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Culberson Praises NASA's Earth Science Program, Calls NASA Strategic National Asset

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Feb-2017
Updated: 08-Feb-2017 02:46 AM

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and NOAA, praised NASA's earth science program today.  Many earth scientists are worried about what the Trump Administration's plans are for the program based on an op-ed written by two Trump space advisers during the presidential campaign.  It proposed moving NASA's programs to other agencies.  Culberson sounded the opposite note, however, suggesting that NASA assume responsibility for NOAA's satellite programs.  Culberson is one of NASA's most ardent supporters on Capitol Hill, calling the agency a "strategic national asset" that will assure America remains great for centuries to come.

Culberson spoke to the Space Transportation Association (STA) on Capitol Hill today, enthusiastically supporting NASA overall, especially robotic missions to Jupiter's moon Europa and the Space Launch System (SLS).

Sending an orbiter plus a lander and a probe to descend through crevasses in Europa's ice-covered surface into the postulated ocean below is Culberson's passion.  He is determined to find life elsewhere in the solar system and is convinced it will be on Europa. He has added money to NASA's budget for several years to execute Europa missions and included language in law directing NASA to do so.  He pointed out today that it is illegal for NASA not to fly a Europa mission.  He believes that finding extraterrestrial life will be a "pivot point" in human history that will enable "all of us to take NASA funding to the next level" and allow the agency to achieve even more.

He wants NASA to launch the Europa spacecraft and missions to study other "ocean worlds" in the solar system using SLS.  He considers the rocket essential to NASA needs more broadly and wants it included in whatever infrastructure bill the Trump Administration sends to Congress. Just as President Eisenhower is remembered for creating the interstate highway system, Trump could go down in history for creating an interplanetary highway system, he suggested.

The solar system is not the limit, though.  Culberson is a strong advocate for developing new propulsion systems to send spacecraft to nearby stars.  His subcommittee's report on the FY2017 CJS appropriations bill calls on NASA to submit an "interstellar propulsion technology assessment report" with a conceptual roadmap to send a probe to Alpha Centauri in 2069, the 100th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, at 10 percent the speed of light (0.1 c).  Today he said that Aerojet Rocketdyne told him it was possible to build a system that could achieve 0.3 c, although a company representative in the room suggested that was a misunderstanding.

In the nearer term, NASA is developing high power solar electric propulsion as part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).  Asked about prospects for ARM under the Trump Administration, Culberson said he did not know, but argued that some aspects of it, like propulsion development and gaining experience in human space operations, are essential for future NASA activities.  "We need to think big, long term," he continued.  "If we could lay out a 100-year plan for NASA, you've essentially laid out a 500-year plan for NASA, and if you could figure out a 500-year plan for NASA you would have in a real way laid the foundation for a 1,000 year plan.  What a privilege that is." 

He likes to look far into the future and considers NASA a strategic national asset that is "essential to preserve American leadership, to assure America not only is great, but stays great, and preserves that in the 21st, 22nd, 23rd, and 24th centuries and beyond."

For now, however, just getting appropriations bills enacted into law is a challenge.  Culberson lamented the fact that the 12 regular FY2017 appropriations bills are not completed.  NASA and all other government agencies are currently funded at their FY2016 levels by a Continuing Resolution (CR) through April 28, 2017.  He said the final version of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill is ready to be passed, though he could not share any of its details.   He called on Senate Republicans to change Senate rules to prevent appropriations bills from being filibustered, meaning it would take only 51 instead of 60 votes for them to pass.  The filibuster is a core Senate rule that allows a single Senator to prevent a bill from moving forward, one of the major differences between the how the House and Senate operate.  Democrats changed the rule for presidential nominations when they last controlled the Senate out of frustration that President Obama's nominations could not be confirmed due to entrenched Republican opposition, but it remains in effect for other Senate legislation.   Culberson wants appropriations bills to be treated the same as presidential nominations since they are the only bills that must pass Congress in order to keep the government operating.

Currently, though, 60 votes are needed and with Republicans holding only a slim majority (effectively a 52-48 split), he was not optimistic about quick passage of the FY2017 bills or future bills.  CRs do not allow Congress to control agency programs to the same extent as the 12 regular bills.

Appropriations bills determine how much money agencies may spend and dictate how the money can be spent.  Culberson became chairman of the subcommittee after Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) retired and the two hold similar views about China.  Wolf originated language that prohibits NASA from spending appropriated funds to interact with China on space programs except under narrowly defined circumstances. 

Culberson said today that Wolf was right.  Remarking that America can do a lot better than spending just 0.4 percent of the federal budget on NASA, Culberson added that "China is not waiting on us. They are stealing us blind. The Chinese government is stealing every piece of technology they can and using what they've stolen from our program to very aggressively go after natural resources on the Moon and asteroids."  Space is the "high ground of the 21st Century" and the Chinese "are going to use it in ways that we're not going to like."

Culberson spoke at length about NASA's space science programs and the value of the Decadal Surveys produced by the National Academies in identifying future missions.   He did not mention NASA's earth science program during his prepared remarks, however.  The second earth science Decadal Survey is currently underway.  Many earth scientists are worried about what the Trump Administration may do with NASA's program because two Trump space advisors, Bob Walker and Peter Navarro, recommended in a Space News op-ed during the presidential campaign that NASA's activities be transferred to other agencies so NASA can focus on space exploration.  It was not a new idea.  Republican members of NASA's House and Senate authorization committees have advocated such a move for the past several years, but it has not been implemented.  In the absence of any newer information about the Trump Administration's plans for NASA, the Walker-Navarro op-ed provides the only inkling of what may be in store.

In response to a question today, however, Culberson sounded the opposite point of view.  He praised NASA's earth science program and suggested that NASA take responsibility for NOAA's satellite systems.  "NASA's earth science continues to do great work.  We have to have the facts. ... The role of NASA's earth science division should be to provide us good data free of any political filter or agenda.  ... Work that's done there is essential.  Quite frankly one thing I've been interested in pursuing is why we don't move satellite operations at NOAA over to NASA so NASA can handle all our earth observation and weather satellites because NASA does frankly a very good job with these things and NOAA's had problems... "


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