On Jan. 24, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee released the draft of a NASA authorization bill that canceled the planned lunar base. Instead, the U.S. would mount a series of Apollo-style expeditions to the lunar surface solely to practice going to Mars. But the plan makes no sense — even to go to Mars.
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.
The House bill is an attempt to refocus the Artemis program on Mars and away from the moon. The United States and her allies would no longer establish a lunar base that would be a center of science, commerce, exploration, and international cooperation. Going back to the moon would only serve as a precursor to going to Mars. That’s it.
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 bill only mentions that NASA would launch an expedition to orbit Mars by 2033. A Mars landing would then only happen as soon as it is practical, whenever that might be. A cynic might suggest that Americans would never land on Mars under the House provisions.
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. House 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. It was really chosen to prevent the kind of ADD that has bedeviled previous large-scale space projects and to establish a short term deadline to focus the attention of NASA and her commercial partners.
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.
The Senate version of the NASA authorization bill is far more sensible — imposing fewer restrictions on the Artemis return to the moon program. 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.
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.