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Van Hollen Vows To Continue Mikulski's Passion for Space

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Aug-2016
Updated: 24-Aug-2016 09:55 PM

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) vowed to continue the strong support for NASA and NOAA evidenced by Sen. Barbara Mikulski if he is elected as her successor in November.   Mikulski is retiring and Van Hollen is widely considered to be the front runner to replace her.

Overall, Van Hollen's message today at a luncheon sponsored by the Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR) was one of reassurance.  Mikulski's advocacy for NASA and NOAA, especially, but not only, earth science missions, is legendary.  Many in the space community are apprehensive about what her departure will mean for NASA and NOAA space programs and budgets.  Van Hollen is a relative unknown in space circles and today he clearly wanted to convey his enthusiasm and dedication to continue the fight.

Van Hollen currently represents a district that runs from the Washington suburbs to the border with Pennsylvania.  His views on the space program are not well known, though he said today that he meets annually with the Director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (in Greenbelt, MD) to discuss programs and budgets.  He mentioned that he had met with GSFC Director Chris Scolese this morning prior to the luncheon.  He also noted that he was on hand to watch the arrival of the New Horizons spacecraft at Pluto last summer from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (APL) in Laurel, MD.

NASA-Goddard and APL are just two of the space-related enterprises in Maryland located in or near his district.   NOAA headquarters is in Silver Spring, Lockheed Martin's corporate offices are in Bethesda, and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which operates the Hubble Space Telescope, is in Baltimore.

He shared that he majored in physics for part of his college career, inspired by his Swarthmore College roommate Neil Gershenfeld, now Director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms. Though Van Hollen decided to change majors after getting as far as quantum mechanics (ultimately getting a B.A. in philosophy, a master's in public policy with a concentration in national security, and a J.D.), he said the experience gave him a "lifelong passion and thirst for discovery and trying to answer the big questions  -- how did we get here, what is our place in the universe, what does the future hold for Mother Earth."

If he wins the November election, he vowed to be "a fierce advocate" like Mikulski for "NASA Goddard, for NOAA, for Wallops [Flight Facility], for APL, for AURA, for STScI,  and for the entire ecosystem of other organizations, businesses and jobs " that are  "vital to our nation's leadership in space and to Maryland's central place in that galaxy."  AURA is the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, which operates STScI and other astronomical observatories.

Van Hollen specifically praised the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is being built at Goddard and will be operated by STScI.  He noted that he saw the telescope this morning and its mirror "is gold-plated."  He joked that government agencies usually prefer to avoid referring to anything as gold-plated (because it conveys excess). In this case, however, a "fun fact" is that the total amount of gold on JWST is less than one-third the amount in all the Olympic gold medals won by Michael Phelps.  A Maryland native, Phelps has won 23 gold medals for swimming, including five in the recent Rio Olympics.

Van Hollen also highlighted NOAA's work on climate and said the United States must maintain leadership on understanding the impact of climate change, sharply criticizing the chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who has subpoenaed scientists "and worked hard for purely ideological reasons" to cut budgets for earth and climate science.  Congress should never "intimidate" or "stymie" scientists.  "We need to allow the integrity of the scientific process and budget process to stand on its own without political interference."

Heliophysics, satellite servicing, the Europa mission, STEM education programs, and ISS resupply missions launched from Wallops also got shout outs.  Wallops is in neighboring Virginia on the DELMARVA (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) peninsula, but Van Hollen pointed out that "most" of the people who work at Wallops live in Maryland.  That brought him to his final point -- the number of jobs in Maryland attributable to space activities and the positive effect on Maryland's economy.  He mentioned that NASA-Goddard plans to hire 200 civil servants and said that for every civil servant, there are 2 contractors, so that means an additional 400 contractors as well.  That's on top of 10,000 civil service and contractor jobs associated with Goddard already, not to mention additional thousands at APL and NOAA, and hundreds at STSci and Wallops, he said.

"Maryland is a space state and we're going to stay that way," he exclaimed.

A challenge to all of that is getting funding from Congress, of course.  Van Hollen laid out the difficulties Congress faces when it returns after Labor Day to get a FY2017 budget passed, an issue he understands well since he is the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee.  Although he opposes government shutdowns, he said he could not rule out such a possibility because many House Republicans object to the budget deal brokered last fall among outgoing House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and President Barack Obama that softened sequester limits for FY2016 and FY2017.

His hope is that Congress will pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) that will last through the November elections, then return and complete the FY2017 budget process before the end of the year so the incoming President does not have to deal with it.  The road ahead is full of "uncertainty," however.

Van Hollen's Republican opponent for Mikulski's seat is Kathy Szeliga.  Democrats have held both Maryland Senate seats since Republican Charles "Mac" Mathias retired in 1986.  Somewhat ironically, Van Hollen (a Democrat) started his career working for Mathias as a defense and foreign policy aide.

 


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