Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders inserted himself into the debate about NASA’s Artemis Program on Monday.
The two-time presidential nominee and independent submitted an amendment to the Endless Frontier Act, which is now being debated by the full Senate. Bernie Sanders’ amendment, No. 1925, has a straightforward goal: “To eliminate the multi-billion dollar Bezos Bailout.”
The “bailout” in question is a previous amendment to the Endless Frontier Act that was filed at a committee meeting earlier this month. Overall, the Endless Frontier Act aims to advance US science and research activities, but it has been hampered by changes made by US senators. Sanders is trying to eliminate language from an amendment that was previously added to the science act with great success.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the chair of the Commerce Committee, introduced language to the NASA part of the bill requiring NASA to have at least two Human Landing System (HLS) contractors for the Artemis program. NASA chose only one, SpaceX, because Congress only approved 25% of the funding NASA requested for FY2021.
This legislation was drafted at the same time as Blue Origin and Jeff Bezos were urging Congress to increase NASA’s budget by $10 billion, which would be enough to completely finance the construction of a second Human Landing System. The US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation passed it 11 days ago without discussion.
One of the losing bidders was Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which is based in Cantwell’s state, and the clause is widely regarded as an effort to secure a contract for him. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced an amendment today to strike the entire segment that was passed by committee to secure SpaceX’s contract before the bill reached the Senate floor.
Sanders’ terse amendment aims to remove Cantwell’s provision for additional support for a Human Landing System.
In theory, Cantwell filed her bill amendment because she wanted competition in NASA’s attempts to develop a landing system to send astronauts to the Moon as early as 2024. In fact, Cantwell’s amendment is more likely to be interpreted as an attempt to help Blue Origin, a company based in her home state.
NASA was serious about having a race for the lunar lander. However, after Congress appropriated only a small amount of money in the fiscal year 2021 budget, it chose only one company—SpaceX—in mid-April. SpaceX’s overall offer was $2.9 billion, less than half of its rivals’, including the national team headed by Blue Origin.
However, Cantwell’s amendment was drafted in such a way that it would have slowed NASA’s return to the Moon. If the Cantwell amendment becomes law, NASA will be forced to reopen the competition, slowing work on the agency’s return to the Moon and jeopardizing an already difficult deadline of 2024.
Her amendment also disregarded NASA’s own plans to hold a lunar-lander competition and keep the prospect of a landing in 2024 alive. According to NASA’s plans, SpaceX would operate nonstop for a landing in 2024, while a second company would be hired to compete for subsequent landings.
Sanders did not mention his amendment in public, but his motives seem to be clear. He is a vocal critic of billionaires in general, and in particular of Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the world’s richest individual. He was particularly irritated by Amazon’s attempts to prevent a union from forming in Bessemer, Alabama, earlier this year. As a result, Sanders’ amendment can be seen as a slap at Bezos.
It’s difficult to say where this leaves NASA and its Artemis Program. Even if Sanders’ amendment fails, the Endless Frontier Act as amended must pass through the US House of Representatives, where the Cantwell amendment will be removed. Even if the bill is signed into law this fall or winter, the appropriations process could override this “authorizing” funding language.