As Democrats take charge of the U.S. Congress for the firsttime in more than a decade, NASA and its reinvigorated space exploration agendawill face new challenges.
While analysts do not foresee the new Congressdismantling the agency's plan to field new manned spacecraft systems and returnto the Moon, they do expect Democrats to submit the U.S. space agency's spaceexploration plans to more scrutiny and use their greater say over federalspending to bolster NASA science and aeronautics programs hard hit in recentbudgets.
"NASA should expect continuedsupport of robotic and human space exploration beyond Earth orbit, balancedwith an increased emphasis on providing benefits to taxpayers through Earth andspace science and aeronautics," said Lori Garver, a prominent Democrat in space circles and a former senior NASAofficial who consults for DFI International here. "This support will likely bemet with more vigorous oversight of operations plans, budget changes andprograms that are experiencing technical problems, delays and cost overruns."
Traditionally, the most vigorous NASA oversight hasbeen done by the House Science Committee. Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the presumptive chair of that committee in the new Congress,said that would not change under his leadership.
"An important part of the Committee's agenda will beserious and sustained oversight of all of NASA's activities," Gordon said in awritten response to questions from Space News. "In that regard, we will ofcourse be examining the Administration's exploration initiative -- including itsobjectives, its schedule and funding, and the roles of internationalcooperation and the commercial sector --‑ to make sure the nation gets thebest return on its investment in this important initiative."
Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), whose Bouldercongressional district is home to Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., the Southwest Research Institute and the National Weather Service's Space EnvironmentCenter, is expected to become chair of the House Science space and aeronauticssubcommittee.
Udall, who has said he iscommitted to helping NASA maintain momentum on its space exploration goals without"hollowing out space and Earth science" or sacrificing aeronautics research, wouldreplace Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), who frequently expressed concern aboutChina sending astronauts to the Moon before the United States can make itsreturn. Calvert, congressional sources and other political analysts said, may stayon the subcommittee as the ranking Republican now that his chances of getting amore coveted seat the House Appropriations Committee appears shot.
Consultant Bill Adkins of AdkinsStrategies LLC, the science and aeronautics subcommittee's Republican staffdirector until this summer, said NASA should not see a dramatic differencebetween Gordon and current House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert,a moderate New York Republican who did not seek re-election this year.
"Boehlert and Gordon were largelycoming from the same direction on NASA," he said. "Both were supportive of the[space exploration] vision but had questions and talked about
NASA being a balanced,multi-mission agency."
"House Appropriations is where NASA is going to havea trickier time because a Democratic chairman may come in with a different setof national priorities," Adkins said.
Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) is expected to chair the House AppropriationsCommittee in the next Congress. As ranking Democrat, Obey attempted to cut $200million from NASA's 2007 budget earlier this year and give it to local law enforcementprograms. During a debate on an amendment that would have prevented NASA from spendingany money on a manned Mars missions, Obey accused some of his colleagues ashaving "Mars fever."
Obey was also one of 15 House members to vote against theNASA Authorization Act of 2005 when it first came to the floor. That billprovided the first congressional endorsement of NASA's space exploration agendaand authorized the higher spending levels for the agency than the White Househas requested. Analysts generally described Obey as NASA's biggest problem in thenew Congress, given the combination of his new clout and past opposition tohuman spaceflight programs.
At the appropriationssubcommittee level, where annual spending bills are drafted, NASA should finditself in more familiar -- and friendlier -- territory, analysts agreed.
The chairmanship of theHouse Appropriations science, state, justice and commerce subcommittee, whichhas jurisdiction over NASA, generally is expected to go to the current rankingDemocrat, Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia.
Mollohan's Fairmont, W.Va.,district is home to NASA's Independent Verification and Validation facility.
Analysts said Mollohan'ssupport of NASA is tempered by the congressman's liberal use of budget earmarksto direct federal dollars back home. Some of those earmarks, directed through non profit groups he helped start, came under scrutinyduring his campaign. He left his post as the top Democrat on the House ethicscommittee in April amid questions about personal financial dealings he had withbeneficiaries of earmarks he pushed through.
