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Congress has been able to work on space issues in a bipartisan manner in the past, but will that be possible this year? (credit: J. Foust)

Can space bridge a widening partisan divide?


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Sunday marked the start of the 117th Congress, with the swearing in of members, a vote for the Speaker of the House (won, as expected, by Nancy Pelosi), and other introductory matters. A new Congress represents a clean slate, clearing out all the legislation that didn’t become law in the previous Congress.

A clean slate, though, doesn’t mean there isn’t unfinished business. While the 116th Congress, in its final weeks, passed some legislation related to space policy, other bills expired despite bipartisan support. While those failed efforts may serve as a starting point for new legislation, far more serious issues could create tensions that make traditional bipartisan cooperation on space policy much more difficult, if not impossible.

Appropriations but not authorizations

The most important piece of legislation related to space that the Congress passed in its final weeks was an omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2021. There is perhaps no stronger expression of policies, and prioritization of programs, than the allocation of funding for those programs and legislative language attached to them.

That omnibus bill provided $23.271 billion for NASA in 2021. That’s an increase of $642 million from what the agency received in 2020, but nearly $2 billion short of what the agency requested back in February.

The spending bill makes it that much easier for the new administration to at least tap the brakes on Artemis as it sorts out what it wants to do in human spaceflight, and on what schedule.

That shortfall largely came at the expense of the goal set by the White House in 2019 to return humans to the Moon by 2024. NASA requested $3.3 billion for the Human Landing System (HLS) program in its 2021 budget request, funding it argued was essential to meet that goal. The omnibus bill provided just $850 million for the program, splitting the difference between the roughly $600 million provided in a House bill and the $1 billion in a Senate bill.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine warned for months that, while he appreciated Congress appropriating some funding for HLS, full funding was needed to keep a 2024 landing on track. “The budget request gave us what we needed to achieve a 2024 Moon landing, and as of right now, this agency is meeting all of its milestones,” Bridenstine said at a meeting of the National Space Council December 9. “Ultimately, if we don’t get the $3.3 billion, it gets more and more difficult.”

Of course, the incoming Biden Administration had not shown the same enthusiasm for a 2024 human return as the Trump Administration: the Democratic party platform endorsed human missions to the Moon, but not the 2024 goal (see “Moon 2020-something”, The Space Review, November 9, 2020). The spending bill makes it that much easier for the new administration to at least tap the brakes on Artemis as it sorts out what it wants to do in human spaceflight, and on what schedule.

While cutting funding for HLS, the bill keeps intact funding for other parts of Artemis, including Orion and the Space Launch System. It also restores funding for several science missions slated for cancellation in the budget proposal, such as the PACE and CLARREO Pathfinder Earth science missions, the SOFIA airborne observatory, and the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (formerly WFIRST), which received the $505 million needed to keep it on schedule for a mid-2020s launch. NASA’s education programs, known as “STEM Engagement,” also had funding restored in the bill.

Besides the funding itself, the spending bill includes policy language, such as requests for reports on various topics. One of the biggest such provisions grants NASA its long-sought desire to launch the Europa Clipper mission on a commercial launch vehicle rather than SLS. NASA argued that a commercial vehicle would save money and free up SLS vehicles needed for Artemis missions.

The bill instructs NASA to use SLS for Europa Clipper, but only if “the SLS is available and if torsional loading analysis has confirmed Clipper’s appropriateness for SLS.” The latter issue refers to concerns raised by NASA earlier in the year about what it called “potential hardware compatibility issues” between the spacecraft and rocket.

“If the private sector wants to leverage the vast experience and resources that NASA offers, they simply must abide by NASA’s own internal policies,” Babin said of the One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act.

Outside of NASA, the spending bill will help the Commerce Department move forward on space traffic management work. The bill provided $10 million to the Office of Space Commerce, with the majority of that funding going to support its work on Space Policy Directive 3, which assigned responsibility for civil space traffic management to the Commerce Department. The department sought $15 million for the office in its 2021 request, but the $10 million is still a big victory given than a similar increase in its 2020 request was rejected entirely (see “Pick an agency, any agency”, The Space Review, August 31, 2020).

Earlier last month, Congress passed two other minor space bills. The One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act is intended to preserve Apollo-era landing sites on the Moon. It directs NASA to require that any company or organization that it works with, such as companies in the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, agree to abide by NASA guidelines published nearly a decade ago about best practices for preserving those sites.

The original version of the bill was stricter, directing any federal agency that licenses a lunar activity to require the licensee to agree to abide by NASA’s guidelines. “Instead, the bill offers a carrot, rather than a stick,” explained Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), ranking member of the House space subcommittee, during a brief debate about the bill on the House floor December 16, shortly before the bill passed on a voice vote. “If the private sector wants to leverage the vast experience and resources that NASA offers, they simply must abide by NASA’s own internal policies.”

Immediately after passing that bill, the House then approved by voice vote a separate bill that renames NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Ohio, used primarily for environmental testing of launch vehicle and spacecraft components, the Neil A. Armstrong Test Facility. “It is truly appropriate that a world-class aerospace test facility in the state of Ohio be named for a native son and one of the world’s most accomplished and dedicated pilots,” said Rep. Kendra Horn (D-OK).

