Talking Space with Don Beyer
On the future of manned moon missions, space debris, and Russia’s space station threats.
Good morning. It’s a busy week on Capitol Hill, but I’m in sunny Arizona for a few days. (We hope you’re also enjoying dinosaur bucket hat season.)
Spacing Out With Rep. Don Beyer
Virginia Democratic Rep. Don Beyer, who chairs the House subcommittee that handles space, kindly agreed to a Q&A with The Dispatch about the latest in space and where it intersects with Congress. The transcript that follows has been edited for length and clarity. (Special thanks to senior space editor Eric Berger at Ars Technica and space expert Rand Simberg for suggesting a few of the questions I asked Beyer.)
Haley: I watched some of last week’s hearing on the Artemis program to return to the moon. You mentioned that it’s important for you, when you’re talking to constituents or talking to appropriators, to be able to have a clear narrative about the goals and plans behind Artemis.
Rep. Beyer: I get some of this from my wife. I consider her everyman in this sense, where she rebels against the idea that the billionaires are what we know about space, the vanity trips. And I say, “No, there’s incredibly important science, there’s the moon-to-Mars, that Artemis is not only helping us understand how physics and biology and chemistry work, but also satisfying the human aspiration for exploration.” But we’ve got to get that story. Because when we’re spending $21 billion-plus in the current budget, we’d better be able to defend it.
Haley: The NASA inspector general said in last week's hearing that the first four launches of the Space Launch System are expected to cost $4.1 billion each. He said that price tag strikes him as unsustainable. Do you agree that’s unsustainable?
Rep. Beyer: Yin and yang. NASA is half of 1 percent of GDP now, and wasn’t it 3 or 4 percent of GDP when we went to the moon? We have the ability to pay for it. But then the second question, the more relevant question, is do we have the political will to pay for it? When we can’t afford child tax credits and we haven’t adjusted social security in 50 years and there’s a war in Europe, it might be hard to spend $4 billion per launch. And I think the inspector general, too, is making the larger point that we, meaning government leaders, legislative and executive, and NASA specifically, owe the public a reasonable, responsible, authentic estimate of what Artemis is going to cost.
Haley: Did that estimate surprise you?
Rep. Beyer: No. It scares me a little. Which is why I asked the inspector general if that would freak out the American public if they knew what it was going to cost overall. And he said it wasn’t his job. He was going to tell us what the responsible thing to do was, not what the political consequence would be. For example, James Webb [space telescope]. When we kicked that off, what did they think, $800 million? And it ended up being $11 billion. Maybe we wouldn’t have kicked it off or with such enthusiasm back then if we had known it was going to take that long and cost that much. I’m glad we did.
Haley: Are you confident that Congress will provide the funding NASA needs to carry out a series of human moon landings in the 2020s?
Rep. Beyer: Yes. Absent some huge shift, yes. The nice part about being chair of the space subcommittee is it’s about the most bipartisan place in Congress right now. There’s a lot of support from Democrats and Republicans to continue to invest in especially the science and exploration pieces of it.
Haley: At the same hearing last week, the NASA inspector general said contractors—and he named Boeing specifically—had performed poorly for components of the Artemis program. He made the case that the form of contracts NASA has been using, the cost-plus contracts, are not encouraging efficiency from contractors and are not working to NASA’s advantage. What did you think about that?
Rep. Beyer: There are two sides to every story, of course. But I do think that he made a really good point. By the way, I have Boeing a couple of miles from my house, and Lockheed Martin and Northrop, they’re all constituents. But if the incentive is to win the contract again next year and keep moving forward little by little by little, in cost-plus there’s no profit incentive. Which is why you’ve seen dramatically different results from SpaceX, and even Orbital and some of the others that really had to run first as small businesses and then as businesses that were maximizing profit. Did you happen to read—I mentioned the Good NASA, Bad NASA essay at that hearing. It’s published in Commentary, which is, you know, a very conservative magazine which I read even though I’m not very conservative, just to understand all the perspectives. But it’s really interesting because he praises the things NASA has done well and criticizes what they haven’t done well, and he’s specifically critical about spending money year after year after year on programs that never seem to come to fruition, through the contractors. And frankly, if you’re the contractor, you know, they like programs that last forever.
Haley: I wanted to talk some about Russia and space collaboration. Have you been having any meetings or conversations, with NASA officials, with anyone, about the International Space Station (ISS) partnership?
