NASA's Next Frontier Is Washington

J. Scott Applewhite/AP file photo

Only one president’s name came up during the new Congress’s first hearing about NASA this week: John F. Kennedy.

This makes sense. The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology gathered on Thursday to discuss the “past, present, and future” of NASA, as the name of the hearing suggested, and no president was more instrumental in shaping that past than Kennedy. There was no surprise when one congressman from Colorado reminded the panelists at the hearing that Kennedy chose “to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

The hearing served as a curtain-raiser for the next steps in U.S. space policy, a way for the political and scientific communities to begin the discussion about where NASA may be headed under the Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress. NASA is at a bit of a crossroads, just like the last time someone new moved into the White House, waiting to hear a mission statement from on high. For many Americans, Kennedy’s words remain the guiding principle for the kind of work the space program should be doing. But NASA’s Apollo-era budget accounted for 4.5 percent of the federal budget, while today’s budget is less than half a percent. Plus, there’s no Cold War driving national pride to make those tax dollars seem worth it.

Lawmakers that handle space policy are aware of this reality. “It is very difficult to explore a universe of infinite wonder with a finite budget,” Brian Babin, the Republican congressman from Texas who chairs the Space Subcommittee, said Thursday.

But that doesn’t stop lawmakers from interrogating NASA folks about when they’re going to get the big stuff done. Many members at the hearing wondered when, exactly, Americans would be flying to Mars. Two congressmen from Colorado held up bumper stickers with photos of the Red Planet and the year 2033 in big letters. One asked whether NASA could shave off a year and make it 2032.

Jim Bridenstine, the Republican from Oklahoma considered to be the frontrunner for the next NASA chief, brought up China’s recent lunar missions, and said the moon is “critically important to the geopolitical position” of the United States. There were some half-hearted grumbling about Russia, too. Don Beyer, a Democrat from Virginia, asked the panelists what would happen if the budget for NASA’s earth-sciences division were eliminated, which studies climate change, apparently amused that his Republican colleagues hadn’t mentioned it.

The panelists—two Apollo astronauts, a former director of the Goddard Spaceflight Center, and the chief scientist under the Obama administration—all said that NASA could use some more cash. But lawmakers, they said, should also help figure out where they want that cash to go. Trump’s advisers are considering a robust human spaceflight program that would return Americans to the moon by 2020, and want NASA to focus less on deep-space exploration and more on cislunar activity. Earlier this week, the acting administrator of NASA announced the agency would look into the possibility of putting a crew on the first flight of the Space Launch System, something it hadn’t planned to do until the second flight.

These potential changes mean speeding up timelines and moving around money, potentially draining some departments to nourish others. Tom Young, the former Goddard director, argued that NASA is doing too much with not enough resources. “I believe that if we continue on the current course with the multiple paths that we’re on and the current budget, the committee hearing that will take place 10 years from now will say, ‘What a disappointing decade we had,’” he said. “And that we’ll be negligibly closer to landing humans on Mars than we are today.”

NASA stands to get some legislative clarity. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, said recently he’s hopeful that Congress will pass the NASA Transition Authorization Act in the coming weeks. The bill lays out the agency’s long-term goals, and specifically cements human exploration of Mars as a top priority. Congress hasn’t passed similar legislation since 2010. That legislation, a compromise between Barack Obama and lawmakers, ended a human-exploration program Obama considered too costly and approved the construction of the Space Launch System that lawmakers said would preserve thousands of jobs.

The proposed bill wouldn’t prevent Trump, or future presidents, from deciding to shift NASA’s focus. Trump’s name did not come up at this week’s hearing, but everyone in that room must be anxiously waiting to hear what he has to say. His policies could reshape NASA for years to come. Who knows what the space-themed bumper stickers of the future will say?

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