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Longtime NASA Champion Taking Over Senate Appropriations

Sen. Barbara Mikulski. Credit: Photo courtesy of Sen. Mikulski's office

UPDATED at 3:51 p.m. EDT

In a development that figures to increase her already formidable sway over NASA’s budget, U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) was chosen to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee following the death of Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).

The Senate Democratic Caucus announced Mikulski’s appointment in a Dec. 20 press release. Inouye, who was 88, died Dec. 17.

Mikulski is expected to remain chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, according to her spokeswoman, Rachel MacKnight. The subcommittee conducts oversight hearings and drafts spending bills for NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other agencies.

“When Sen. Mikulski talks now, she’s not just talking for the subcommittee, she’s talking for the Senate on appropriations,” one congressional aide told SpaceNews.

A pair of academics said Mikulski’s new leadership position augurs well for NASA.

“Becoming chair of the overall Appropriations Committee only increases Sen. Mikulski’s influence over space matters, especially since she retains her subcommittee chair,” space historian John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University here, said in an email Jan. 3. “Her knowledge of NASA and its programs is likely to lead to her making sure that the space agency does not get short-changed.”

“Sen. Mikulski is a strong supporter of the NASA space program and someone who tends to bring a voice of sensibility to the proceedings,” NASA historian Howard McCurdy, a public policy professor at American University here, said. “She is well informed and quite pragmatic.”

Mikulski is known as a fierce protector of space activities in her home state of Maryland, which hosts NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory and the Space Telescope Science Institute, which manages the science operations for the Hubble Space Telescope.

Goddard operates most of the agency’s Earth observation satellites, procures weather satellites on behalf of NOAA and is in the midst of building the James Webb Space Telescope — a Hubble successor slated for liftoff in October 2018. The long-delayed telescope is expected to cost $8.8 billion to build, launch and operate for five years.

It is still not known who will take Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s place as the ranking member of the commerce, justice, science subcommittee. Hutchison, a Texas Republican, did not run for re-election and has retired after 24 years in the Senate. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), a staunch advocate for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., is one possibility.

Appropriations bills originate in the House of Representatives, where Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) will retain the chairmanship of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, according to a Jan. 3 press release. This will be Wolf’s third consecutive term as the top Republican on the subcommittee. He also had the subcommittee’s gavel from 2001 to 2006.

Turning to defense, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) is seen as a strong candidate to take over the chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, according to congressional sources.

The panel, whose oversight responsibilities include military space and missile defense, was chaired by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) during the 112th Congress. Nelson did not seek re-election in 2012.

Udall’s state hosts a number of major space contractors, including Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.; Lockheed Martin Space Systems; Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems; and Sierra Nevada Space Systems. In addition, U.S. Air Force Space Command is located in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Mike Saccone, a spokesman for Udall, said via email the senator “is interested and would welcome the opportunity to head the subcommittee if it presented itself.”

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