House NASA Authorization Bill Focuses on Sending Astronauts to Mars; Moon Seen as Interim Step

This scene from the panoramic camera on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity looks back toward part of the west rim of Endeavour Crater that the rover drove along, heading southward, during the summer of 2014. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/ASU)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

A draft of a House authorization bill rejects the Trump Administration’s Artemis program to land astronauts on the moon by 2024 and to establish a permanent presence there in favor of focusing on a crewed mission to Mars in the early 2030’s.

Under the measure, NASA would land astronauts on the moon in 2028 and launch crewed mission to orbit the Red Planet by 2033. The two missions would be interim steps toward landing astronauts on the martian surface in “a sustainable manner as soon as practicable,” the bill stated.

The authorization act would make the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft central to what it calls NASA’s Moon to Mars program while de-emphasizing the role of commercial systems and redirecting the Lunar Gateway to support missions to the Red Planet.

The bi-partisan authorization act was released by House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee with the support of Subcommittee Chairwoman Kendra Horn (D-OK) and Ranking Member Brian Babin (R-TX). Science Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) also backed the measure.

Under the bill, the moon would be a stepping stone, not a base, from which to expand human presence in the solar system.

“Any establishment of a continuously crewed lunar outpost or research station shall not be considered an element of the Moon to Mars Program and shall be budgeted separately from the Moon to Mars program,” the measure added.

“Crewed activities on or around the surface of the Moon that do not contribute to the goal of landing humans on Mars in as sustainable manner as practical shall not be included in the Moon to Mars Program and shall be budgeted separately from the Moon to Mars Program,” the bill said.

There was a similar provision for the mining of lunar resources for use as oxygen, water and fuel.

“Lunar in-situ resource utilization shall not be considered as risk reduction for the initial crewed missions to orbit and land on Mars,” the bill added. “Any lunar in-situ resource utilization activities and shall not be included in the Moon to Mars Program and shall be budgeted separately from the Moon to Mars Program.”

The Gateway concept (Credit: NASA/ESA)

The Lunar Gateway, which is intended to orbit the moon as a base for missions to the surface, would be transformed into a Mars Gateway in cis-lunar space or at a Lagrangian point between the Earth and the moon. The gateway would serve as a testbed for technologies needed for Mars.

“The Gateway to Mars shall be developed to operate autonomously and to be crew-tended, as needed, on an intermittent basis,” the measure stated. “The Gateway to Mars shall be open and available for international participation and use.”

Authorizers also direct that logistics support for the gateway and the lunar surface be provided by commercial companies “to the meximum extent possible…provided that the availability of those services does not becoming the limiting critical path factor in NASA’s ability to complete its Gateway to Mars and Lunar Precursor initiatives as scheduled.

“The Administrator shall develop contingency plans for the delivery of the minimum set of needed logistics in the event commercial services are not available when needed,” the bill added.

The act would direct NASA to upgrade SLS from its current Block 1 configuration, build two SLS core stages per year, and complete development of an Exploration Upper Stage for the giant rocket.

“The Administrator shall ensure that elements of a ground system infrastructure are in place to enable the preparation and use of the Space Launch System, specifically its Block 1 (70 mt) and Block 1B (105 mt) and Block 2 (130 mt) variants of the Space Launch System,” the measure stated.

The authorization act also directs that NASA will retain:

  • full ownership of the human lunar landing system;
  • unlimited and unfettered insight into the design, development, and testing of the integrated human landing system;
  • final determination on whether the system meets existing human-rating requirements; and,
  • leadership over any anomaly or accident investigation, should it be necessary to carry out such an investigation.

The provisions essentially reject the commercial path NASA has followed the cargo and crew programs that support the International Space Station (ISS). The providers own the vehicles in those programs, and the space agency has not had “unlimited and unfettered insight” into their design, development and testing. NASA has not always led investigations into anomalies and accidents in the cargo program.

Another provision stipulates that NASA conduct one uncrewed and one crewed in-space test and demonstration of the lunar lander before attempting to land a crew on the surface.

The provision rejects NASA’s current plan to land astronauts on the south pole of the moon on the Artemis III mission without a previous in-space test of the lunar lander.

The bill calls for NASA to initiate the following programs:

  • “a Lunar Precursor Initiative for the purpose of gaining and demonstrating the operational experience and systems needed to enable crewed transport to and from the surface of Mars, as well as for limited operations and habitation on Mars;
  • “a Mars Enabling Technology Initiative (METI) for the purpose of developing and testing the technologies and capabilities needed for a human missions to Mars; and,
  • “a Mars Transport Vehicle for the purposes of crewed transport to and around Mars.”

The authorization act faces an uncertain future with the rest of Congress. The Republican dominated Senate has been more supportive of the Trump Administration’s acceleration of the moon landing from 2028 to 2024 and its plans for lunar activities.