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2024 moonwalker
A House bill would push back the “deadline” for returning humans to the Moon to 2028, although the bill’s backers say it does not prevent NASA from getting there as soon as the current plan of 2024. (credit: NASA)

New challenges for NASA’s Moon 2024 goal

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A week from today, the White House will release its fiscal year 2021 budget proposal. For NASA, that will include not just what the agency is seeking in 2021 to carry out its various programs, but also projections for future years—“outyears” in budget jargon—from 2022 to 2025. That will, for the first time, offer an estimate of how much NASA thinks it will cost to carry out the Artemis program through its return of humans to the lunar surface in 2024, a figure long sought by Congress and others in the space field. That estimate could provide new realism for Artemis, or make it the subject of renewed criticism, depending on the cost and how the administration seeks to pay for it.

“Let me be crystal clear: this bill is not about rejecting the Artemis program, or delaying humans on the Moon until 2028,” said Horn. “This bill is taking the fiscally responsible approach of focusing the Moon efforts on the goal of being the first nation to set foot on Mars.”

But that program is already facing renewed scrutiny thanks to language in a House bill. On January 24, the leadership of the House Science Committee introduced a new NASA authorization bill. The bill formally authorizes funding for NASA in 2020 already allocated by the appropriations bill enacted in December, but more importantly includes policy provisions across NASA’s range of programs, including Artemis.

The bill, in essence, seeks to reshape the Artemis program from one focused on a swift human return to the Moon to one where the Moon is just a steppingstone to human missions to Mars. Rather than endorse the administration’s plan to return humans to the Moon by 2024, it instead calls for a human lunar landing by 2028, followed by a human mission to orbit—but not land on—Mars in 2033. The bill’s language would focus NASA’s lunar efforts on testing technologies and other capabilities needed for Mars, even renaming the lunar Gateway the “Gateway to Mars.”

“Let me be crystal clear: this bill is not about rejecting the Artemis program, or delaying humans on the Moon until 2028,” said Rep. Kendra Horn (D-OK), chair of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, at a markup session by her subcommittee last Wednesday to consider the bill. “This bill is taking the fiscally responsible approach of focusing the Moon efforts on the goal of being the first nation to set foot on Mars.”

Horn argued that the bill doesn’t prevent NASA from returning humans to the Moon before 2028, a point made by other committee members at the markup. “If NASA is able to get to the Moon before 2028, or if it takes longer than 2033 for NASA to orbit Mars, that’s okay and are not precluded by this bill,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), chair of the full committee.

For many, a bigger sticking point wasn’t the date for returning humans to the Moon but the language describing how the agency should do so. NASA’s current approach seeks to make use of public-private partnerships through the Human Landing System program, giving the companies freedom to propose various approaches for developing a lander capable of transporting astronauts to and from the lunar surface. Like with the commercial cargo and crew programs, NASA would not buy the spacecraft but instead purchase services, with the companies free to offer those landers to other customers.

The bill would instead require NASA to take a more conventional approach, including “full ownership” of the lander system and “unlimited and unfettered insight” into its development. It also specifies an “integrated lunar landing system” launched on a Block 1B version of the Space Launch System with its more powerful Exploration Upper Stage. Of the companies that have released details about their proposed lunar landers, only Boeing has said it would use that specific approach.

That language prompted strong criticism from both industry and NASA. “As written, the NASA Authorization bill would not create a sustainable space exploration architecture and would instead set NASA up for failure by eliminating commercial participation and competition in key programs,” the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) said in a statement.

The organization, whose members include many commercial space companies, including those bidding on the HLS program, offered stronger language in a letter submitted to Congress. The bill, the CSF said, “explicitly and unfairly excludes the participation of the American commercial spaceflight industry, irrationally barring fair competition from NASA’s deep space exploration initiatives.”

In a statement last Monday, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine also expressed his concerns. “In particular, we are concerned that the bill’s approach to developing a human lander system as fully government-owned and directed would be ineffective,” he wrote. “The approach established by the bill would inhibit our ability to develop a flexible architecture that takes advantage of the full array of national capabilities—government and private sector—to accomplish national goals.”

He reiterated that concern in an interview the next day. “It’s fairly prescriptive. We would like more flexibilities on what we do on the surface of the Moon and flexibilities in how we do our contracting,” he said.

