although Lucas put out his own statement criticizing the Senate for abandoning the conference discussions and “chose to act alone.”

House SS&T had made some progress on a NASA authorization bill just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020. Some of the language in this version clearly reflects that bill’s philosophy, especially the requirement for NASA to create a Moon to Mars program and skepticism about PPPs. This one does not go as far as requiring that HLS systems be owned by the government, however, as that bill did.

Progress in the House has been very slow, prompting complaints from Cantwell and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), Ranking Member of the Senate Commerce Committee, earlier this year.

At last they have a compromise text. Whether its inclusion in CHIPS+ helps or hurts its chances of making it through the rest of the legislative process remains to be seen. Conceivably the NASA authorization portion could be considered separately if need be to get it passed by the end of the 117th Congress. The clock is ticking down to January 3, 2023 when all pending legislation dies and efforts must begin again in the new Congress.

In a separate section of CHIPS+ that establishes a National Engineering Biology Research and Development Initiative, NASA is directed to support engineering biology, including synthetic biology, as part of its science program including awarding grants to support students who perform some of their related research in an industry setting.

Wicker’s Space Preservation and Conjunction Emergency (SPACE) Act regarding space situational awareness, incorporated in USICA, did not make it into this iteration.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.