On Wednesday, a US senator added an amendment to unrelated science legislation that would impose significant restrictions on NASA and its plans to return to the Moon.
The amendment (see document) was spurred by NASA’s decision in April to select SpaceX as its sole provider of a human landing system for the Artemis Program. Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from the state of Washington, where Blue Origin is based, authored the legislation. Owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin led a lunar lander bid that was rejected by NASA.
The US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation passed the amendment without any debate, adding the NASA changes to the Endless Frontier Act, a bill to keep US scientific and technology innovation competitive with China and other countries.
Later during the hearing, as other amendments to the bill were debated and rejected, one of the Endless Frontier Act co-sponsors, Republican Todd Young of Indiana, expressed frustration with the process. “This bill, in the main, is not supposed to be about space, private space companies,” Young said. “It in the main is supposed to be about competing, out-competing, out-innovating, outgrowing communist China.”
That Cantwell’s NASA amendment was attached to the Endless Frontier Act, the first available legislative vehicle likely to move through Congress, underscores its urgency as a priority for Cantwell and a Republican from Mississippi, Roger Wicker. From digging a little deeper into the text, it’s not difficult to see why.
Taking care of Blue
The legislation calls for $10.03 billion in additional funding for NASA to carry out the Human Landing System program. This legislation comes as Blue Origin and Jeff Bezos have been urging Congress to add $10 billion to NASA’s budget—enough money to fully fund the development of a second Human Landing System.
NASA did indeed want to have a competition for the lunar lander, but it selected only one company—SpaceX—in mid-April after Congress only appropriated a small amount of money in the fiscal-year 2021 budget. SpaceX’s total bid was only $2.9 billion, less than half that of its competitors, including the Blue Origin-led national team. “We looked at what’s the best value to the government,” said Kathy Lueders, chief of the human exploration program for NASA at the time.
Cantwell’s amendment mandates that NASA move forward with two landers. If the amendment is signed into law, NASA would likely have to re-open the competition, thus delaying work on the agency’s return to the Moon and putting an already difficult target of 2024 into further jeopardy.
This legislation also ignores NASA’s own plans to both create a lunar lander competition as well as keep the possibility of a 2024 landing on track. Under NASA’s plans, SpaceX would work at full speed toward the 2024 landing, while a second company would be brought on to compete for subsequent landings. But this has not mollified Cantwell. With her amendment, Cantwell seems to be saying that if Blue Origin can’t be included in the program, Artemis shouldn’t move forward.
Space Launch System
The bill would also require NASA to continue development of the “Exploration Upper Stage,” which is a new, more powerful second stage for the agency’s Space Launch System rocket. Moreover, the bill says this upper stage should be ready for use on the third launch of the rocket.
There’s just one problem with this requirement—NASA says it doesn’t need the Exploration Upper Stage to complete its early Artemis Moon missions. The first launches will use a commercially available upper stage, which is powerful enough to launch a crew of astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft to the Moon.
This legislation therefore burdens NASA with the upper stage development—likely to cost about $10 billion and take five years—at a time when the agency is busy enough trying to complete the first Moon missions. And although they will not admit this publicly, some NASA engineers are not even sure they need the upper stage. If SpaceX’s Starship vehicle is successful, it would be more powerful, cost less, and fly more frequently than the SLS rocket, even with its advanced upper stage.
It is not too difficult to see the hand of Boeing behind this legislative requirement, as the company has the prime contract to develop the Exploration Upper Stage.
Main propulsion test article
There is one other novel aspect of this legislation that really drives home its parochial bent. The Cantwell-Wicker amendment says NASA should “initiate development of a main propulsion test article for the integrated core stage propulsion elements of the Space Launch System, consistent with cost and schedule constraints, particularly for long-lead propulsion hardware needed for flight.”
So what is this? It’s basically a test article of the SLS rocket’s core stage. Such an element, which NASA has not asked for, would effectively allow NASA and Boeing to perform tests on an SLS prototype at Stennis Space Center in Southern Mississippi in perpetuity.
The backstory to this proposal is that Wicker, the Mississippi senator, is not happy that NASA only planned to perform a series of “Green Run” tests at Stennis on the very first core stage. (NASA completed this core stage test in March and has since shipped the first SLS rocket to Florida). A single test, the agency reasoned, would be enough to validate the technology.
With this legislation, however, NASA could do more tests, keeping Wicker’s center fully engaged and local contractors gainfully employed. Whether it would advance NASA’s exploration efforts, however, is a far more dubious proposition.
What happens now
The US legislating process is not straightforward, and there is no guarantee that Cantwell and Wicker’s amendment will become law. The amended Endless Frontier Act will now go to the full Senate, where this amendment may get stripped out. Then the bill must go to the US House, where it will be considered in full, and again the amendment may be removed from the legislation, as it is not particularly germane.
And even if the bill becomes law this fall or winter, it still could be superseded by the appropriations process. This is “authorizing” legislation. To pay for a second lander, congressional budget writers will have to actually fund it through the appropriations process. During this process, senators could override this language by funding, or not, the human landing system.
Regardless, the Cantwell amendment signals a couple of basic facts about the US Senate. First of all, some its members are really unhappy with NASA’s decision to give SpaceX a large contract for a lunar lander. And secondly, they’re still choosing parochial politics over what NASA says it actually needs to return to the Moon.