Why does Rep. Johnson oppose NASA’s commercial human landing system?

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Washington Post reporter Christian Davenport reported on Twitter that Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) has sent a letter to the White House demanding that the decision of which companies developing a Human Landing System (HLS) should be funded for the second phase be deferred. 

Three companies are working on the vehicle that will return Americans to the lunar surface, SpaceX, Dynetics and a team led by Blue Origin. The companies that receive funding later in April will continue to develop an HLS in a project that is similar to the successful Commercial Crew program. The lunar landers will be owned and operated by the companies developing them, just as the Crewed Dragon is owned and operated by SpaceX and the upcoming Starliner by Boeing.

Johnson, who currently chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, believes that the commercial approach is not the way to go. She maintains that NASA should “own” the future HLS, much as it did the Lunar Module during the Apollo program. Why does Johnson believe this?

In her letter, Johnson claimed that no commercial market exists for the HLS. She does not think that the government should pay for the development of commercial lunar landers and then pay for their use to the private companies that would own and operate them. However, experience derived from the Commercial Orbital Transport System (COTS) and Commercial Crew programs, in which NASA pays companies to take supplies and astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS), argues against the congresswoman’s position.

The first SpaceX Crew Dragon with astronauts flew in May 2020. A subsequent flight occurred in November 2020. More flights are already scheduled for 2021, with the next occurring later in April.

Thus far, SpaceX has arranged for three flights of the Crew Dragon that do not involve NASA as a customer, including one that is serving as a fundraiser for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and another that will involve actor Tom Cruise and a film crew to shoot scenes for a space adventure movie. Future commercial space stations, such as the one being developed by Axiom, will rely on spacecraft developed under the COTS and Commercial Crew programs to keep them running, The fact that SpaceX has developed its own commercial space line proves that when you build the hardware, the customers will come.

No doubt developing a commercial lunar lander will facilitate private flights to the moon. One could see commercial companies setting up a presence at NASA’s planned lunar outpost. A commercial element would enhance the outpost’s capabilities and value to the tax-payers who will finance it.

The letter is not Johnson’s first attempt to interfere with the Artemis return-to-the-moon program. Last year, she cosponsored, along with then Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), H.R. 5666, a NASA authorization bill that would have imposed sweeping changes in NASA’s lunar program. Its provisions would have ended the commercial HLS program in favor of a NASA-centric project. The bill did not advance very far, largely because of objections by virtually every aerospace stakeholder. Horn, who chaired the House subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, subsequently lost her bid for reelection.

Why Johnson is trying to revive a proposal that was so thoroughly rejected last year is unclear. Ars Technica suggested that H.R. 5666 was designed to, in effect, hand over America’s lunar projects to Boeing. Boeing has experienced many difficulties managing the projects it has been assigned, including the heavy-lift Space Launch System (speaking of flight hardware owned by NASA) and its part of the Commercial Crew program, the Starliner. The giant aerospace company does have deep pockets with which it pays lobbyists, however.

Davenport does not believe that Johnson’s latest attempt to end the commercial HLS program is going anywhere. The program has developed wide support in Congress and the Biden administration in the wake of the Commercial Crew program’s success.

Moreover, Davenport reports that the incoming NASA administrator, former Sen. Bill Nelson, has told people that he intends to fight for the commercial HLS program. Nelson’s conversion to support of commercial space is a positive development, auguring well for the eventual success of Artemis.

The bottom line, it is not 1969. In the real world of 2021, commercial space is here to stay.

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.  He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times and the Washington Post, among other venues.

Tags Bill Nelson Blue Origins commercial space travel Eddie Bernice Johnson human landing system ISS Kendra Horn lunar landing NASA NASA funding Space travel SpaceX

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