Maryland senator seeks to maintain support for NASA programs

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GREENBELT, Md. — As the White House prepares to release its detailed fiscal year 2018 budget request, a Maryland senator said he will fight to ensure NASA programs with local connections threatened with cuts remain funded.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told an audience at a Maryland Space Business Roundtable here May 15 that, after the retirement of fellow Sen. Barbara Mikulski, he would work together with the state’s congressional delegation to ensure that key programs remain funded.

“I get the fact that we have to be aggressive in using the talent of all 10 members of our delegation to set priorities as to how we can advance the U.S. space program,” he said.

For years, Mikulski had done the heavy lifting for supporting programs at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and other facilities in Maryland from her perch on the Senate Appropriations Committee. She spent the last several years in the Senate as the top Democrat on both the full committee and the commerce, justice, and science subcommittee, which funds NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Mikulski did not run for reelection in 2016, however, making Cardin the state’s senior senator. He serves on neither the appropriations committee nor the Senate Commerce Committee, which deals with NASA policy issues.

Cardin said that, with Mikulski now retired, he and his fellow members of the state’s congressional delegation would do more to ensure that NASA and NOAA programs, particularly those involving centers or companies in the state.

“I recognize that it’s a tough act to follow,” he said of succeeding Mikulski as Maryland’s senior senator. “But I want you to know that I look at my responsibility as the senior senator to use the talent of every single member of our congressional delegation, all 10 of us, to do what we can to help the people of Maryland and the people of this country, and space is a very important part of that agenda.”

In a speech to an audience of NASA and industry executives, Cardin laid out his priorities for space, identifying for particular support some programs with local connections that have been targeted for cuts in the White House’s fiscal year 2018 budget blueprint, released in March. Foremost among them was NASA’s Earth science programs at Goddard.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) speaking at a Maryland Space Business Roundtable luncheon May 15. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust
Sen. Ben Cardin (DM-Md.) speaking at a Maryland Space Business Roundtable luncheon May 15. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

That includes the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission under development at Goddard, one of four Earth science missions targeted for cancellation in the 2018 budget blueprint. He tied that mission to local concerns about improving the health of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. “The PACE mission is critically important for those results,” he said.

He also said he would support Landsat-9, the next in the series of the Earth resources satellites currently under development. “We will fight hard to make sure we continue the support for Landsat so that we can launch Landsat-9 in 2020,” he said.

Another mission he backed is Restore-L, a satellite-servicing project at Goddard that the administration seeks to restructure to save money in the 2018 budget request. “The one program that I couldn’t understand we wouldn’t fund without any question is Restore-L,” he said. Satellite servicing, he argued, could repair and extend the lives of existing satellites, saving money in the long term. “This program will pay for itself.”

More details about the potential cuts to those and other programs are expected to be released later this month, when the administration issues its full fiscal year 2018 budget request. Cardin said he was told by Chris Scolese, director of Goddard, that the White House is now providing agencies with a preview of that full request.

He said he was concerned about that budget based on the cuts outlined in the blueprint released in March. “It was particularly problematic for those of us as far as the Earth science at NASA,” he said. “We’ll fight very hard to maintain the funding and expand the funding on Earth science programs.”

He said that the outcome of the fiscal year 2017 budget deliberations, concluded just earlier this month, seven months into the year, may provide a guide for the 2018 appropriations debate. While critical of the timing of the final bill, he said its contents, crafted by House and Senate appropriators of both parties, were acceptable.

“At the end of the day, we passed a pretty good budget,” he said. “It was certainly a lot different than what President Trump was asking for.”

He called for a similar approach when Congress takes up fiscal year 2018 spending bills in the coming months. “If we follow that path again, we can pass the right budget for FY18,” he said, arguing for the predictability that a full-year appropriations bill provides.

“You may not like everything that we put in a budget, but it’s a far better for you to have a budget than not have a budget, so you know how to plan,” he said.