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The bill, entitled HR 5666 The National Aeronautics and Space Administration Act of 2020, contains several provisions that run counter to the Trump administration’s current Artemis return to the moon program. Those provisions include:
*A prohibition of any funds to establish a continuously occupied lunar base.
*No funding for the use of lunar resources to sustain astronauts working and living on the moon.
*No funding for any activity on the lunar surface that does not directly relate to an eventual Mars expedition.
The House bill would in effect cancel a program in which the agency would assist private companies in developing lunar landers that NASA would then use as a customer of the companies by requiring NASA to “own” the lander.
The bill defers the return to the moon from the current date of 2024 to 2028. Also, starting eight years from now, NASA will be required to launch two expeditions to the moon per year using the Boeing heavy-lift Space Launch System. However, without a huge increase in funding, Boeing is not capable of building two SLS rockets per year.
However, the language of the bill would make going to Mars harder, not easier. A study conducted by MIT concluded that the moon could be used as a refueling base for spacecraft headed to Mars. A lunar fuel depot would mine water ice from the moon’s poles and refine it into rocket fuel. A Mars ship would dock at the planned lunar gateway and top off with fuel brought up from the lunar surface. Ships headed for Mars would save a tremendous amount of weight by not having to carry rocket fuel all the way from Earth. Under the House bill, an expedition to Mars would have to take all of its fuel directly from Earth at great expense.
The reason why the House authorizers would, in effect, direct a middle finger to NASA and President Trump’s space priorities is open to speculation.
Democrats have always been hostile to the idea of going back to the moon, especially by 2024. The idea is that the date was chosen so that President Trump would have a win to conclude his hypothetical second term.
The press release from the House committee calls the bill “bipartisan.” Not only are the Democratic chairs of the full House committee and the subcommittee that oversees NASA co-sponsors, but so are the Republican ranking members. Why Republicans would sign off on the cancellation of NASA’s planned lunar base beggars comprehension.
It goes almost without saying that the House language needs to be killed in committee. If anything resembling the House language reaches President Trump’s desk, he should veto the bill and render a well written, caustic tweet to signal his displeasure.
The Boeing bill?
The House authorization act, which will now be considered in committee before going before the full House, rolls a lot of this back. Its proposed Human Landing System, which will take astronauts from lunar orbit, offers the prime example of this. The bill states that:
*The United States should retain "full ownership" of the Human Landing System, and unfettered insight into its design and development. In other words, it must be let under a cost-plus contract
*The lunar plans should utilize "the Orion vehicle and an integrated lunar landing system carried on an Exploration Upper Stage-enhanced Space Launch System for the human lunar landing missions.
*The Gateway to Mars shall not be required for the conduct of human lunar landing missions.
The net effect of this is to shut down all potential competition and cost savings for the lunar lander. It is particularly telling that there is only one company—Boeing—that has proposed building an integrated lunar lander, has the contract for the Exploration Upper Stage, and is building core stages for the Space Launch System rocket. Boeing has also tried to minimize use of the Gateway.
With the House bill, legislators seem to be trying to take NASA's human exploration program and give it over to the Boeing Company, going back to an era of cost-plus contracting.