Rep. Beyer: No, I haven’t had any meetings. Just reading everything I can about it. Of course, it came up a little bit the other day. So, three random points. Number one, it is sad that one of the casualties of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is our joint cooperation in space. Because all through the Cold War, we were able to work together, and that’s certainly at least a short-term and maybe a long-term casualty. And not good for space or for science. The second thing is the
Antares rockets. Apparently we still have two more Russian engines ready to go, but we’re not going to get any more. They’re not going to support the ones that we have. Our Republican friends especially have been pushing us to get off of Russian engines for a number of years. So I think that's been accomplished, for better or worse. And in the meantime, you have a lot of alternatives, including all the SpaceX stuff, and SLS for the big, big expensive stuff. And then part three is what happens to ISS? You’ve got four Americans and two Russians and another up in there right now. I'm hoping they’re all getting along and all agreeing not to talk about what’s happening on the ground. But the Roscosmos threat to let ISS spiral down into Europe … that was a little distressing.
Haley: What did you think when you read those tweets?
Rep. Beyer: I thought it was bluster. But not good bluster. Very much knowing that there are Russians on board and Americans on board, that we have to work together responsibly.
Haley: There was a sort of viral Twitter thread after that about modifying SpaceX vehicles to allow for ISS reboosting so that we aren’t relying on Russia. Do you think NASA should pursue that?
Rep. Beyer: I think they should probably be aware of the possibilities of it. We’re still early in this war. And I, at least for one, am very hopeful that with the ruble worth less than a penny and the stock market in freefall and Russian oligarchs having no place to park their yachts and on and on and on that, you know. I just read a long piece by a British air force general about how poorly the war’s gone for Russia from a military standpoint.
Haley: You’re well aware of Russia’s anti-satellite test they did last November. Given Vladimir Putin’s incomprehensible decision making recently, are you more concerned right now that they have that ability and have shown a willingness to create orbital debris?
Rep. Beyer: What was distressing was that they tested it. But I think the working assumption is that they have that technology, as do the Chinese, and as we certainly do. So, trying to make sure that this doesn’t escalate is, I think, front and center for our president, our military leaders. Because the last thing we want is for them to start blowing our satellites out of the air and vice versa, and the whole world goes communications dark compared to what we’re used to. Which was one of the reasons why people are so reluctant to authorize NATO ground troops or even a no-fly zone. Because he seems unbalanced, and he does have nuclear weapons. So we don’t want to put anyone in the position of having to say, “He just used a tactical nuclear weapon. What do we do next?” Because you don’t know where it goes. Including the end of mankind.
Haley: Your office is working on legislation related to space debris. Are you able to provide any details?
Rep. Beyer: We’re very much hoping that April or May we’ll have the next space debris hearing. I’m impressed, I’m glad that the Office of Space Commerce over at NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] has rolled out their open data architecture piece. … There’s a debate about who should be managing this overall. And there’s a lot of frustration that we haven’t made more progress on it. … We want to have the hearings, get all the players at the table, have the debate, and in my perfect world, by the end of the year actually have a decision that the world accepts.
Haley: Brian Weeden at the Secure World Foundation wrote an opinion piece a couple of weeks ago calling for NASA to develop a program in the same vein as the commercial space flight program, but to incentivize debris cleanup capabilities. Paying space providers to come up with ways to clean debris. Do you think there’s any appetite in Congress for funding something like that?
Rep. Beyer: I do. I do, yeah. Although, appetite, yes. The technical part’s a little—because you hear that so much of the debris is tiny. It reminds me of cleaning up the plastic out of the ocean, which gets harder and harder every year as the plastic gets degraded. It’s still there, just you can’t sweep it up. But at least part of that could be responsible planned obsolescence. When a satellite’s time is due, that there’s some way for it to spin back down and burn up rather than stay in low Earth orbit forever.
On the Floor
Lawmakers are hoping to approve an omnibus government spending package by the end of the week, ahead of a midnight shutdown deadline Friday.
The House may also bring forward legislation banning Russian oil imports and ending normal trade treatment for Russia. The top lawmakers with jurisdiction of trade in each chamber announced a bipartisan deal on the details of the legislation on Monday night, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters he believes it could reach the floor as soon as this week.
The House approved a bill Monday night to broaden federal assistance to cities for counterterrorism activities. Members also passed a Senate measure to boost cybersecurity preparedness.
The House is scheduled to consider a resolution this week condemning the January terror attack on Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. Another resolution condemning violent threats against historically black colleges and universities is also set to come to the floor.
Senators approved a bill Monday night specifying lynching as a federal hate crime, sending the measure to President Joe Biden’s desk. Senators will also continue to consider a House-passed postal service reform package this week.
Top intelligence officials are testifying before the House intelligence panel this morning in the annual worldwide threats hearing. Information and livestream here. A copy of the intelligence community’s 2022 worldwide threat assessment is available here. The officials will appear again before the Senate intelligence committee on Thursday.
The House Science, Space, and Technology committee is meeting this morning to examine federal climate adaptation and resilience. Information and livestream here.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is meeting this morning for a hearing on combating a rise in hate crimes. Information and livestream here.
Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland will appear at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing this afternoon on the Biden administration’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Information and livestream here.
A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee will hold a hearing tomorrow morning to revisit the practice of daylight savings. Information and livestream here.