Nelson Sees Jobs Bill as Solution to HLS and Other Funding Needs

Nelson Sees Jobs Bill as Solution to HLS and Other Funding Needs

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson is asking Congress to put more than $11 billion dollars for NASA into the jobs/infrastructure package proposed by President Biden. That would be in addition to NASA’s annual budget request of $24.7 billion. The rationale is that money for the Human Landing System (HLS) and other parts of the Artemis program as well as agency  infrastructure will create jobs as it ensures U.S. leadership in space.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson testifying (virtually) to the Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, May 19, 2021. Screengrab.

During testimony to the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee today, Nelson was repeatedly asked why NASA chose only one company, SpaceX, to build HLS.

NASA wanted to select two companies to ensure competition and redundancy as it did for the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs. But Congress provided only 25 percent of the funding the agency requested for FY2021 — $850 million instead of $3.4 billion — so could only pick one.

Both NASA and the subcommittee members want competition. What is missing is the money.

Nelson is proposing Congress fund it not only through the FY2022 budget, but in the jobs bill.

How much is in the FY2022 budget request for HLS is unknown. President Biden will not submit the request to Congress until May 27. He sent a “skinny” version in April with top-line numbers for NASA: $24.7 billion, a 6.3 percent increase over FY2021. Of that, $6.9 billion is for Artemis, a $325 million increase, but how that is allocated among the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion crew spacecraft, the Gateway lunar-orbiting space station, HLS, and spacesuits will not be public until next week.

The $6.9 billion for Artemis may be an increase over FY2021, but is far short of the $10.3 billion NASA estimated last year would be needed in FY2022 if astronauts are to be back on the Moon by 2024.  That date was set by the Trump Administration. Nelson and other NASA officials continue to talk about it as though the Biden Administration is adopting that timeline despite the fact it is widely viewed with skepticism technically and budgetarily.

Apparently NASA sees the jobs bill as the place to make up the funding difference. Biden’s $2 trillion American Jobs Plan would fund infrastructure improvements, energy efficiency projects, access to child care and a host of other issues. Biden calls it “the largest American jobs investment since World War II.”

Nelson revealed the agency is asking Congress to put $5.4 billion in the bill for HLS, plus $200 million for lunar spacesuits and $585 million for nuclear propulsion for eventual human trips to Mars. Plus another $5.4 billion to repair or replace infrastructure at NASA centers around the country.

Specifically, we named about $5.4 billion on the Human Landing System, and that would be at the end of the day producing jobs…. And in addition, $200 million could go in the jobs bill for the Artemis [space]suits that we’ve got to continue to develop. That’s the EVA suits.  And … about $585 million on the Moon to Mars thermal nuclear propulsion.

… Now while I’m on the jobs bill may I also say, part of the jobs bill is infrastructure. Look at the NASA facilities in your state Congressman Garcia. There is aging infrastructure that is dilapidated at Ames and at Armstrong and for that matter at JPL.  JPL, of course, is the center [of attention] right now because of their fantastic accomplishments. But look in Congressman Aderholt’s area. They got an administration building that they’re going to have to tear down. Look in the Congressman from Mississippi’s Stennis Space Center, and look right down at Michoud in New Orleans, which is tied up with the Marshall Space Center. They got holes in the roof where they’re putting together the core of the SLS. So we’d estimate that to be about $5.4 billion just in infrastructure that you could put in the jobs bill. … That’s a place where you can do it, and it can be done and appropriated this year, even though it would be appropriations over the next five years. — Bill Nelson

That $11.585 billion appears to be in addition to whatever is already in Biden’s plan. Nelson did not get any push back from subcommittee members, many of whom represent districts with NASA facilities that would benefit from such investments.

One exception is subcommittee chairman Matt Cartwright (D-PA) who hails from northeastern Pennsylvania. He is new as subcommittee chairman this year, but was vice-chair in the past and is very familiar with NASA issues. Although his district has no NASA facilities, it has a lot of small businesses that benefit from NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. Former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who was a Republican Member of Congress from Oklahoma before his appointment to NASA, and Cartwright have been friends since they were freshmen together in the 2012 class. As Administrator, Bridenstine worked with members from across the country to explain how investing in NASA benefits the economy overall.

It certainly seems to have paid off with Cartwright, who already has invited Nelson to visit his district next week to discuss how small businesses can participate in the Artemis program.

The hearing was very friendly and no evident lines of disagreement, but then again they did not have the FY2022 budget request in front of them to debate.

China’s successful landing of the robotic Zhurong lander/rover on Mars last week came up several times. China just released the first images taken by Zhurong of Utopia Planitia.  Nelson held one up for the subcommittee members to see while discussing the need for the United States to remain a leader in space.

Earlier in the day, Nelson tweeted congratulations to the Chinese.

At the hearing, though, he was more critical, calling China an “aggressive competitor” preparing to place three robotic landers on the South Pole of the Moon and studying the possibility of landing people on the Moon and sending humans to flyby Mars in this decade. The United States therefore needs to “get off our duff” with the Artemis program. Subcommittee Ranking Member Robert Aderholt (R-AL) shares that view, arguing that “China’s dramatic progress with the Moon and Mars, robotic elements, plus their space station elements, means that we cannot lose focus or momentum on our programs.”

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