After winning his 13th termon Nov. 7, he was unapologetic about his use of earmarks, telling a localpaper, the Times West Virginian, the next day he was "not going to change a bit."
Some analysts saidDemocratic leadership could pass over Mollohan when doling out chairmanships,but most felt he would get the job.
Mollohan's approach toearmarks, analysts said, stands in contrast to outgoing subcommittee chairmanRep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who managed to keep NASA's budget earmark-free all theway through passage by the House this summer.
Other strong NASAsupporters expected to remain on the House Appropriations Committee includeReps. Robert "Bud" Cramer (D-Ala.), Chet Edwards (D-Texas), Dave Weldon (R-Fla.),and John Culberson (R-Texas).
In the U.S. Senate, where the Democrats will have aslim one-vote majority over Republicans, NASA's budget will fall under the jurisdictionof Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), an ardent NASA supporter who is championing a$1 billion increase for the agency. Mikulski, another lawmaker not shy aboutearmarking bills, already has considerable say over the NASA budget as the rankingDemocrat on the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee andhas wielded that power in the past to the benefit of NASA science programs,particularly those managed by Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.,the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md., and theSpace Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
Her influence will only growwhen she becomes the subcommittee's chairwoman in the in the new Congress.Mikulski spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said her boss "will continue to make NASAa top priority."
How much room to maneuverMikulski and other NASA supporters on the subcommittee, including outgoingchairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), will have will depend largely on the budgetallocations handed down by the full committee at the start the year.
Paul Carliner, thesubcommittee's Democratic staff director, speaking at a space explorationseminar here several days before the election, said a Democratic Congress likely would push a slight increase in domesticdiscretionary spending and that, in turn, could translate into more money forNASA. "Clearly, if additional funding becomes available," he said, "one of thethings we'd like to see is some of the funding cuts to science restored." Carlineralso hinted that aeronautics could see an increase. "No other division of theagency has taken a bigger hit to its budget over the last 10 years thanaeronautics," he said.
In addition to Mikulski andShelby, other NASA supporters on the Senate Appropriations Committee include Sens.Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), and Mary Landrieu (D-La.). All threehave significant NASA presence in their states.
NASA also has a strongsupporter in Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat favored to become chairmanof the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee, replacing Hutchison whois expected to stay on as the ranking Republican.
Nelson, whose state is hometo NASA's Kennedy Space Center, flew aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in January1986 while a member of the House. Along with Hutchison, Nelson has been theSenate's most vocal critic of NASA's plan to retire the space shuttle beforefielding its replacement, the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle. He and Hutchisonpushed for, but did not get, a provision in the NASA Authorization Act of 2005that would have prohibited NASA from retiring the shuttle before its replacementwas ready to go.
This year's elections alsoreturned to office another strong NASA supporter, Democrat Nick Lampson, whonarrowly defeated write-in candidate Shelley Sekula-Gibbs to win theHouston-area seat vacated by ousted House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Lampsonwas the ranking Democrat on the House Science space and aeronauticssubcommittee until he lost his seat in 2004 in a congressional redistricting engineeredby DeLay. Analysts said Lampson could be given a plum Appropriations Committee assignment to bolster his chances of winningre-election in a heavily Republican district.
With DeLay gone, NASA hasyet to find a new political champion in the House with the same clout.Analysts, however, said NASA has cause for optimism if Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) beats out Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.),a prominent Iraq war critic, to become House majority leader in the next Congress. Hoyer is closelyallied with Mikulski and has paid heed to space interests in his state.
While the space communityhas no clear ties to Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), analysts said NASA andits contractors could find an in through Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), a closePelosi associate who has been active on issues affecting the Mountain View,Calif.-based NASA Ames Research Center, located in her district.
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Brian Berger is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews, a bi-weekly space industry news magazine, and SpaceNews.com. He joined SpaceNews covering NASA in 1998 and was named Senior Staff Writer in 2004 before becoming Deputy Editor in 2008. Brian's reporting on NASA's 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident and received the Communications Award from the National Space Club Huntsville Chapter in 2019. Brian received a bachelor's degree in magazine production and editing from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.