WASHINGTON — Senators voted overwhelmingly against a motion on May 4 that would have spelled a setback for NASA’s efforts to select a second company to develop an Artemis lunar lander.
The motion, sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), would have directed senators participating in a conference committee with the House on the United States Competition and Innovation Act (USICA) to delete a section that authorizes the financing of the Human Landing System. (HLS) and directing NASA to support at least two companies. The Senate passed the bill last June, but must reconcile it with a House bill without any NASA authorization language.
In brief comments on the Senate floor during debate on the May 4 motion, Sanders argued that the provision was a gift to Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, one of the bidders in the original HLS competition won by SpaceX in April. 2021. “We can give $10 billion to Jeff Bezos, the second richest person in this country, who owns the space company Blue Origin,” he said. “It doesn’t make much sense to give $10 billion to the second richest person in this country.”
The bill, strictly speaking, does not give Bezos $10 billion. Instead, the part of the bill that Sanders sought to eliminate $10.032 billion authorized for fiscal years 2021 to 2025 to carry out the general HLS program, supporting “no less than 2 entities” in the program. The funding would have to be allocated annually, with $928 million already allocated in fiscal 2021 and $1.195 billion in 2022, primarily to support the SpaceX HLS contract.
NASA requested nearly $1.5 billion for HLS in 2023, including funding that would go to a second company to begin work on a separate Artemis lunar lander. NASA has just started the competition to award that second prize, and Blue Origin is one of several companies expressing interest in competing. NASA anticipates selecting a winner in early 2023.
Opponents of the motion emphasized the importance they placed on competition in the HLS program. “NASA recognizes that competition makes us better. That’s why they asked us to fund this second vendor for the lunar lander,” Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) said on the Senate floor. Sanders’ motion “would be a sledgehammer to American ingenuity and the Artemis program.”
“It’s about security and it’s about redundancy and it’s about us authorizing the Artemis program,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee.
Sanders was not convinced, arguing that the competition would be Blue Origin against SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk, currently the richest person in the country. “Is that really the kind of space program that the American people want?” he asked. “I do not think so.”
However, Sanders was unable to convince most of his colleagues. Only 17 senators, including Sanders, voted in favor of the motion, and 78 voted against it. The motion drew support from both ends of the political spectrum, with Sanders joined by progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), but also by conservatives like Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Josh Hawley (R-Mass. – Mo.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) Florida’s two senators, Marco Rubio (R) and Rick Scott (R), also voted in favor of the motion.
Earlier in the day, Joel Graham, a staff member for the Senate Commerce Committee, told a meeting of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) that a priority for the committee was to pass a final version. of USICA that preserves the NASA authorization bill.
That included, he said, the HLS authorization language. “You have to have a different redundancy. You have to have multiple approaches,” she said. “You have to have a competitive environment when you move into the services phase later on.”
He told COMSTAC that he had found “some pretty misleading talking points” about the HLS language, without elaborating. “The more I talk to member offices” about that section of the bill, “they get it.”