Sat. Oct 1st, 2022
Mars or the Moon?  It's a debate that has haunted NASA for decades.
enlarge Mars or the Moon? It’s a debate that has haunted NASA for decades.

On Friday evening, a United States House of Representatives committee released HR 5666, an authorization bill for NASA. Such bills are not required for an agency to function, and they do not provide funding directly — that comes from the credit committees in the House and Senate. However, authorization laws give a “feel” to Congress and indicate what lawmakers will be willing to fund in the coming years.

The big conclusion of the bipartisan legislation is that it rejects the Artemis program set up by the Trump White House, which established the moon as a cornerstone of human exploration for the next decade or two and as a place for NASA astronauts. to expand the skills needed to expand to Mars in the late 2030s and 2040s. Instead, the House advocates a “flags-and-footprints” strategy where astronauts make a few short visits to the moon beginning in 2028 and then depart for Mars orbit by 2033.

space policy

Whatever one might think of NASA’s Artemis program to land humans on the moon by 2024, it tried to learn from decades of failed space policies. Artemis set a short-term goal, 2024, for a human return to the moon, which gave NASA some urgency to get moving. It also sought to develop a “sustainable” path of meaningful activities on the moon’s surface, including polar landings, attempts to drill for lunar resources (House law specifically prohibits this), and the establishment of a base.

In addition, Artemis acknowledged that space travel has changed in 50 years. The Artemis program has included new industry players such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, as well as emerging companies such as Maxar, along with established aerospace giants such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin. NASA’s plans essentially invited everyone to the table. Over time, the companies that provided the most reliable services at the lowest cost likely got more contracts.

The Artemis program also emphasized that NASA should be one of many customers, rather than the sole customer. It emphasized private investment in rockets and spacecraft and asked contractors to bring in more skin. By opting for fixed-price contracts for the Human Landing System over cost-plus deals, the Artemis program sought to obtain lower-cost services while encouraging contractors to deliver on time.

The Boeing bill?

The House Enabling Act, which will now be discussed in committee before going before the full House, rolls back much of this. The proposed Human Landing System, which will take astronauts out of orbit around the moon, is the best example of this. The bill states that:

  • The United States must retain “full ownership” of the Human Landing System and free understanding of its design and development. In other words, it must be rented out under a cost-plus contract
  • The lunar plans must use “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 is not required to conduct human moon landing missions.

The net effect of this is to eliminate all potential competition and cost savings for the lunar lander. It is particularly telling that there is only one company – Boeing – that has proposed to build an integrated lunar lander, has the contract for the Exploration Upper Stage and builds nuclear stages for the Space Launch System rocket. Boeing has also tried to minimize the use of the Gateway.

With the House bill, lawmakers appear to be trying to take over NASA’s human exploration program and turn it over to the Boeing Company, going back to an era of cost-plus contracts.

What about Mars?

Some proponents of spaceflight have welcomed the legislation as it refocuses the priorities of NASA’s manned spaceflights on Mars. More likely, House legislation will take NASA back to the vague “Journey to Mars” days of the Obama administration, which talked about sending humans to Mars in the 2030s without ever making any concrete plans or securing the required funding. provide.

Pretty much everyone in the space community agrees that it would be great to see humans set foot on Mars. But it’s hard to believe that the House is taking this activity seriously unless it doubles the budget for human exploration and actually requires funding for the major engineering challenges, such as landing large vehicles on Mars, surface habitats, power on Mars and Lake. That is missing from this bill.

In fact, this would probably give NASA another decade in which they spend billions of dollars on “capabilities” like the Space Launch System without actually sending astronauts anywhere beyond low Earth orbit.


NASA’s advisory board has wholeheartedly supported the Artemis plan proposed by the White House for many of the reasons outlined above — it provides the agency with a clear purpose and timetable, encompasses both commercial and traditional space travel, and goes beyond the “flags.” and footprints” from Apollo to something more durable.

The chairman of the board’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee, Wayne Hale, said he didn’t want to get ahead of his committee members when it came to the House legislation and what it would mean for NASA. However, he told Ars: “The proposed authorization law is disappointing.”

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation was more blunt in a statement released Sunday evening: “As written, the NASA authorization bill would not create a sustainable architecture for space exploration and would instead put NASA on the run by eliminating commercial participation and competition in key programs. As NASA and the White House have repeatedly stated, any sustainable space exploration effort must bring together the best of government and commercial industry to create a safe and affordable 21st-century space venture.”

And Homer Hickam, a former NASA engineer and the author of Rocket Boyscommented: “If this or anything like that gets approved, I’ll be resigning from the National Space Council’s user advisory group. It would be too much to see up close now how it’s being ruined by a Mars fantasy, probably while make other nations a lunar land rush.”

The House Subcommittee on Space, Science and Technology will hold a hearing Wednesday to highlight this legislation. Further discussions will take place on Feb. 10, when the White House releases its 2021 budget request, which will include a five-year funding plan for Artemis, along with a request to Congress to fund it.

By akfire1

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