Congress isn’t happy about SpaceX’s lunar lander and may vent this week

“I would simply say, Congress supports SLS and Orion.”

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson will appear at a committee meeting of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on Wednesday, and the meeting could be full of intrigue when the subject of NASA’s Artemis Program to land humans on the Moon and SpaceX comes up.

We can probably expect some happy talk as Nelson—who as a US Senator in 2011 championed the development of the Space Launch System rocket alongside Kay Bailey Hutchison—references the recent stacking of the booster’s core stage with its solid rocket motors at Kennedy Space Center. After a decade and more than $20 billion in costs, NASA’s large SLS rocket is indeed finally getting closer to its first test launch.

But the real intrigue will involve the Human Landing System needed as part of the Moon program to take astronauts down to the lunar surface and back up to orbit. In April, due in part to a lack of funding from Congress, NASA selected SpaceX and its Starship vehicle as to the sole provider for this critical component of Artemis. The space agency awarded $2.89 billion to SpaceX for the lander.

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Nelson was formally named NASA administrator shortly after this award was made. He has supported the contract because he knows it is the only real chance that NASA has to make a 2024 landing. But he has repeatedly asked Congress for more funding so that NASA can support a second lander contract, either via the Biden administration’s jobs and infrastructure bill or as a straightforward budget addition.

That latter suggestion is the route recently taken by the Senate, which authorized the addition of $10 billion to NASA’s budget as part of the Endless Frontier Act passed this month. The money would principally fund the development of a second lander, likely the one being designed by a Blue Origin-led team, as well as some parochial NASA projects that can justifiably be described as pork.

What makes Wednesday’s hearing before the House intriguing is that key US Representatives have signaled they will not follow the Senate’s lead. As part of its version of the Endless Frontier Act, the House Science Committee skipped authorizing funds for a second lunar lander. A US Representative from Seattle, near where Jeff Bezos’ Amazon and Blue Origin companies are based, offered a stinging rebuke, telling The Wall Street Journal, “If Jeff Bezos wants to explore space, that’s great, but I don’t think he needs federal dollars.”

So it seems clear that the House will not just throw more money at NASA for a second lunar lander. At the same time, the House is fairly hostile toward SpaceX and commercial space. The chair of the House Science Committee, Dallas Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson, said she was “disappointed” after NASA selected SpaceX as its sole provider of a lunar lander in April.

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Johnson’s opposition was not a huge surprise. Last year, she and then-US Representative Kendra Horn issued a joint statement expressing concerns about NASA’s plans to rely on a “commercial” provider for a lunar lander. NASA wanted to issue a fixed-price contract for the lander instead of a cost-plus contract. NASA explained that it had used fixed-price contracting as part of its Commercial Crew Program, and it proved a cheaper and faster method. The agency seemed justified in this, as SpaceX Crew Dragons now safely ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

However, many in Congress have opposed this approach. They cite a desire for NASA to have more “oversight” over these contracts as a rationale for favoring cost-plus contracts. Yet, an often unstated rationale likely has more sway over Congress. Under a cost-plus contract, Congress retains some control over who gets space jobs and in which states. Under fixed-price contracts, these decisions are left up to the contractors themselves.

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Here is Johnson, in 2020, expressing her concerns about funding the lunar lander with a fixed-price contract: “The multi-year delays and difficulties experienced by the companies of NASA’s taxpayer-funded Commercial Crew program—a program with the far less ambitious goal of just getting NASA astronauts back to low Earth orbit—make clear to me that we should not be trying to privatize America’s Moon-Mars program, especially when at the end of the day American taxpayers—not the private companies—are going to wind up paying the lion’s share of the costs.”

Given this backdrop, Wednesday’s hearing, called to discuss NASA’s budget request for the fiscal year 2022, will be worth watching. Nelson’s goal will be to secure some funding for Artemis, as he would like to have some competition to spur the program forward.

Johnson, meanwhile, is likely to be unhappy. After Congress appropriated so little funding for a lander in last year’s budget, NASA said, ‘Fine, we’ll take the lowest cost option,’ which was SpaceX. To make things worse, from her perspective, NASA ignored her preferred solution for going to the Moon, which was to bypass the commercial lander approach entirely. She supports the SLS rocket, the Orion spacecraft, and big government space programs that supply a lot of jobs. She made this clear during a hearing in 2016 when the prospect of using lower-cost commercial vehicles for space exploration came up.

“To all those NASA and contract employees I would simply say, Congress supports SLS and Orion,” she said. “And we will continue to do so no matter what.”

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