Commentary | The Future of NASA in a Post-shuttle World

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Throughout NASA’s history, the American space program has been a symbol of world leadership, national security and national pride. This has been reflected in the bipartisan manner in which Congress addressed space policy bills. The bipartisan spirit that drove those policies gave us the tools to put a man on the Moon, build the international space station and send rovers to Mars. Despite the fact that Congress has become increasingly partisan, the last four space policy bills were passed with wide bipartisan margins. 

We have never needed a serious, workable, bipartisan approach to space policy more than we do now. While the Chinese are dumping money into their space program, American astronauts are hitching rides to the international space station on Russian rockets. NASA no longer even has the capability of sending our astronauts into space. At this crucial point in our history, we must invest and invest wisely in NASA if we expect to maintain American leadership in space. The bar is set extremely high. We must ensure every single dollar appropriated to NASA is spent effectively and efficiently, and we must work even harder than in the past to put sound policy and the American people ahead of politics. That is the goal of the bill that recently passed out of the House Science space subcommittee and will be considered before the full committee. 

As lawmakers, we have a responsibility to put forth serious policies with realistic approaches to the current fiscal environment and the constraints of the law. This means making hard choices, and it means producing responsible legislation that falls within the guidelines of the Budget Control Act as passed by a Republican House and Democratic Senate and signed into law by President Barack Obama. The NASA reauthorization bill that is currently before the House is a serious and good-faith effort to do the best we can with the hand we’ve been dealt, and it provides room for NASA funding to grow should a budget agreement be reached.

The NASA reauthorization places priority on NASA’s primary mission — space exploration — and core programs, while supporting NASA’s ultimate goal of a human mission to Mars. It invests in our ability to once again launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil by increasing funding over the president’s budget request for development of the next generation of deep-space exploration systems: the Space Launch System (SLS) and Exploration Ground Systems. It also invests in the Orion crew capsule, the international space station, the James Webb Space Telescope and the Commercial Crew Program. We maintain funding for weather forecasting, planetary science, astrophysics and heliophysics within the Science Mission Directorate. We go to great lengths to ensure transparency and accountability for every tax dollar spent. Finally, our bill funds NASA at levels that ensure on-time development and deployment of NASA’s most important assets, while working within the constraints of the current budget realities Congress faces.

In protecting NASA’s key role in space exploration, we also attempt to restore balance to its science mission portfolio by scaling back growth in other areas. The Earth Science Division is a good example of such growth: Over the last five years, budgets increased by more than 40 percent at the expense of other critical missions within NASA. There are 13 agencies throughout the federal government that currently fund Earth science research, but only one agency specializes in space exploration and conducts space science research. 

I believe strongly that is the job of Congress to provide guidance to NASA and leave science to the scientists. That is why this bill represents some of the best direction and recommendations the scientific and space industry communities have to offer, tempered with the restrained budget realities our nation faces. It reflects the input of scientists, engineers, program managers and industry contractors to gather a balance of expert recommendations for our bill. While formulating bill language, the subcommittee held hearings about new scientific discoveries in space and heard bipartisan concerns with various challenges at NASA, as well as the need for a focused vision and a roadmap for NASA’s long-term goals.  

While Congress must abstain from prescribing scientific policy, we have an oversight responsibility to follow the lead of scientific community concerns where the administration has failed to provide adequate details or justification for missions. The drastic nature of a proposal to reorganize education programs has drawn criticism from both sides of the aisle, and the costly and complex asteroid retrieval mission proposal has been met with outright rejection or hesitation at best. Our bill calls both into question and simply halts these proposals until more detail, and more support from the scientific community, can be provided.  

We must take note of where we are today as we make plans for tomorrow. In the last few years, the haphazard way the current administration has canceled programs, diverted mission dollars and introduced vague proposals has left NASA without the stability and guidance necessary to meet long-term goals. Going forward, Congress has two options: We can work together to give NASA the support, guidance and congressional oversight it needs to maintain American leadership in space, or we can cede that leadership by playing political games and placing unrealistic options on the table. If we do the latter, we risk leaving NASA adrift. NASA, the American people and the next generation of scientists and explorers deserve better. 

As we work to pass a NASA reauthorization bill, there will continue to be challenges for all who wish to govern responsibly in these tough budgetary and political times. I believe the same bipartisan spirit that drove past NASA reauthorizations can prevail once more, but it will take a serious effort from both houses of Congress and both sides of the aisle. It is time to put politics aside and put sound policy back on the table. 

 

Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.) is chairman of the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s space subcommittee.