On Thursday (October 21), a Senate committee focusing on space and Science held a two-hour hearing, mainly discussing the risk of space collision, the fate of the United States in orbit after the decommissioning of the space station, and the ongoing debate on NASA’s route back to the moon.
This broad dialogue took place as the Senate and the house of Representatives tried to reconcile how they wanted NASA to move forward. The focus of this debate is not only to pass a funding bill for NASA, but also to pass an authorization bill that can affect NASA’s activities.
“We need an enabling bill,” Senator Maria Cantwell (Democrat of Washington) said at the hearing. She urged the panellists to talk about the importance of the enabling bill. “We will not continue to play this game that will only receive funding. It will not serve the Artemis program or NASA well.”
She has sharp words about the state of Artemis’ lunar exploration plan; Congress has long been pushing NASA to develop a more detailed and realistic timetable. (it may be worth noting that the plan’s goal of human landing on the moon in 2024 is set in 2019, two years after the nearest NASA authorization act.)
Cantwell said, “Why are we in a situation where the date on a piece of paper is meaningless?”. “Everyone knows that. So is this a good strategy?”
But beyond that, the path to the moon accounted for an unexpectedly small proportion of the hearing – just a small chat about how to get close to the human landing system, which is currently blocked by the legal opposition of Jeff Bezos’s blue origin, which was not selected as a member of the program. (NASA went with SpaceX and its starship transport system.)
Instead, NASA’s ongoing human space program, participation in the international space station (ISS), was a key issue at the hearing.
Mary Lynne Dittmar, executive vice president of axiom in Houston, said at the hearing: “NASA has not clearly defined its service needs after the completion of the international space station, and does not intend to do so for a period of time.”. (axiom plans to launch a private capsule to the space station in 2024 as the seed of a future free flight outpost, although Dietmar pointed out at the beginning of the hearing that her comments reflected her own views, not the views of the company.)
At the same time, although many people hope that the space station will last until 2030, engineering reality may shorten this time and increase the risk of the human capability gap supported by the United States in orbit.
“There is no guarantee that we will achieve 2030,” said Jim bridenstine, a former NASA director. “We know it won’t last forever. How long can it last? I don’t think we have that answer.”
Bridenstine also questioned how long the authorities expected to take to obtain another U.S. – led track facility.
The second key issue of the hearing was that as the low earth orbit became more and more crowded, the challenges of space waste and space traffic management were intertwined. Brittendine particularly spoke out that the United States needed to take action on the situation because he stressed that all statistics on collision rates were estimates and might underestimate this.
“The challenge is much bigger than we know, but we know we don’t know what the risk is,” he said. A large part of this challenge comes from the communication giant constellation, of which SpaceX’s Starlink is the largest number in orbit. “However, we still release and authorize these huge constellations without knowing what the real risk is.”
He also pointed out that the United States has a poor position in guiding other countries to use orbit. “As a country, we have no right to go back and tell other countries, ‘you are not allowed to have your own constellation’, while we are issuing exactly the same license ourselves,” bridenstine said.
The discussion on the number of satellites in orbit is intertwined with the discussion on the orbital debris that these satellites may form and the possibility of collision if they are not out of orbit in a controlled manner. “When I have nightmares, it’s usually about cyber security, but now it also affects my sleep patterns,” Senator d-colo. said of orbital debris.
Here, bridgenstein is also outspoken. “Everyone claims they follow the guidelines set by NASA,” he said. “In fact, do all countries abide by these norms? Absolutely not. So this is a challenge.”
The theme of this hearing is “international cooperation and competition in the space field”. Many dialogues revolve around how the US space flight scene integrates into the global pattern. These discussions highlighted China and how the tense relations between the two countries will develop in space in the future.
“There is no doubt that China is playing a long-term game to enhance its space capabilities through military civilian integration, taking advantage of the weaknesses of the U.S. space industry base and our slow pace of acquisition and procurement,” Ditmar said.
“We face a strong competitor,” Ditmar said. “American companies have admitted that because China has adopted some strategies to weaken the strength of the U.S. commercial aerospace sector through state supported financing and other mechanisms, which can not be competed by U.S. market driven companies, American companies have lost customers to China.”
She pointed out that China launched the first module of the new space station this year, which exacerbated people’s continued concern that the United States will not have new orbital facilities before the end of the international space station.
Throughout the hearing, the speaker talked about the larger existential issue, that is, how space is integrated into the domestic and foreign agenda and image of the United States.
Internationally, space flight is a powerful symbol. “Space is a diplomatic tool for this country,” bridenstine said. “This is what every country wants, and we can help provide it.”
Although NASA focused on working with the private sector, Cantwell raised concerns about how this might shape the agency’s image. “Frankly, I’m frustrated to see NASA’s spirit become a billionaire cheering or competing with each other, because I’m sure this is not the purpose of our Artemis mission,” Cantwell said.
But one thing is clear: when it comes to Artemis, NASA is carrying the burden of history. Several speakers referred to the challenges posed by a series of failed proposals to put man on the moon over the past few decades.
Mike gold, executive vice president of Redwire space, an aerospace manufacturing company, said at the hearing: “both partner and competitor countries have great doubts about NASA’s ability to maintain the plan to return astronauts to the lunar surface.”.
This suspicion points directly to the possible role of the legislature. “Without strong and sustained bipartisan support, we will not be able to lead a global alliance to the moon, Mars or any other destination,” gold said. “If we can’t unite in Congress first, we can’t unite the world.”