Is Trump’s moonshot heading for a roadblock?

Congressional disagreement over mission scope threatens NASA’s lunar return plans, jeopardising commercial competition.

Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft
A US congressional committee is recommending that Boeing, the maker of this CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, becomes the sole contractor for NASA's human Mars missions [December 20, 2019: Steve Nesius/Reuters]

On Wednesday afternoon in Washington, DC, a little-known United States House of Representatives subcommittee is set to take a first consequential step that could throw the Trump administration’s plan to land astronauts on the moon in 2024 – and the aerospace companies that have been developing lunar landing systems – into turmoil.

The US House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics’ Chair, Representative Kendra Horn (a Democrat), told Al Jazeera that not only has the ranking member, Representative Brian Babin (a Republican and a strong supporter of the administration), cosponsored the bill with her, but that it is in direct response to “repeated requests” made by her subcommittee and others to NASA that have gone unanswered.

“We have yet to receive a detailed plan and cost estimates that show us a pathway from here to 2024. And those things are required,” Horn told Al Jazeera.

She asserted that the bill, HR 5666, or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2020, “gives certainty and clarity to NASA and helps assure that there is a sustainable pathway, especially in the exploration section. It is responsible for taking care of our taxpayers’ investment.”

In its essence, the legislation scraps the administration’s Artemis Program as it was unveiled in May and its key policy to buy commercially provided and maintained lunar landing services, as a foundation for a human Mars mission in the 2030s. In its place, the committee proposes focusing NASA’s human exploration efforts on a simplified Mars mission that would necessarily rely heavily on a single contractor – Boeing.

Additionally, the bill would push any lunar landing back to 2028. China intends to send its citizens to the moon in 2025, with Russia promising to do the same by 2030.

Industrial gnashing of teeth

Reaction to the proposed bill has been swift.

The bipartisan bill’s introduction has come weeks, possibly just days, before many expect NASA to announce partnerships with possibly three aerospace companies to develop a lunar human landing system (HLS). The coveted 10-month contracts should be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, with the potential of future deals being worth billions.

SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft
SpaceX, the maker of this Dragon commercial cargo craft, has been one of the companies vying for contracts linked to NASA’s lunar human landing system, which would help to return people to the surface of the moon [File: NASA handout via Reuters]

Critics contend that the bill’s “flags and footprints” strategy, prioritising the sending of astronauts to Mars by 2033, effectively kneecaps a rapidly maturing US-based commercial space transportation industry.

Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, wrote in a letter shared with Al Jazeera and sent to the House Committee on Science & Technology as well as the subcommittee on Monday, that the proposed “legislation will set back America’s national space enterprise for decades, ceding ground to global competitors”.

He added, “The House Science Committee’s bill explicitly and unfairly excludes the participation of the American commercial spaceflight industry, irrationally barring fair competition from NASA’s deep space exploration initiatives.”

Stallmer’s analysis is based on a section of the bill, which if passed would direct NASA to forego engaging a variety of commercial space companies that have ambitions to provide lander transportation as a service. Instead, NASA would be required to outright own an HLS that is fully integrated with Boeing’s Orion space capsule and that company’s Upper Stage-enhanced Space Launch System – the rocket.

The companies vying to participate and obviously cash in on the current HLS programme include new space entrants such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Maxar, and Sierra Nevada Corp, as well as experienced hands like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. If this legislation goes forward, it is all but sure that the investment all those companies, save one, made in developing and submitting their proposals to NASA will be lost.

NASA’s view

What makes the timing of this action on this bill even more of a zinger is the fact that representatives from the companies named above – and more than 80 other commercial space transportation companies – gathered on Wednesday in the US capital for the opening of their annual joint conference with the Federal Aviation Administration, and with NASA’s Administrator Jim Bridenstine in attendance.

NASA space suit
NASA has come under pressure by the US Congress to submit its estimates for how much it would cost to land astronauts on the moon by 2024 [File: Carlos Jasso/Reuters]

Bridenstine also wrote to Congress on Monday and said if commercial partners were barred from participating – and therefore competing to produce the safest, most cost-effective space exploration technologies and transportation systems – then “our chances of creating a sustainable exploration program are significantly diminished”.

He took specific issue with the idea that NASA should own its lander system instead of paying for transport services. The current plan is for astronauts to fly on Boeing’s Orion spacecraft to a gateway, to be constructed near the moon, and then transfer to a service provider’s lunar lander.

“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 said.

The festering question of cost

Calls for NASA’s administrator to provide Congress with detailed plans and cost estimates to accomplish the goals he and the White House wish to accomplish are months old. Horn said the bill at once addresses national goals and provides for good governance.

“We can’t do this by the seat of our pants,” Horn told Al Jazeera.

She said, “We have to have [a detailed plan]. And the Congress has to have that sufficiently funded. Because if we don’t know, even a ballpark idea of how much this is going to cost, how do we fund it? If we don’t have a detailed plan of how to get from here to there, how do we assess it?”

In May 2019, the White House brought up the launch date to send Americans to the moon by four years, to 2024, and asked for an additional $1.6bn to cut down on the time needed to make that deadline. In December, Congress responded by allocating $22.6bn to NASA, but held back on fully funding the HLS programme, earmarking $600m when NASA had asked for $1bn.

Separately, in October, Jose Serrano, a Democrat and chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, put NASA Administrator Bridenstine on notice during testimony, stating, “To date, NASA has not provided the committee with a full cost estimate despite repeated requests.”

Bridenstine told the committee that NASA would provide those answers in February, which is still a few days away.

Source: Al Jazeera