In 2019, the idea that any piece of legislation is starting out as bipartisan (in this case, the authors are Democratic Representatives Kendra Horn from Oklahoma and Eddie Bernice Johnson from Texas, along with Republican Representatives Brian Babin of Texas and Frank Lucas of Oklahoma) seems kind of amazing and endearing. However, the first thing that might be noted is that while this bill’s authors do span the two parties, they also span only two neighboring states — both of which would be given a bigger chunk of the overall NASA pie if the legislation were to be adopted as written.
This is an authorization bill. It does not directly provide funding for NASA and does not directly require that funding to be spent on specific programs. However, his bill definitely indicates the direction of thinking in the House and sets the tone for those areas where the House will provide funding in an appropriations bill. In other words, this is a first step toward making the contents of the bill official policy. It’s both a warning shot across NASA’s bow (i.e. devote yourself to these things if you want to see support) and a starting point for negotiating appropriation bills.
The first thing this bipartisan legislation does is fundamentally reject all of the space policy that has been formulated by the Trump White House—the Artemis program to return to the Moon, the Lunar Gateway space station, long terms bases on the moon, all of it. Giving Trump a kick in the space balls may sound like fun, and might be part of why two Democratic reps are on this bill. But that does not make what’s proposed in the “National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2020” good policy, either in terms of science or providing NASA a foundation for the future.
The policy being advocated in the bill is not that NASA shouldn’t go to the Moon, but that it should do so a “minimum number of times” necessary to venture on to Mars. That means no lunar station, no lunar bases, no emphasis on developing technologies for an extended stay.
But that’s not the end of it. The bill also would eliminate a program now underway at NASA to solicit lunar landers from multiple contractors. Instead, it would instruct NASA to conduct manned flights only on craft that it “owns.” Which in this case means only using the Space Launch System, along with the Orion space craft and a lander meeting specific design goals. The effect of this is to shut down the competition that is already in progress with a half-dozen companies showing multiple designs for landers with varying capacities and capabilities, and backing only one craft, a craft that comes only from one company.
Which is why some pundits are already describing the authorization as the “Boeing bill.” The description of the rockets and craft to be used for lunar landings in the authorizing legislation matches that proposed by Boeing, and only that proposed by Boeing. And, in what is surely not a coincidence, it also follows Boeing’s advocacy for bypassing the lunar gateway station and making direct flights.
There are space advocates who have praised the bill. The lunar gateway is far from a universal favorite, and the idea of moving on to Mars as quickly as possible certainly has supporters—including some who would sideline a return to the Moon altogether. And naturally, the fact that this bill reverses policy under Trump has it’s own special appeal.
The bill has also generated spirited opposition. That includes from engineer Homer Hickam, who responded by saying, “If this or anything like it is approved, I will resign from the National Space Council's User Advisory Group. After years of me and so many others urging NASA to get out of LEO and go back to the moon and this time to stay, it would be too much to bear to now watch at close range it being ruined by a Mars fantasy, probably while other nations make a lunar land rush.”
Yes, Barack Obama wanted to go to Mars. Elon Musk is determined to go to Mars. Mars is … cool. But the truth is that, if NASA’s activities are designed to lead to more than just decorating the Solar System with American flags, we need the information and experience that can be gained from extended stays in both lunar orbit and on the lunar surface. We need the experience of operating outside the safety of Near Earth Oribit, where terra firma is never more than a couple of hours away. We need to test the ability to produce water and fuel from ice that may be present in small quantities or mixed with dust and minerals. We need to test the ability to create shelters that can protect against radiation over months and even years. We need to see if the idea of moving industry outside the atmosphere is either possible or practical.
Is it possible to create a program that tags the Moon and then runs straight for Mars? It is. But unless the goal of that program is to produce nothing more than posters that grace the walls of bedrooms for the next fifty years, it’s not good policy. It would also require scrapping not just proposals, but plans that are well under development and which show promise to become actual, working systems in just the next few years. The goal of the Artemis program has always been “going to the Moon to prepare for Mars.” Scrapping that plan, even if the goal is achieved, threatens to leave behind nothing but another fifty years of “Now what?”
That doesn’t mean that parts of the program, including the lunar gateway — an international effort that like ISS proves to be both challenging and damned expensive — might not get seriously cut back or eliminated. It just means that by this point, we should appreciate that “got there first” is not a particularly laudable end goal.
Advocates for space have long suggested that expanding expanding manned flight beyond Earth orbit offers the possibility of genuine advances, access to rare materials, and scientific knowledge unobtainable under an ocean of air and sea of electronic interference. All of that and more can be tested on the Moon. Let’s go there.
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