The Future of Space Exploration, According to Congress

Exposed rock on Mars Exposed rock on Mars NASA file photo

Lamar Smith dreams of one day trav­el­ing in­to out­er space.

The chair­man of the House Sci­ence, Space, and Tech­no­logy com­mit­tee has an in­tense in­terest in all things ex­tra­ter­restri­al and loves to talk about the fu­ture of space ex­plor­a­tion, a top­ic that has long been near and dear to his heart.

“People are fas­cin­ated by the uni­verse and by what’s up there and by what the United States and oth­er coun­tries are do­ing in space,” Smith said in an in­ter­view, adding: “The idea that we’re dis­cov­er­ing Earth­like plan­ets and oth­er sol­ar sys­tems is sort of the next big thing in space and it’s at­trac­ted a lot of at­ten­tion.”

Al­though Smith, 67, isn’t likely to get his chance to fly in space, the Texas Re­pub­lic­an has a chance to shape the fu­ture of Amer­ic­an space ex­plor­a­tion—and help de­term­ine just ex­actly what the ‘next big thing’ will be. The House sci­ence pan­el is charged with the au­thor­iz­a­tion le­gis­la­tion that sets spend­ing bench­marks, and pri­or­it­ies, for NASA.

Ex­plor­a­tion is a pri­or­ity not just for Smith, but for the pan­el’s Demo­crat­ic mem­bers as well. “NASA has in­spired me and I know without a doubt that it in­spires so many young people out there who will be our next great gen­er­a­tion of sci­ent­ists, en­gin­eers, and as­tro­nauts,” rank­ing mem­ber Ed­die Ber­nice John­sonalso a Tex­an, said.

So what comes next when it comes to space? Land­ing a hu­man on Mars is a ma­jor pri­or­ity on both sides of the aisle and there is bi­par­tis­an agree­ment on the need for a NASA roadmap on how to get there, though there are dis­agree­ments over the best way to achieve that goal.

There is en­thu­si­asm for con­tinu­ing to study the sol­ar sys­tem, the search for life else­where in the uni­verse, and en­sur­ing that NASA has the abil­ity and the fund­ing needed to ex­plore deep space. Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers are par­tic­u­larly ex­cited about the po­ten­tial to ex­plore Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, as well as in­tent on get­ting Amer­ic­an as­tro­nauts back to Earth’s moon again one day.

Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans also want to make sure that the U.S. does not have to rely on Rus­sia to trans­port its as­tro­nauts to the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion.

NASA’s suc­cess­ful mis­sion of send­ing the New Ho­ri­zons space­craft hurt­ling past Pluto deeply in­spired many Amer­ic­ans as well as mem­bers of Con­gress, and cre­ated an op­por­tun­ity on Cap­it­ol Hill to talk about what the fu­ture of space ex­plor­a­tion should look like.

Of course, all of the many things that Amer­ica may en­deavor to achieve in space cost money. And in an era of budget cuts and belt tight­en­ing, it has not al­ways been easy to make sure that the money is there. The House and Sen­ate have not been able to agree upon a NASA au­thor­iz­a­tion bill since 2010. Two broad NASA au­thor­iz­a­tion bills have passed out of the House in re­cent years, but there has not been floor ac­tion for NASA au­thor­iz­a­tion in the Sen­ate.

That makes it harder for Smith’s com­mit­tee to set pri­or­it­ies for the space agency, but, even so, the pan­el has served as a power­ful plat­form—and mega­phone—for space ex­plor­a­tion, reg­u­larly con­ven­ing hear­ings and call­ing in ex­pert wit­nesses to talk about what comes next and what NASA needs to suc­ceed.

After Pluto’s New Ho­ri­zons mis­sion, the pan­el brought NASA mis­sion spe­cial­ists to Cap­it­ol Hill. The com­mit­tee has in­vited NASA Ad­min­is­trat­or Charles Bolden to the Hill, and worked with NASA to set up a satel­lite feed so that Amer­ic­an as­tro­nauts on the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion could tell com­mit­tee mem­bers, in their own words, what life is like in space.

While not dir­ectly re­lated to NASA, in May, the House passed the SPACE Act, a piece of le­gis­la­tion that ori­gin­ated in the space sub­com­mit­tee that aims to spur growth in Amer­ica’s com­mer­cial space sec­tor, help­ing com­pan­ies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Vir­gin Galactic con­tin­ue to de­vel­op space ex­plor­a­tion mis­sions and pro­jects.

Des­pite bi­par­tis­an sup­port for space travel, however, NASA has also been a sub­ject of a highly par­tis­an de­bate.

In April, the com­mit­tee passed a NASA au­thor­iz­a­tion bill on a party-line vote in­creas­ing fund­ing for deep-space-ex­plor­a­tion pro­grams and plan­et­ary ex­plor­a­tion above what had been sug­ges­ted by Pres­id­ent Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion. The bill sup­por­ted in­creased fund­ing for the Space Launch Sys­tem as well as the Or­i­on crew vehicle pro­gram.

The le­gis­la­tion drew cri­ti­cism from Demo­crats and NASA for cut­ting money for Earth sci­ence re­l­at­ive to cur­rent fund­ing levels and what the ad­min­is­tra­tion re­ques­ted. Bolden said that the bill “guts our Earth-sci­ence pro­gram and threatens to set back gen­er­a­tions worth of pro­gress in bet­ter un­der­stand­ing our chan­ging cli­mate.”

Re­pub­lic­ans de­fen­ded the al­loc­a­tion as a way to pro­tect space travel and re­bal­ance scarce re­sources at NASA, say­ing that Earth sci­ence has seen fund­ing in­creases in re­cent years. Chair­man Smith has also been highly crit­ic­al of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s com­mit­ment to deep space ex­plor­a­tion.

“I don’t want to cut NASA, I don’t want to cut what we do in space, and that’s why I’m res­ist­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s trans­fer­ring funds from NASA to cli­mate change. I want to keep NASA, NASA,” Smith said.

Demo­crats say that Earth sci­ence is just as de­serving of funds as any oth­er NASA pri­or­ity—a schism that has sparked ill will and deepened par­tis­an fault lines on the pan­el.   

“NASA’s re­search in Earth sci­ence, which deep­ens our un­der­stand­ing of our own plan­et and en­vir­on­ment, and the agency’s work in aero­naut­ics re­search are equally as im­port­ant as our hu­man space-ex­plor­a­tion pri­or­it­ies,” Ber­nice John­son said. “The chal­lenge be­fore Con­gress, and in par­tic­u­lar this com­mit­tee, is to not only sup­port hu­man space ex­plor­a­tion, but all of NASA’s long-term goals that make it a mul­ti­mis­sion agency.”

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