New caucus to advocate for NASA’s needs in Congress

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Updated 12:25 p.m. Eastern.

WASHINGTON — The co-founder of a new congressional caucus devoted to NASA said he hopes to use it to advocate for the agency’s needs in Congress once a new administrator is in place.

Rep. Steve Knight (R-Calif.) co-founded the new NASA Caucus in October with Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio). The bipartisan caucus now has about 50 members, he said in a Nov. 30 speech at a Commercial Spaceflight Federation breakfast here.

“We’re going to talk about what NASA can do, what the private industry can do, what commercial spaceflight is going to be doing, what everything is going to be doing, all meshed together,” he said.

Knight said later that the caucus didn’t have any specific legislative priorities at this time. Rather, he said he was waiting for the Senate to confirm the nomination of Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) to the position and get his input on his priorities for NASA.

“I don’t want to get out in front of a possible new administrator,” Knight said. “We’ll talk to the new administrator, talk to the caucus as a whole, and try to find out how we can help.” He added that he’s invited Bridenstine to speak to the caucus once confirmed.

Knight endorsed the nomination of Bridenstine as NASA administrator. “Jim Bridenstine will do an exceptional job,” he said, saying he had the attributes to be a good leader for the agency. “I am hopeful Jim will be the next administrator, and I think that he will.”

While not talking about specific priorities the caucus had, Knight, whose district includes part of Edwards Air Force Base, where NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center is located, said that the agency’s work in aeronautics was a priority for him. “Our push is always to make sure NASA is putting money into aerospace; it is the ‘big A’ of NASA,” he said. “They’ve been a little lacking in the funding.”

He was less interested, though, in human missions to Mars, at least in the 2030s timeframe others in Congress have supported. “I know that there are people out there that think we’re going to be on Mars in 2033,” he said, an apparent reference to Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), a fellow member of the House Science Committee who frequently advocates for a 2033 human Mars mission in committee hearings. “I’m not of those people. I still think there’s a lot of things we need to do before we can get to Mars in the next 16 years.” (A spokesperson for Rep. Perlmutter told SpaceNews Dec. 1 that he is also a member of the NASA Caucus.)

Knight said the impending retirement of Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the science committee who announced in November he would not run for reelection in 2018, could be a factor in lobbying for future NASA budget increases.

“He’s been a good advocate in trying to make sure that we’re starting to bump up NASA’s budget,” he said of Smith. “It’s going to be interesting on who’s going to take over [the committee] because I think that’s going to be one of the positions that we’re looking at to keep bumping up NASA a little bit.”

Knight, who also serves on the House Armed Services Committee, weighed in on some elements of the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act. He said he expected one provision of the bill, which would prevent the Defense Department from buying satellite services involving spacecraft launched from Russia or China after 2022, would have to be later amended.

“I think that 2022 [deadline] will probably have to move,” he said. “I don’t know that we’re going to get there, and I don’t know that that’s going to be achievable.”

He added he didn’t support the “Space Corps” provision in the original House version of the act, but not in the final version. “I am not a fan of the Space Corps,” he said, arguing that resources should be provided to the Air Force to carry out its space responsibilities rather than create a “whole new bureaucracy” of a Space Corps. “I think the Air Force is the best place for it.”