After eight years in power, Republicans in the House of Representatives will soon hand over the gavel to Democrats. When the new Congress convenes in January, the chamber will contain dozens fewer Republicans—and fewer Republican supporters of space exploration.
The outcome of Tuesday’s elections will sweep several longtime champions of NASA out of the House. Some have held office for many years, and their interest in space exploration has led to hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for ambitious projects. Plenty of ardent NASA advocates remain in the chamber, but the departure of these well-known faces could lead to a shift in legislative priorities.
Perhaps the most significant loss occurred in Texas’s Seventh Congressional District, home to thousands of the employees at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. A political newcomer, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, defeated the incumbent John Culberson, who has served in the House since 2001. Culberson, an attorney, doesn’t have a science background. But he grew up in the 1960s building telescopes, toying with model rockets, and reading popular science magazines. For the past four years, Culberson has pushed his colleagues in the House and the Senate to steadily grow NASA’s budget, for projects including its climate-science programs—which may come as a surprise, given the congressman’s party line on climate change.
Culberson has fiercely supported one mission in particular: a journey to one of Jupiter’s moons, the icy Europa.
As chair of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science, Culberson more than doubled the amount of money the space agency requested from Congress for an orbiter around Europa, from $265 million to $545 million. He also threw in $195 million to support a lander to the moon, which NASA hadn’t even planned for, but would of course accept. Scientists suspect that Europa’s frozen crust covers a liquid ocean that may sustain microbial life. Culberson was intent on sending something there to find it. “This will be tremendously expensive, but worth every penny,” he said last year, during a visit to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to check its progress.
With Culberson out of the House, the funding portfolio for the Europa mission could change. “I don’t see any obvious members of Congress, Republican or Democratic, who’d be taking up that mantle of leading the Europa efforts, so I imagine that those are likely to start to wane,” said Casey Dreier, a senior space-policy adviser at the Planetary Society, a nonprofit space-advocacy group.
Dreier said the development of the Europa orbiter, known as Clipper, will certainly continue. Since NASA formally approved the mission in 2015, engineers and scientists have made significant progress on the design of the spacecraft. But without a steady flow of funding, its launch date could slip, he said.
The lander is on shakier ground. “I don’t think you’re going to see money for the Europa lander to continue showing up, because that’s money that NASA has not been requesting,” Dreier said.
Culberson is also a supporter of the Space Launch System, a rocket and capsule currently under construction at NASA. The launch system, intended to someday send astronauts to the moon and beyond, enjoys tremendous support in the House and the Senate, particularly from lawmakers whose states are home to NASA field centers where the work is being done. The SLS is designed to be the world’s most powerful rocket, but it has many hurdles to clear before it gets off the ground. The program has been plagued with schedule delays and cost overruns.
“It’s just critical that we get it up and flying as quickly as possible,” Culberson told reporters in April, in an attempt to both reassure taxpayers and galvanize engineers. “Every delay is a concern and a worry.” With Culberson gone, the SLS loses a supporter to defend the program from criticism, both in Congress and the broader space community, that it is too costly.
Culberson is likely to be replaced as chair by José Serrano of New York, the current ranking member of the committee. Asked on Wednesday whether he would continue Culberson’s efforts to keep the Europa mission well funded, the congressman said, “My priority right now is getting a final fiscal year 2019 [appropriations bill] that achieves good outcomes on an array of important priorities both inside and outside NASA.”
Culberson is joined in his ouster by Dana Rohrabacher of California and Randy Hultgren of Illinois. Rohrabacher and Hultgren both serve on the House Space Subcommittee, and Hultgren is a member of the Planetary Science Caucus, a bipartisan group established in February to “unite members of both parties who are passionate about the scientific exploration of space.” Neither Rohrabacher nor Hultgren wields the kind of power Culberson does in his role on the House Appropriations Committee, but they have long-standing interest in space exploration and proven support for it. In 2004, long before SpaceX became a household name, Rohrabacher, well known for his provocative political stances, introduced legislation that called for the government to invest in commercial space companies. In 2015, Hultgren proposed a bill aimed at boosting support for human-exploration efforts, including the SLS.
Rohrabacher and Hultgren also sit on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, which will experience a shake-up of its own. Its chair, Lamar Smith of Texas, announced months ago that he would retire at the end of this Congress, after more than 30 years. Smith, another NASA supporter, is a polarizing figure in the science community; he is a huge astronomy fan, particularly of the search for extraterrestrial life, but he’s also one of Capitol Hill’s staunchest deniers of climate science.
Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, the ranking member of the House Science committee, said on Wednesday that she would seek the chairmanship. Under her direction, the committee would, among other things, defend “the scientific enterprise from political and ideological attacks” and “address the challenge of climate change, starting with acknowledging it is real,” Johnson said.
Johnson previously criticized Smith’s intense focus on space exploration at what she described as the expense of Earth science. “The majority slashes funding for programs that help humans here on Earth and instead prioritizes spending money to find space aliens,” she said at a hearing in April. “Let me be clear: I think the search for life in the universe is a fascinating quest, and I’m also a strong supporter of exploration. But I think melting ice caps, rising sea levels, the increases in extreme weather events and drought, and the other serious manifestations of climate change here on Earth are also things we should be concerned about and studying.”
Regardless of which party controls the House, NASA is stuck in a holding pattern until lawmakers in both chambers successfully negotiate a spending bill for the next fiscal year. In September, Congress reached agreements to fund some programs, like defense, labor, health, and education, all the way through fall 2019. But others, like NASA, received funding extensions only until December of this year. Under these circumstances, the space agency can’t formally begin new projects or inject growing ones with more money. These include many of the proposals put forth by the Trump administration in the past two years, like the construction of an orbital platform around the moon, which officials want to begin in 2022.
“A lot of those [programs] may be up for reexamination now that you have a Democratic-controlled House that can run its own committees and pursue its own interests and inquiries and investigations,” Dreier said.
NASA must wait for its own decisive appropriations process in the coming months. “It’ll be very interesting to see if they end up compromising and passing spending legislation now, or if the Democrats would like to push it into the next Congress and wait until they actually have a majority to represent their interests,” Dreier said. “I think it’s too early to tell at the moment.”