Senate Defeats Effort to Scrap Second HLS

Senate Defeats Effort to Scrap Second HLS

Tonight the Senate defeated an effort by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to remove a provision in the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act that authorized $10 billion for a second Human Landing System for the Artemis program. Sanders characterized it as a hand-out to multibillionaire Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, one of the HLS competitors, but advocates argued a second HLS is needed to ensure competition, redundancy and safety.

The USICA is primarily focused on science and technology competition with China, but it swept in a lot of other legislation when it passed the Senate last year, including a NASA authorization act. Sanders tried to eliminate the HLS provision at that time, but his amendment was not brought to a vote.

The House passed its own China competition bill, the America COMPETES Act, H.R. 4521, which includes almost nothing about space. The two chambers are about to go to conference to negotiate a final version of the bill. Tonight’s vote was on a Motion to Instruct conferees on what must stay or go from the Senate’s point of view.

Sanders’ motion, co-sponsored by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), would have eliminated section 2614(c) which directs NASA to “maintain competitiveness within the human landing system program by funding design, development, testing, and evaluation for not fewer than 2 entities.” The bill authorizes $10.032 billion over 5 years to implement that provision.

Sanders argued that the money is meant for Blue Origin and its founder, Jeff Bezos. Sanders complains that Bezos is the second wealthiest person in the United States and pays no federal income taxes and should not benefit from government contracts. Bezos founded and although he has stepped down from his position with the company is still a major shareholder. Sanders further complains that Amazon does not pay federal income taxes and fails to protect its workers.

The language does not say that Blue Origin would get the contract, however, only that there should be two HLS contractors. Sanders’ assumption that the money is intended for Blue Origin probably stems from the fact that the language was sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee that oversees NASA. Blue Origin is headquartered in her state.

Cantwell and Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) spoke against the motion, insisting a second HLS is needed to ensure competition, safety, and redundancy.

“NASA recognizes that competition makes us better,” Tuberville said, “that’s why they asked us to fund a second provider.” Cantwell said “NASA has asked for continued competition and there are many defense contractors who have expressed interest” in competing for the contract. She named Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Dynetics.

Two of those companies, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, partnered with Blue Origin in the original HLS competition as the “National Team.” Dynetics and SpaceX were the other competitors. SpaceX won. Blue Origin and Dynetics protested the award to the Government Accountability Office and lost. Blue Origin then sued NASA in federal court and also lost. The SpaceX contract is for only one crewed lunar landing. NASA is beginning another competition for additional lunar landers.

Sanders’ motion failed 17-78. Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ), a former astronaut, was among those voting no. Somewhat surprisingly, Florida’s two Senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, voted in favor of the motion even though Florida is deeply involved in the Artemis program and Blue Origin has a sizable manufacturing facility at Exploration Park near Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station for its New Glenn rocket and plans to launch it from CCSFS.

The Congressional Record account of the vote includes a statement by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), but she did not make the statement on the floor.

What it all means is that the provision remains in the Senate version of the bill that will be conferenced with the House. Whether the two chambers will be able to reach agreement on a China competition bill, and, if so, whether the NASA authorization bill survives as part of it, remains to be seen.  The $10 billion is an authorization, not an appropriation, so would not actually provide any money, but having a requirement codifed in law that there be at least two HLS providers would be a significant policy statement.


Note: this article has been updated.

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