Even some members of the subcommittee, from both parties, raised questions about that language. “Without more flexibility for NASA than currently provided for the lunar lander programs,” said Rep. Michael Waltz (R-FL), partnerships with industry “may be in jeopardy.”

“I have heard from many commercial shareholders in the state of Florida and around the country that the bill, as written, would severely limit commercial competition and participation in the Moon-to-Mars program,” said Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL).

Despite those criticisms, the subcommittee didn’t take up any amendments seeking to change it, instead passing a number of amendments that made relatively minor changes to the bill. The subcommittee then passed the bill on a voice vote.

“It’s fairly prescriptive. We would like more flexibilities on what we do on the surface of the Moon and flexibilities in how we do our contracting,” Bridenstine said of the House bill.

More changes may come in the future as the bill is marked up by the full committee, likely in the next few weeks, and goes on to the full House. “The bill before us is not the NASA reauthorization the Republicans on this committee would have offered if we were the majority,” said Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), ranking member of the full committee and a cosponsor of the bill. “However, I recognize that we are in the minority and the legislative process offers opportunities to improve the legislation.”

However, there’s a tough road ahead for the bill, even if it gets though the House. The Senate Commerce Committee marked up its own version of a NASA authorization bill in November, which lacks many of the controversial provisions in the House bill. The full Senate has yet to take up the bill.

The Senate bill, notably, did not explicitly endorse a 2024 human return to the Moon, either, but didn’t offer an alternative date. The leadership of the committee argued that the bill nonetheless backed NASA’s Artemis program and that 2024 goal.

“The next human being that steps foot on the Moon will be an American, and will be an American woman,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, at the markup session where members approved the bill. “I hope we’ll all resolve to follow the leadership of NASA and make provisions that that take place by 2024.”

With such major differences between the House and Senate bills, many in the industry doubt that an authorization bill of any kind can pass this year. That’s exacerbated by this being an election year, with limited time available to take up any legislation.

“Just given the election calendar, and given the session calendars, we’re already running out of time,” said Hunter Presti, a Republican staffer on the House Transportation Committee’s aviation subcommittee, of passing legislation in general during a panel session at the 23rd Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington last Thursday. “That’s not to say that things are not going to happen, but it’s going to be tight.”

Other staffers on the panel, from the Senate Commerce Committee and House Science Committee, tried to minimize the differences between their two committees’ respective bills.

“When you look at the two bills, I think, broadly speaking, we’re saying the same thing. We’re just saying it in a little different way,” said Joel Graham of the Senate Commerce Committee. “We fully support the goal of getting to Mars eventually.”

“We’re interested in seeing what the full program will cost, to the greatest extent possible,” Graham said of the Artemis program.

“We do have different approaches, but as far as the goal of Mars, I didn’t think the two bills are necessarily inconsistent,” said Alicia Brown, another Senate Commerce Committee staff member. “I think maybe our [House] colleagues fleshed out the Mars architecture a little more, while we just talked some long-lead technology items that we’d like the agency to invest in, but absolutely we continue to endorse the steppingstone approach.”

Both Graham and Brown acknowledged the Senate bill didn’t formally endorse the 2024 landing goal. “We didn’t want to tie NASA to a 2024 date, necessarily. That is the goal, but we’re glad to see the agency moving out now on things, and we do support a sustainable on or around the Moon by 2028,” Graham said.

“We didn’t endorse the 2024 date, which we were dinged about in the press,” Brown said. One issue, she said, was a lack of a complete budget for Artemis, which Bridenstine said at a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee last year wouldn’t be available until the release of the fiscal year 2021 budget request. “So, we’re looking forward to seeing that so that we can really understand what it’s going to take to make this goal happen.”

“We’re interested in seeing what the full program will cost, to the greatest extent possible,” Graham added. “We’re also interested in seeing what the plan is for including the commercial ventures in that, and to what extent companies are willing to help in this effort.”

Those working on the NASA authorization bills in the House and Senate will get a look at those figures next week—as well members of the appropriations committees, who will craft the bills that determine just how much of that money the agency will get, and any conditions on it, that could make or break a 2024 human return to the Moon. Ultimately, those spending bills will likely be far more influential than any language in an authorization bill, something even those working on those authorization bills acknowledge.

“I think at this point it’s really up to the appropriators to make that happen, and to you guys in industry,” Brown said.

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