Mikulski Vows To Balance NASA Science and Exploration Funding

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LAUREL, Md. — The top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee said Nov. 16 that she will seek to support both science and exploration programs in the final version of a 2016 spending bill her committee is working on.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) told an audience at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) here that she was working very closely with Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, to craft a bill that takes advantage of increased spending caps for fiscal year 2016 to better support agency programs.

“I am working on a bipartisan basis with my dear friend, Sen. Shelby,” she said. She said that effort was intended to fund programs like the Space Launch System that are priorities for Shelby with those space science programs she favors.

“We know that NASA can’t be just a ‘Johnny One-Note,’” she said. “While we do human spaceflight, we have to also continue to do space science, because it is space science that tells us about the world we live in today and how we protect that world.”

The details of that final spending bill are still being worked out, Mikulski said in a brief interview after her speech, and thus she couldn’t go into details about how it would differ from the bill that Senate appropriators approved in June that offered NASA $18.29 billion. That amount was nearly $240 million less than both the administration’s original request and an appropriations bill passed by the House in June.

“We’re looking at what it is we need to do to maintain a balanced a space program,” she said. She cited again human space exploration programs and space science as well as NASA’s commercial crew effort as priorities. “We’re looing now at how we can use our allocation to keep that balance.”

Mikulski said she hoped the committee will have a “framework” in place for a final spending bill when Congress reconvenes after the Thanksgiving holiday at the end of November. That would likely be incorporated into a final omnibus spending bill that Congress seeks to pass before the current continuing resolution, which funds the federal government at 2015 levels, expires on Dec. 11.

Any agreement to add extra money to NASA could help resolve differences between the earlier House and Senate bills. The Senate, for example, provided nearly $250 million more for Earth science that the House, but $236 million less for planetary science. The two bills had smaller differences in spending for the SLS and Orion programs. Both bills also provided less money than NASA’s request for commercial crew and space technology, two agency priorities.

Mikulski, speaking to APL employees, praised the lab for its work on current and upcoming space science missions, from the New Horizons spacecraft that flew past Pluto in July to the Solar Probe Plus mission in development. She also suggested APL would have a role in NASA’s plans for a mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. “We want to make sure Europa gets done, and done the way it should,” she said.

Mikulski announced in March that she would not run for a sixth term in the Senate in 2016. However, she emphasized in her APL speech that she would continue to fight for priorities such as NASA, and especially those programs than benefit APL, in her remaining time in Congress. “I want you to know in the 13 months that I have left I’m not just going to go around and collect awards,” she said. “I am out here continuing to work for you.”

Mikulski has not endorsed any of the candidates running for her Senate seat, but did accidently mention one of them, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), when she referred to the “Van Hollen Probes” rather than NASA’s “Van Allen Probes” mission. “There’s Van Hollen and there’s Van Allen,” she said. “Get to know them both.”