“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all.”
I won’t dispute these words, uttered by President Kennedy in 1962. There is still no national conflict in space as of yet; while the militarization of space has been a concern since before the USSR launched the first successful satellite into space, international conflict in space is a discussion for another day—or, as it may be, another column. In the United States, exploration of outer space remains a largely nonpartisan issue, encouraging collaboration on both sides of the aisle. However, with the entrance of more private aerospace companies within the past decade, space is increasingly becoming more political, particularly for those serving in Congress.
To understand how this might be, we first have to understand the changes NASA has made since the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. Most recently, we saw the successful launch of American astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, powered by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. This launch, on Saturday, May 30, 2020, was a major milestone for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program; as NASA says, its goal is “to stimulate efforts within the private sector to aid in the development and demonstration of safe, reliable and cost-effective crew transportation capabilities”—specifically to the International Space Station (ISS). The launch is one of several NASA initiatives to partner with private aerospace companies to provide flight services and innovate ways to send astronauts to low earth orbit and beyond. NASA’s partnerships with these companies help control costs and allow for domestic-based spaceflight of U.S. astronauts, while leveraging the talent and infrastructure existing in the private sector. For the companies, it’s a huge opportunity to profit from the commercialization of low-Earth orbit and private spaceflight.
NASA has also begun to award contracts to private companies to develop lunar landers for the future Artemis missions, through which NASA plans to send the first woman and next man to the Moon. This program—formally known as the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative—will drive innovation and reduce costs to the agency, which indirectly reduces costs to taxpayers, according to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. As of November 18, 2019, there were fourteen total CLPS participants, and on Thursday, April 30, 2020, NASA selected Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX to begin detailed studies for potential lunar landers for the Artemis program. Combined, these contracts are valued at $967 million dollars. They fund a ten-month period during which these three private companies will prototype their ideas. In early 2021, NASA will review each company’s work and decide which among them will receive funding to continue development. The goal is to have a lunar lander ready by 2024, for NASA’s crewed Artemis III mission. The first time NASA sent humans to the moon, it took about six years from design and development to the 1969 landing, only a year or so longer than is expected this time. Although NASA has developed a lunar lander in the past, the designs being proposed now must integrate all of the innovation and advances in technology that have occurred over the last five decades and work towards NASA’s goal of sustainable lunar exploration.
NASA’s approach came under fire from the Congressional House Science Committee earlier in the year when they introduced H.R. 5666 on Friday, January 24, 2020; following the Agency’s April 30 decision, leaders of the Committee reiterated their concerns and expressed disappointment in NASA’s deviation from Congressional intent outlined in the bill. H.R. 5666, entitled “National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2020,” supported many of NASA’s endeavours, but it took issue with their public-private partnerships, specifically as part of the Moon to Mars initiative. The bill directed NASA to place more focus on sending humans to Mars than on returning to the Moon, to delay sending a crewed mission to the Moon until 2028, and to have full ownership of the lunar lander, instead of buying those services from a private company. Furthermore, H.R. 5666 deemphasized many of the scientific plans related to lunar missions that are seen as vital to NASA, including making use of lunar ice at the Moon, and it sought to restrict the development of a “continuously crewed lunar outpost or research station” as part of the Moon to Mars program. Bypassing these lunar research projects limits opportunities for gathering significant scientific knowledge, which could have repercussions for future Mars missions and deep space exploration.
Along with Representative Kendra Horn (D-OK), who is the sponsor of H.R. 5666, the three original cosponsors of this bill—Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Frank Lucas (R-OK), and Brian Babin (R-TX)—publicly voiced criticisms regarding NASA’s plans for the Artemis program, as well as their partnerships with private companies in general. While the disagreement is bipartisan, it is not divorced from the nature of U.S. politics today. In fact, it appears to be pretty tightly linked to these legislators’ desire to be reelected—principally, the money reelection requires. Upon closer look, it is not the fact that NASA is partnering with private companies that seems to bother these Representatives; instead, the opposition stems from the way in which NASA is doing it and who the Agency is doing it with.
