Senate Committee Approves 2021 NASA Authorization, Requires Second HLS System

Senate Committee Approves 2021 NASA Authorization, Requires Second HLS System

A Senate committee approved a new NASA Authorization Act today as part of a larger bill to increase U.S. government investments in research, development and manufacturing. The NASA portion builds on a bill passed by the Senate late last year, but doubles down on the need to fund at least two Human Landing System (HLS) contractors, not just one. NASA wanted two, but picked only one because Congress drastically cut funding for HLS in FY2021.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) chairing Executive Session of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, May 12, 2021. Screengrab.

The 2021 NASA Authorization Act is part of an amendment sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee respectively.  The “Cantwell_1 (as modified)” amendment was adopted as part of an en-bloc package with no debate at the beginning of today’s markup.

The amendment is to the Endless Frontier Act (S. 1260), a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the Senate Majority Leader.  Schumer describes the bill as ensuring U.S. global technological leadership by boldly investing in innovation to successfully compete with China. With the backing of the Majority Leader as well a number of Republicans, the bill has a higher chance of getting consideration and perhaps passage by the Senate than most other  legislation. That makes it a target of opportunity to add other measures that might not get that level of attention otherwise, resulting in dozens of amendments offered today. After many hours of debate, it passed the committee on a vote of 24-4.

The NASA authorization included in the bill has similarities with S. 2800, a NASA Authorization bill that passed the Senate in December, but was never considered by the House and died at the end of the 116th Congress.

One provision that garnered a lot of attention today addresses development of HLS systems for the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon.

SpaceX’s Starship lunar lander concept. Credit: SpaceX

NASA is acquiring HLS through a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) the same way it procured the commercial cargo and commercial crew systems that support the International Space Station.  In both of those cases, it awarded contracts to two companies to ensure competition and redundancy.

That also was the plan for HLS, but Congress appropriated only 25 percent of the funding NASA requested for HLS in FY2021: $850 million instead of $3.4 billion.

Consequently NASA could pick only one — SpaceX — the lowest bid at $2.89 billion. The two losing bidders, Blue Origin and its National Team (Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper) and Dynetics, are protesting the award to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

This new NASA authorization bill would require NASA to fund HLS design, development, testing and evaluation “for not fewer than 2 entities” and gives the agency just 30 days after the bill is enacted into law to do it.

How NASA could implement that in such a short time is a mystery.  It went through a source selection process and chose a winner with documentation as to why. That decision is under protest at GAO, which must make a ruling by August 4.  GAO can uphold the award or require NASA to change its decision. Either way, how an additional layer of congressionally-directed procurement action would affect that process is murky and could hang like a Damoclean sword over HLS, delaying its development and the timeline for putting astronauts back on the Moon. HLS is necessary for ferrying crews between lunar orbit and the surface.

Not to mention NASA does not have the money to pay another contractor. The Anti-Deficiency Act prohibits agencies from spending money they do not have.  That is why NASA chose only one company in the first place.

Dynetics’ lunar lander concept. Credit: Dynetics

This is an authorization bill that does not address that problem.  It recommends “not less than $10.032 billion” for HLS over six years (FY2021-2026), but that is all it is. A recommendation. Authorization bills do not give an agency a single dollar. Only appropriations committees have money to spend and their position on HLS is unknown at this point.

The $10 billion over six years is far short of the $16 billion over 5 years (FY2021-2025) NASA estimated would be needed for HLS alone, never mind the rest of the Artemis program that includes the Space Launch System, Orion crew spacecraft, Gateway lunar-orbiting space station, and lunar surface spacesuits.

The Biden Administration has not sent its complete FY2022 budget request to Congress yet, only a few top-line numbers. The NASA request is for $24.7 billion, a 6.3 percent increase over FY2021. That includes $6.9 billion for Artemis, an increase of $325 million over FY2021, but with no specifics on how it would be allocated among HLS and the other Artemis projects. The $6.9 billion is far short of the $10.3 billion NASA projected it would need in FY2022 for the overall Artemis program.

The goal is to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024. That date was chosen by the Trump Administration because it would have been the end of his second term as President if he was reelected. He was not, but NASA officials are sticking to it despite widespread skepticism it is achievable technically or budgetarily.

This bill, like last year’s version, does not endorse 2024 for the next human landing, instead sidestepping the issue by calling for “sustainable lunar exploration by 2028.”

Although the bill does not tell NASA what other company (or companies) to choose for HLS, Blue Origin is headquartered in Cantwell’s state of Washington, raising eyebrows that it is the intended beneficiary. The company was the second highest bidder at $5.9 billion.

Blue Origin’s lunar lander concept. Credit: Blue Origin

In an emailed statement to this evening, a Blue Origin spokesperson said: “We’re pleased that the Senate Commerce Committee recognized the importance of competition in NASA’s Human Landing System program. Continued competition will safeguard America’s space industrial base and get America back to the Moon as quickly as possible. We are especially thankful to Chairwoman Cantwell and Ranking Member Wicker for their leadership on this issue.”

Dynetics has not disclosed its bid, but NASA’s source selection statement said it was “significantly higher” than Blue Origin’s. Dynetics and SpaceX did not reply to a request for comment on the Senate bill by press time.

NASA stresses that the HLS award to SpaceX is for only one demonstration mission to the lunar surface, preceded by an uncrewed flight test. The agency will have a separate procurement for companies to provide HLS systems for flights after that, all part of a vision for a sustainable presence on the Moon to enable exploration and utilization over years and decades. If the future turns out that way, there will plenty of opportunities for multiple HLS providers supporting not only NASA, but commercial and international customers.

In fact, the bill’s provision does not specify when the second HLS system would have to be ready, only that NASA must fund two entities. Perhaps if the second solicitation gets underway within 30 days of the bill’s enactment, that would suffice. Cantwell’s office did not reply to a request for clarification by press time.

Other provisions of the more than 100-page bill would extend U.S. support for the International Space Station (ISS) from 2024 to 2030, support development of a “thriving and robust” U.S. commercial sector in low Earth orbit including passenger flights to the ISS, reaffirm support for a “balanced and adequately funded” science portfolio following guidance on priorities from the National Academies’ Decadal Surveys, and strongly support NASA’s aeronautics, space technology, and STEM education efforts. The bill also renames the White House National Space Council’s Users’ Advisory Group as the “President’s Space Advisory Board.”

Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and Executive Secretary of the National Space Council during the Trump Administration, praised the legislation as “an excellent example of bipartisan leadership on space” by Cantwell and Wicker. He is particularly pleased with the requirement for a second HLS system.

“This is important for crew safety, sustainable operations, and assuring U.S. international leadership. It’s particularly commendable in that this requirement also comes with a realistic proposal for additional resources. I hope NASA will be able to do its part in providing the Congress and the White House with greater insight on Artemis program architecture costs, risks, and schedule going forward.” — Scott Pace

While including the NASA Authorization in the Endless Frontier Act may help it pass the Senate, it may complicate the rest of its legislative journey through the House and to the President’s desk.

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma)

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), the top Republican on the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, issued a statement this evening criticizing the Senate bill and supporting the House’s “NSF for the Future Act” instead.

 “I’m glad my colleagues in the Senate recognize the importance of investing in research and combating the growing threat from the Chinese Communist Party, but I believe that effort must be as focused and strategic as our adversary is on accelerating research and development. A bill that spreads billions around to serve every special interest will not advance American innovation and will not compete with China.” — Rep. Frank Lucas

A NASA authorization bill has not been introduced in the House so far in this Congress, although Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), who chairs the House SS&T’s space subcommittee, told it is one of his priorities for this year.

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