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A proposed House bill is threatening to rework NASA’s plans to return humans to the Moon

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Chances are it won’t pass as is

An artistic rendering of how NASA plans to send humans to the Moon
Image: NASA

A proposed piece of legislation from the House threatens to change NASA’s efforts to return humans to the Moon, worrying NASA officials and space advocates. The bill — a new authorization act for NASA — could significantly rework the space agency’s lunar plans by changing what kinds of vehicles and resources are used. And it would place a much larger emphasis on getting humans to Mars.

The bill’s main focus is NASA’s Artemis program, the agency’s primary human spaceflight program that entails sending the first woman and the next man to the Moon’s surface by 2024. NASA has been working toward this goal after the vice president challenged the agency last year to expedite its lunar return.

But rather than have NASA focus on getting to the Moon so soon, the bill would push the deadline to 2028. The legislation also adds another big milestone: get humans in orbit around Mars by 2033. In fact, the bill places more of a focus on that long-term goal, and rewrites NASA’s lunar plans in order to meet the objective of getting to the Red Planet sooner rather than later. Notably, it directs NASA to start working on a Mars transport vehicle ASAP, something the agency isn’t quite focused on at the moment.

“If their efforts have then generated some controversy, it is because they have done the hard work of clarifying what needs to happen if NASA is to reach Mars in a reasonable time period and for a reasonable cost,” Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said during a markup of the bill today, referring to her colleagues who wrote the bill.

The changes the bill is proposing have, indeed, rubbed a few officials the wrong way. “I am concerned that the bill imposes some significant constraints on our approach to lunar exploration,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine wrote in a blog post after the bill was released.

Perhaps the biggest concern revolves around the construction of Artemis’ lunar lander. Right now, NASA hopes to obtain multiple landers from commercial companies through public-private partnerships. With these collaborations, NASA would invest in the development of the landers, but the companies would create, control, and own the final products themselves. The new bill wants to instead make NASA the sole owner of this hardware, with full oversight on development. This is the same way NASA has built its biggest spacecraft for decades, and it can often be a costly way of doing business. For example, Boeing is currently building NASA’s next big rocket, the Space Launch System, this way, and the vehicle’s development has ballooned several billions of dollars.

“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,” Bridenstine said. “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.”

Additionally, the bill dictates how the lander is supposed to reach the Moon. The legislation says the lander has to be integrated with the SLS and the massive upper stage of the vehicle that Boeing plans to build for it. That means whoever is assigned to build the landers must be well-versed in Boeing’s hardware, potentially giving Boeing the leg up in the competition.

If all of this hardware does actually take people to the Moon, the astronauts might also be limited in what they can do there. Right now, NASA plans to use the Moon’s resources to maintain a sustainable presence on or around the lunar surface. This could mean using the lunar dirt to create structures and tools, as well as potentially mining water ice on the Moon’s surface. The bill argues that using the Moon’s resources doesn’t make it easier to get to Mars, so any lunar prospecting and mining has to be funded through other programs outside of Artemis. In fact, the bill states that NASA shouldn’t focus on any activities on the Moon that don’t contribute to getting to Mars.

Numerous organizations have come out against the bill, including The Planetary Society and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. Others like the Aerospace Industries Association and the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration have expressed their desire to continue to review portions of the legislation.

During a markup of the bill today, members of the House subcommittee on space emphasized that the bill isn’t perfect and that they hope to eventually create an authorization act that everyone can agree on. Some Republicans were clear that they weren’t fully supportive of the legislation. “Let me be clear, this is not an ideal bill,” Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), said during today’s markup. “It is not the one that I would have even put forward had we been in the majority.” Babin said that without the votes to defeat the bill, he decided to support the legislation and work with the Democratic majority to strengthen it, rather than not work with them at all.

Rep. Johnson also noted that the bill isn’t inflexible. “I would suggest that no one get too focused on the specific milestone dates proposed in the bill,” she said. “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.”

This bill has quite a ways to go before it becomes a law of any kind. It has to be reviewed by the full House and then it must be reconciled with a Senate NASA Authorization Act that was proposed in November. The odds of this bill being enacted without any changes are quite low.

But clearly, NASA and others are worried about the potential impacts this legislation could have on the future of the Artemis program. Up until now, NASA’s Artemis program has mostly been built internally, with a clear deadline established by the Trump administration. Now, Congress wants to have a much more prescriptive say in the process, which means NASA may have to make a few changes even if it doesn’t want to.