A quick search of the bill led me to Section 333(a), which reads, “The Administrator may establish a Commercial Lunar Payload Services program for the purposes of transporting and landing science instruments and payloads on the lunar surface or to cislunar space.” The CLPS initiative has the legislators’ approval, but they also direct NASA to use lunar landers that operate using the Space Launch System (SLS), the powerful rocket NASA has designed to send astronauts to the moon. The companies to whom the agency has awarded contracts for lunar lander development plan to use their own rockets instead of the SLS rocket. However, the design that Boeing submitted in November 2019 did involve launching an integrated lunar lander with NASA’s Space Launch System, and they are the prime contractor for the core stage of the rocket. Boeing also has a contract with the Agency for the Commercial Crew program, but they were not one of the three companies chosen to develop the lunar lander.
This is curiously significant because all three cosponsors of H.R. 5666 receive thousands of dollars in campaign funding from a Boeing-associated PAC each campaign cycle. Rep. Johnson, the Chair of the House Science and Technology Committee, has received $5,000 from the Boeing PAC in the 2019-2020 cycle so far; she received $6,000 in 2017-2018, $7,000 in 2015-2016, and $7,000 in the 2013-2014 cycles. Until becoming Chair in 2019, she had been the Ranking Member of the Science and Technology Committee since December 2010. The current Ranking Member, Rep. Lucas, has received $9,000 from a Boeing Co. PAC towards his campaign for the 2019-2020 cycle, and he received $10,000 in both the 2017-2018 cycle and the 2015-2016 cycle. Representative Babin has received $7,000 for the 2019-2020 cycle so far, and throughout his career has received a total of $36,250 in campaign contributions from Boeing PACs and associated individuals, making Boeing the fifth largest contributor of Rep. Babin’s career, which spans from 1995 to the present. It looks like the representatives want what’s best for Boeing, and subsequently themselves, not what’s best for scientific innovation.
While these legislators also mention issues of safety and efficiency and express the importance of making America the first country to send humans to Mars, it’s hard to separate their motives from the fact that the company whose design they’re favoring is also lining the coffers of their campaigns—even if they truly believe that using the SLS will reduce risk and minimize cost to taxpayers. Besides, that belief should warrant some skepticism, too, because the SLS program has cost over 30 percent more than the original Congress-approved agency baseline commitment of $7 billion, due in part to Boeing’s production issues. It would have been less expensive to purchase multiple Falcon Heavy rockets from SpaceX, and there is no evidence that the SLS is any safer than the other companies’ rockets. It is even harder to view the legislators’ efforts objectively when their statements starkly contrast with the Senate Commerce Committee’s endorsement of NASA’s selected companies.
Indeed, the Chairman, Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), stated in a press release, “Making good use of commercial partnerships lowers the long-term cost of space exploration, and it allows the American aerospace industry to do what it does best—innovate.” Coincidentally, he does not receive campaign contributions from Boeing, and neither does he receive contributions from the three companies that were chosen by NASA. Besides, it seems out of place for Congress to be directing NASA and its partners on the steps necessary to return to the Moon and to send humans to Mars for the first time. Space travel is certainly risky, but NASA is not known to be reckless. Congress has the responsibility of determining the Agency’s annual budget and appropriations and considers how to address broad space policy questions regarding affordability and safety. However, in this case, the House is seeking to exercise much stronger control over NASA’s plans for the Moon and Mars than has been done in the past, and in the process they are imposing constraints on scientific progress.
While space may not be a partisan issue, favoring innovation by Boeing over the innovation being done by a number of other companies definitely renders it political. What should matter in these circumstances is which company has the safest, most innovative design, especially when the crafts will be carrying Americans to the Moon, and hopefully to Mars. Money in politics is not a new problem; some would say that it’s just the way the game is played. But setting rules on scientific innovation meant to advance our country—and all of humanity—based on the company most willing to give you money hinders all progress. Thus, it’s no wonder NASA didn’t choose to follow Congress’ prerogative when it came to awarding the contracts.