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House panel proposes NASA bill that would scrap the lunar base — or maybe not

House panel proposes NASA bill that would scrap the lunar base — or maybe not
© Aaron Schwartz

Recently, the House Aeronautics and Space Subcommittee of the House Space and Science Committee unveiled a proposed NASA authorization bill that would end the space agency’s plan to establish a continuously occupied lunar base under the Artemis return to the moon program. The bill also proposes several other things that fly in the face of Trump administration space policy.

The bill would prohibit developing under Artemis In-Situ Resource Utilization technology. ISRU, as it is called, is considered a vital element for allowing humans to live long term on other worlds, such as the moon and Mars. Examples include mining ice at the lunar poles, extracting oxygen from lunar soil and building habitats and other infrastructure from materials mined from the moon.

The bill would force NASA to retain ownership of the lunar lander being developed for accessing the moon’s surface. The current plan is to contract with commercial companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Boeing to build and operate lunar landers, with NASA as a customer. The idea is similar to the Commercial Orbital Transport System program that is delivering cargo to and from the International Space Station and the Commercial Crew program under development by SpaceX and Boeing to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

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The bill would prohibit all activities on the lunar surface not directly related to an eventual mission to Mars under Artemis. The moon as a testbed for Mars has been just one of the reasons NASA proposes to return to the moon. Other reasons have included scienceenabling commerce and fostering friendly relations with other countries.

The current plan to return to the moon by 2024 would be scrapped, with the date of 2028 restored. Under the bill, humans would only orbit Mars in 2033, only attempting a landing “when feasible.” The plan to establish a permanent human presence on the moon, with a base as a center for science, commerce and exploration, would be replaced by an Apollo-style series of short-term missions designed to practice landing and operating on Mars and nothing else.

The NASA Authorization Act of 2020 is said to be bipartisan, with both the Democratic chairs and the Republican ranking members of both the subcommittee and the full House Science Committee as cosponsors. But the cutbacks of the return to the moon portion of the bill would appear to reflect Democratic priorities.

Congressional Democrats have expressed skepticism about the Artemis program as currently planned, especially the 2024 return to the moon date. More than one Democratic lawmaker has noted that the year would be the last of a potential second term for President Donald Trump and suggested that its selection is politically motivated.  

A number of Artemis program stakeholders, including NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, a group of concerned scientists and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation expressed alarm at the language in the bill that limited the scope of the Artemis program and eliminated commercial participation in the lunar lander portion. Those concerns appear to have had some effect on members of the subcommittee, according to Space Policy Online.

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During the subcommittee markup session, with Bridenstine in silent attendance, Chairwoman Kendra HornKendra Suzanne HornWhat should Biden do with NASA and the Artemis Program? Here are the 17 GOP women newly elected to the House this year Rundown of the House seats Democrats, GOP flipped on Election Day MORE and Ranking Member Brian Babin, among others, appeared to walk back some of the more objectionable provisions of the bill, particularly the 2028 landing date. If NASA can land humans on the moon safely by 2024, then they should go for it. The moon base and ISRU would still be allowed if budgeted outside of the Artemis program. The ban on commercial lunar landers remains absolute, however.

Republican members of the subcommittee were apologetic about the bill, noting that it would be different if they were still in the majority. Members on both sides of the aisle pledged to improve the bill as it winds its way through the full Science Committee and the full House.

Still, as written, the House NASA bill is a rejection of the plan that incorporates the moon and its abundant resources into the Earth’s economy. The sort of science that could be done on the moon, both by studying its geology and geophysical properties, and as a platform for large astronomical observatories, would be curtained

If the House bill is passed in its current form, it would have to be reconciled with a Senate version that does not have as many restrictions on the return to the moon program. If anything like the House bill ever arrives on President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSAID administrator tests positive for COVID-19 Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year DOJ appeals ruling preventing it from replacing Trump in E. Jean Carroll defamation lawsuit MORE’s desk, he likely would and certainly should veto it.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.