Artists conception of a future Martian base.
Artists conception of a future Martian base.
Image: NASA/SEArch+/Apis Cor

A newly proposed House authorization bill would push back NASA’s deadline to land humans on the Moon to 2028 instead of 2024, while also calling for a crewed landing on Mars in 2033. Reactions to this proposal have been mixed, with NASA’s chief Jim Bridenstine unhappy about the way the agency is supposed to roll out this recommended plan.

The proposed authorization bill, called the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2020, was introduced by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on January 24, reports Spaceflight Now. The 102-page document recommends that the first crewed Artemis lunar landing take place in 2028 instead of 2024, which is the current, controversial deadline. At the same time, the House Committee is proposing a rather aggressive timeline for Mars exploration, in which American astronauts would arrive to Martian orbit in 2033, followed shortly thereafter by a mission to the surface.

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The bipartisan legislation was introduced by Representative Kendra Horn (D-Oklahoma), who chairs the committee’s space and aeronautics subcommittee. A markup session is planned for tomorrow, at which point the document could undergo substantial changes. It’ll likely be months before a vote takes place to enact the proposed legislation, also known as H.R. 5666.

The overarching goal of the recommended changes is to position the Artemis lunar program as a stepping stone for the larger goal of sending people to Mars. America’s “human space exploration goal should be to send humans to the surface of Mars,” according to the proposed bill. At the same time, missions to the Moon will be required to reduce risk and to demonstrate the “capabilities and operations needed to support a human mission to Mars.”

Last year, NASA said a mission to Mars by 2033 was a distinct possibility, but this proposed authorization bill would turn speculation and wishful thinking into a concrete plan.

The specified goal of the pending “Moon to Mars program,” as it’s termed in the proposed bill, will be to “land humans on Mars in a sustainable manner as soon as practicable,” with the “interim goal of sending a crewed mission to the lunar surface by 2028 and a goal of sending a crewed mission to orbit Mars by 2033.”

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Among other recommendations, the bill specifies that the Artemis lunar lander be launched as a single component, rather than a modular multi-piece vessel that would be constructed in space. NASA would retain full ownership of the Artemis lunar landing system, which would be a dramatic change in plans, given that the space agency is currently soliciting bids from the private sector.

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Bill H.R. 5666 would renew NASA’s commitment to the Lunar Gateway project but proposes that the outpost be placed not in lunar orbit but in the Earth-Moon Lagrange point—a gravitational sweet spot between Earth and Moon. At this location, the habitable terminal could support missions to the Moon and Mars, according to the bill, which didn’t rule out a lunar orbit as a possibility.

The proposed bill calls for the establishment of a Moon to Mars program office, complete with its own director, and a Mars Enabling Technology Initiative for the “purpose of developing and testing the technologies and capabilities needed for a human mission to Mars.” Items on the prospective to-do list include the development of propulsion engines, Mars landing systems, protection against radiation, a Mars transport vehicle, life support systems, Martian habitats, and spacesuits for explorers, among other technological needs.

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Given the aggressive timeline, NASA would need to set up its Moon to Mars office within 60 days of the bill being enacted, develop an overall mission architecture and plan within 120 days, and submit estimated budgets within 240 days, according to the proposed bill.

NASA would also have to provision for two crewed lunar missions each year following the inaugural landing in 2028, as well as create a plan to decommission the International Space Station (ISS) and consider potential replacements, including contributions from the private sector.

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The bill also states that NASA must assure crew access to the ISS and upgrade and replace ISS spacesuits, including spares, to “accommodate the diversity of ISS crew,” in an obvious response to a debacle last year in which an all-women spacewalk was canceled because not enough suits were available to the female crew. Other items in the proposed bill included the development of tech for defense, the monitoring of climate change, new telescopes, and even the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

In a NASA statement issued Monday, January 27, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine expressed some reservations about the proposal.

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“I am concerned that the bill imposes some significant constraints on our approach to lunar exploration,” said Bridenstine. “As you know, NASA has successfully fostered the development of a rapidly expanding commercial economy for access to space. We would like to continue building on this success as we develop the most efficient mission architectures and partnership approaches to accomplish our shared goals.”

In particular, Bridenstine is concerned about the proposed approach to building the lunar lander. A fully government-owned-and-operated lander system would be “ineffective,” he said. In its current form, the proposed bill would hinder NASA’s “ability to develop a flexible architecture that takes advantage of the full array of national capabilities—government and private sector—to accomplish national goals,” he said. Accordingly, the NASA chief is hoping for “some modifications” to the pending legislation.

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As SpaceNews reports, some members of the private sector are also miffed by the proposed bill:

In a Jan. 27 letter to the bill’s four co-sponsors, Eric Stallmer, president of the [Commercial Spaceflight Federation], offered even stronger criticism, saying it “explicitly and unfairly excludes the participation of the American commercial spaceflight industry, irrationally barring fair competition from NASA’s deep space exploration initiatives.” Stallmer called on the committee to withdraw the bill and “engage in a fully transparent process” with all stakeholders.

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That said, the bill does appear to have its supporters, including The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration (an organization that advocates on behalf of the private space industry) and Aerospace Industries Association (a U.S. trade association), according to SpaceNews.

We’ll be following the House markup session that’s scheduled for tomorrow to see how this bill might be modified and to learn next steps, such as when a vote might happen. Regardless, the U.S. government has big plans for NASA in the coming decades, as the next era of human space exploration appears to be imminent.

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George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.

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