Senate Passes NASA Authorization, SSA Legislation as Part of Sweeping China Competition Bill

Senate Passes NASA Authorization, SSA Legislation as Part of Sweeping China Competition Bill

The Senate passed legislation today aimed at confronting competition from China by increasing funding for science and technology. Buried in the sweeping United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) are a NASA authorization bill and the SPACE Act, which formally assigns civil Space Situational Awareness (SSA) responsibilities to the Department of Commerce. The bill now heads to the House where its future is uncertain.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York)

As introduced by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), S. 1260 was the Endless Frontier Act, designed to create a new technology directorate at the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help the United States compete with China in science and technology. It took its name from a 1945 report, Science: The Endless Frontier, by Vannevar Bush, science adviser to Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, that led to creation of NSF.

The Endless Frontier Act morphed into the massive USICA that passed this evening by a vote of 68-32. It not only authorizes increases in funding for NSF, but the Department of Energy (DOE) and its national labs, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and technology programs at the Department of Commerce (DOC). It further appropriates tens of billions of dollars for domestic semiconductor manufacturing capacity.

USICA also includes the 2021 NASA Authorization Act and the SPACE Act.

Last year the Senate passed a NASA authorization bill and the Senate Commerce Committee approved a SPACE Act formally assigning responsibility for SSA to the DOC, although it fell short of directing DOC to create a Bureau of Space Commerce as the Trump Administration advocated. Time ran out for final passage of either bill before the end of the Congress, however.

Party leadership in the Senate changed in the intervening months. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) was the Ranking Member of the committee last year and now is Chair. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) was Chair and now is Ranking Member. But the two remain largely aligned on space issues and they inserted versions of those bills into S. 1260 during markup.

The SPACE Act is the same as what cleared committee last year, but the NASA authorization act has a few changes, one of which is somewhat controversial. It requires NASA to fund at least two companies to build Human Landing Systems (HLS) for the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon.

In April, NASA selected only one HLS contractor, SpaceX. NASA wanted two to ensure redundancy and competition, but concluded it could only afford one after Congress provided only 25 percent of the funding it requested for FY2021.

The two losing bidders, Dynetics and Blue Origin (with teammates Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper) are protesting the award to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and NASA suspended the contract with SpaceX while GAO resolves the matter. The decision is due by August 4.

Assuming GAO upholds the award, S. 1260 requires NASA to choose at least one more company and authorizes $10 billion over 5 years (FY2021-2025) to pay for it. The $10 billion is an authorization, not an appropriation. Authorizations are just recommendations. Only appropriators have money to spend.

Blue Origin, owned by Jeff Bezos, is headquartered in Cantwell’s state of Washington and the provision is widely interpreted as favoring that company.

The version of the bill reported from the Senate Commerce Committee said only that NASA had to pick at least two companies, but it was modified before the Senate took up the bill to protect the existing choice of SpaceX.

During Senate debate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) took aim at the idea of allocating billions of dollars to multi-billionaires like Bezos and SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk to land people on the Moon when “the level of inequality in America is obscene and a threat to our democracy.”

He introduced an amendment to strike the HLS language, but like most of the over 600 amendments it was not brought to a vote. As passed, the bill language is the same as when Senate debate began — NASA must select at least two HLS contractors and the SpaceX contract remains unchanged (assuming GAO upholds NASA’s decision).

Today’s passage of S. 1260 is just one step in the legislative process. The bill must still pass the House and be signed into law by the President. When, if, and in what form the House will take it up remains unknown.

The Endless Frontier Act was originally intended to increase NSF funding for basic research and technology advancement so the United States can better compete with China. The House has its own version, the NSF For the Future Act (H.R. 2225), as well as a companion bill for DOE (H.R. 3593). The House will have to decide whether to merge them into a mega-bill like USICA or split USICA into smaller parts.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), the Chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s space subcommittee has said repeatedly that passing a NASA authorization act is a top priority, but he and full committee Chairwoman Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) are skeptical of NASA’s entire acquisition approach to HLS, questioning whether HLS should be a public-private partnership as NASA intends or government-owned. As for the SPACE Act, Beyer has said only that he wants to hold at least two hearings on space situational awareness, but made no commitment to legislation.

Though its future may be murky, President Joe Biden and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson both cheered S. 1260’s passage in statements tonight.

” … We are in a competition to win the 21st century, and the starting gun has gone off.  As other countries continue to invest in their own research and development, we cannot risk falling behind. America must maintain its position as the most innovative and productive nation on Earth. I look forward to working with the House of Representatives on this important bipartisan legislation, and I look forward to signing it into law as soon as possible.” — President Biden

“The U.S. Innovation and Competitiveness Act, which includes the NASA authorization bill, is an investment in scientific research and technological innovation that will help ensure the U.S. continues to lead in space and sets us on a path to execute many landings on the Moon in this decade. I applaud the Senate passage of the bill and look forward to working with the House to see it passed into law.” — NASA Administrator Nelson

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