Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders inserted himself into the debate about NASA’s Artemis Program on Monday.
The independent and two-time presidential candidate did so by submitting an amendment to the Endless Frontier Act, which is now under consideration by the full Senate. Sanders’ amendment, No. 1925, has a simple purpose, “To eliminate the multi-billion dollar Bezos Bailout.”
The “bailout” in question refers to an earlier amendment filed to the Endless Frontier Act during a committee meeting earlier this month. Overall, the Endless Frontier Act is primarily about advancing US scientific and research efforts, but it has become fettered with modifications by US senators. Sanders is seeking to strip language from an amendment that has already been successfully attached to the scientific act.
This earlier amendment, submitted by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), modified NASA’s Artemis Program. Cantwell’s amendment, in part, called for $10.03 billion in additional funding for NASA to carry out the Human Landing System program. This legislation was filed as Blue Origin and Jeff Bezos were urging Congress to add $10 billion to NASA’s budget—enough money to fully fund the development of a second Human Landing System. It was passed 11 days ago without any debate by the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
Sanders’ terse amendment seeks to excise the Cantwell language that provides additional funding for a Human Landing System.
In theory, Cantwell filed her amendment to the bill because she genuinely wanted competition in NASA’s efforts to build a landing system to send astronauts to the Moon, beginning as early as 2024. In reality, Cantwell’s amendment is probably more accurately interpreted as an effort to support Blue Origin, which is based in the state she represents.
NASA genuinely wanted to have a competition for the lunar lander. But it selected only one company—SpaceX—in mid-April after Congress appropriated just a small amount of money in the fiscal year 2021 budget. SpaceX’s total bid was only $2.9 billion, less than half that of its competitors, including the Blue Origin-led national team.
However, the way Cantwell’s amendment was written would likely have slowed down NASA and its return to the Moon. Were the Cantwell amendment to be signed into law, NASA would have to reopen the competition, thus delaying work on the agency’s return to the Moon and putting an already difficult target of 2024 into further jeopardy. Her amendment also ignored NASA’s own plans to both create a lunar-lander competition as well as keep the possibility of a 2024 landing on track. Under NASA’s plans, SpaceX would work at full speed toward the 2024 landing while a second company would be brought on to compete for subsequent landings.
Sanders did not speak publicly about his amendment, but his intentions seem transparent. He is a frequent critic of billionaires in general and Jeff Bezos—the founder of Amazon and the world’s richest person—in particular. He was notably upset by Amazon’s efforts to prevent a union from organizing earlier this year in Bessemer, Alabama. Therefore, Sanders’ amendment is best seen as a shot at Bezos.
Where this leaves NASA and its Artemis Program is difficult to forecast. Even if Sanders’ amendment fails, the amended Endless Frontier Act must go through the US House, where the Cantwell amendment may get stripped out. And even if the bill becomes law this fall or winter, this “authorizing” language about funding still could be superseded by the appropriations process.