The bill, which previously passed the Senate, ensures that NASA will now have two major facilities named after the first person to set foot on the Moon. In 2014, Congress unanimously passed legislation that renamed the Dryden Flight Research Center in California after Armstrong. Both the bill renaming Plum Brook and the bill protecting lunar heritage sites were signed into law last week by President Trump.

One bill that Congress did not deliver to the White House was a NASA authorization act. The House and Senate had their separate versions of such legislation, intended to set agency policies. The House bill, introduced early this year by the bipartisan leadership of the House Science Committee, never got out of committee.

Horn, chair of the space subcommittee, said the bill was a victim of the pandemic, as the House focused its attention on more pressing matters. She acknowledged in an interview in mid-November—after she lost her bid for a second term in the House—that it “would be extraordinarily optimistic” to think a NASA authorization bill could make it through Congress before the end of the year and the end of her term in Congress.

The Senate made a little more progress, where the Senate Commerce Committee passed a NASA authorization act in November 2019 with bipartisan support. It wasn’t until last month, though, that the Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent, a mechanism to expedite the passage of noncontroversial bills, provided no member objects.

“What we have achieved together is legislation that enjoys deep and broad bipartisan support and that sets bold goals for NASA and the United States in space. It provides the direction and the infrastructure necessary to meet them,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), chair of the commerce committee’s space subcommittee, said in a speech on the Senate floor about the act.

One issue that reportedly held up the bill was language regarding China. The bill taken up by the full Senate required NASA, as part of its contracting process, “take into account the implications of any benefit received by such commercial or non-commercial entity (or any other commercial or non-commercial entity related through ownership, control, or other affiliation to such entity)” from dealings with the Chinese government of state-owned companies. Some feared that could affect SpaceX since, while it does no business in China, it has through its founder, Elon Musk, ties to Tesla, which does do business in China.

The version passed by the Senate last month changed that section. Instead, any organization doing business with NASA must certify it is not majority owned or controlled, or minority owned greater than 25%, by the Chinese government or state-owned companies.

Cruz said in December he hoped “we can use this unanimously approved legislation as the starting point to move quickly to pass a comprehensive NASA authorization act across the finish line and get it signed into law.”

The Senate bill, though, still differed sharply from the House bill when it came to lunar lander development. The House bill called for an approach where the government owned and operated a lander, while the Senate bill backed something closer to NASA’s approach through the HLS program, including the use of “a fixed-price, milestone-based approach” and public-private partnerships.

Even before the Senate passed that updated bill, Horn doubted the House would consider it, given the differences with the House bill. “Given the time between now and the end of the year, it would be a heavy lift to get either bill out of both houses and signed into law,” she said in November.

Partisan divides

Cruz, in his Senate speech about the authorization act, admitted there was no chance the bill could be enacted. “While this bill is not going to pass the House of Representatives during the remainder of this Congress, I look forward to the beginning of the next Congress where we can use this unanimously approved legislation as the starting point to move quickly to pass a comprehensive NASA authorization act across the finish line and get it signed into law,” he said.

Under more normal circumstances, that approach might well work. Four years ago, Congress tried to get a NASA authorization bill passed but ran out of time. Early in 2017, a new authorization bill swiftly made it through Congress and was signed into law.

That approach, though, requires bipartisan support that may be increasingly difficult to find in the new Congress. Space has long been an issue that has transcended partisan divides, but those divides may now be too great for an authorization bill to span. That’s because of the increasingly bizarre spectacle playing out regarding the 2020 presidential election, as a growing number of Republican members of Congress say they will challenge a January 6 certification of the Electoral College votes for President-elect Joe Biden, citing baseless allegations of voter fraud.

What should be particularly uncomfortable for the space community is that some of the most prominent Republican members on space issues in Congress are at the forefront of this futile effort to overturn the outcome of the election. Cruz, for example, announced Saturday he was leading a group of 11 Republican senators seeking a ten-day delay in the certification in order to perform an “emergency audit” of the results.

When it’s all over, how eager will Democratic members of the House and Senate be to cooperate on space policy issues with Republicans who led the charge to challenge the Electoral College vote?

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), who serves on the House space subcommittee, has been leading a group of House members seeking to challenge the results on the same grounds. A December 17 letter by Brooks to House and Senate leadership, requesting hearings on “anomalies” with the 2020 election, was signed by nearly 20 other members, including Babin as well as fellow House Science Committee members Reps. Randy Weber (R-TX) and Mike Garcia (R-CA). They threatened to challenge the Electoral College results if those hearings did not take place—which they haven’t.

Despite claims in right-wing media of widespread voter fraud, the election results have been certified by the states—such as by Georgia’s secretary of state, a Republican—without finding any evidence for such fraud. Lawsuits claiming fraud have been rejected throughout the court system, including at the US Supreme Court. A challenge in Congress to the Electoral College results may create some drama and heated rhetoric (and, sadly, the potential for violent protests outside the Capitol), but won’t change the outcome of the election.

When it’s all over, how eager will Democratic members of the House and Senate be to cooperate on space policy issues with Republicans who led the charge to challenge the Electoral College vote? Will they let bygones be bygones, or see space as an opportunity to rebuild burnt bridges—perhaps because space is a relatively low-stakes issue in the grander scheme of politics? Or will bad blood persist and hinder cooperation in the new Congress on topics that previously had bipartisan support? That will determine what kind of NASA authorization or other space-related legislation can make it through the 117th Congress.


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