Republican lawmakers have begun working to fund space exploration projects over environmental research within the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a hearing on the future of NASA on Thursday morning. Two former astronauts and two other NASA experts testified before the committee.
Delivering his opening statement, Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Stafford, a former NASA astronaut, derided what he viewed as a lackluster past eight years:
“One of the key issues confronting the new Congress and the new administration will be how to go forward with restoring America’s preeminence in space after what, frankly, for nearly eight years, have been lost opportunities."
Stafford's comments align with what many Republican lawmakers argued throughout former President Barack Obama's administration. Under Obama, funding within NASA for planetary science and exploration waned while funding for the earth science program, which focuses on environmental research, grew by almost 50 percent.
Republicans, many of whom doubt the validity of concerns surrounding climate change, took issue with the move. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, emerged as a leader in the fight to re-prioritize space exploration.
Cruz introduced a bipartisan NASA reauthorization bill in the last Congress that increased funding for planetary science and emphasized NASA's exploration projects. The bill passed in the Senate, but was unable to make it through the House before the end of the 114th Congress.
The Senate could pass Cruz's NASA reauthorization legislation once again as early as Friday. Speaking about the bill, Cruz told Independent Journal Review on Wednesday:
“I think it is critical that NASA get back to its core mission of space exploration. Under the Obama administration, space exploration was not given the emphasis and priority it deserves.”
Republicans in both houses of Congress are in agreement with Cruz's priorities for NASA. A spokesman for Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.), a member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, told IJR about his goals for NASA in the new Congress:
“The shift back towards NASA should be focused on space exploration. We have one agency that studies space. We have something like sixteen others that focus on climate issues.”
While Republicans maintain that NASA's fundamental mission should be one of exploration, supporters of the earth science program point to the recent work it has done in satellite technology and weather forecasting that millions of Americans rely on today.
Beyond funding disagreements, however, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle tend to agree that returning to space is a worthwhile goal, not only for scientific discovery, but also for national security.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), one of President Donald Trump's potential candidates for Administrator of NASA, spoke at length during Thursday's hearing about the threats that advancing Chinese space operations pose to American security. He described the Moon as “critically important for the geopolitical position” of the U.S.
Likewise, Posey has introduced a bipartisan bill that would direct NASA to return to the Moon by 2022. A portion of the bill's text reads:
“Space is the world’s ultimate high ground, and returning to the Moon and reinvigorating our human space flight program is a matter of national security.”
While some members of the 115th Congress clearly have ambitious plans for space policy moving forward, their first move will be to shift the focus within NASA from environmental research and other programs to space exploration by allocating increased funding to the planetary science program.