It might seem a bit unusual for a lawmaker from Houston, home to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, to be an outspoken advocate of the agency’s planetary science program, which resides half a continent — and in the figurative sense, a full world — away in Pasadena, California.
But Rep. John Culberson is perfectly comfortable in that role, even as he identifies the big-ticket human spaceflight programs that are Johnson’s bread and butter as his top priorities.
Culberson has taken a particular interest in a mission to Europa, the jovian moon whose icy exterior covers what scientists believe is an ocean that might offer the best — if still remote — hope of finding alien life in the solar system. In this, the conservative Texan has what otherwise would be an unlikely ally in Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), whose Pasadena district includes NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which specializes in planetary missions.
A Europa mission is a top priority of the planetary science community, but the price tag — perhaps $1 billion for a bare-bones flyby; several billion dollars for an orbiter — has kept it confined to the drawing boards.
As a senior member of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, which oversees NASA spending, Culberson is in a good position to help secure the necessary funding for a Europa mission. He might be in an even better position in the near future: His seat is considered safe in the November elections, and the subcommittee’s current chairman, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), is retiring at the end of the year.
Should Culberson ascend to the subcommittee chair, that obviously would be good news to programs like the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and its companion deep-space capsule, Orion. At the same time, Culberson backs NASA’s commercial crew program to restore U.S. astronaut access to the international space station, a position that puts him on common ground with the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama.
Culberson, who also feels strongly that NASA has become too politicized and wants to change the way agency administrators are selected, spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Dan Leone.
Do you plan to spend any time in the next session of Congress pressing for an overhaul of NASA’s leadership structure?
Absolutely. I think it’s vital for NASA’s governing structure to change so they’re less political and less subject to the influences of presidential elections or congressional elections. They ought to be more like the FBI, in terms of giving the NASA director the same kind of independence the director of the FBI does to overlap presidents, to not be concerned about whether or not he’s following the current president’s party line. And if you’re going to free NASA from the political pressure of the White House and Congress, you also need to free them from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). NASA ought to be able to make their budget recommendations directly to the appropriations committees in the Congress and bypass OMB so we get an honest, fair recommendation based on the independent judgment of the professionals at NASA.
But in your bill, the administrator would be elected by a panel, and that is still a political process subject to meddling. How does that make NASA less political?
The director of NASA under our bill would be chosen by the president from three recommendations proposed by the board of directors, and the way we designed it was that the speaker of the House, the president pro tempore of the Senate and the White House would all appoint members to the board and they would all make recommendations of nominees. The White House would choose one for Senate confirmation. That preserves the separation of powers required by the Constitution and it preserves the prerogative of the executive branch to make a nomination while still giving the director of NASA some real independence. The board could still remove the director during the term.
Why should NASA have the privilege to bypass the Office of Management and Budget when so many other agencies do not?
NASA is a scientific research agency. NASA’s mission is space exploration and scientific research, and that by definition should be driven by the scientists and astronauts and engineers who make up the agency. NASA should be given that freedom. The reason you have all the frustration and hand-wringing in the agency and the worries that they’re not going to hit their target for the Space Launch System is because they’re hamstrung by OMB. They’re not able to speak freely about what level of funding is necessary to stay on time and on target because they all work for the White House, no matter who the president is. They’re all obligated to be team players and follow the party line, whatever it is. That’s just wrong. NASA should be apolitical and focused on space exploration and scientific research and preserving America’s leadership role in the world.
Besides the leadership bill, what’s your personal No. 1 priority for NASA in the next Congress?
To ensure that they have the funding they need to speed up the launch of the SLS and Orion, and to ensure that they have the funding they need to follow through on their obligation to fund and fly the top science priorities of the decadal survey. In that order.
What about the commercial crew program, which is intended to restore independent U.S. crew access to the international space station?
I’ve always been a big believer in the Yellow Pages test: If you can find a service in the Yellow Pages that the government provides, you should privatize it, if at all possible. And I think it’s a great idea to privatize crew access to low Earth orbit. That to me is a logical, natural extension of the private sector’s creativity and initiative. That’s a good thing for the country. It will not only help the international space agency and the manned spaceflight program, but also open up the opportunity for the private sector to make a lot of money for their shareholders and improve life here on Earth.
It sounds like you are on the same side as the White House with regard to at least one part of the civil space program.
I’m in agreement with them on the need to have commercial access to low Earth orbit, absolutely.
How about the White House’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission, which would make use of SLS and Orion?
It’s just far more productive to focus on lunar missions than it is to actually move an asteroid into one of those LaGrange points. It just doesn’t, in my mind, make financial sense when NASA’s money is so scarce and so hard to come by. I don’t think it’s productive to add another really extensive project to their plate when they’re telling the scientific community they’re short money to do top-priority missions like Europa.
What is it that has made Europa a signature issue for you?
Europa’s the top priority in the outer planets category in the decadal survey, and my focus is to make sure that NASA will fund and fly the top priority in the decadal survey. Since the Obama administration won’t do it, it’s Congress’ responsibility to make sure that NASA funds and flies the top-priority mission in each of the surveys. So that’s really where the Europa thing is coming from. It didn’t have an advocate. It didn’t have anybody pushing for it. And I recognized its importance, scientifically, based on my own knowledge and experience and my passion for the sciences, and for answering the question, “Are we alone?” I knew it was the likeliest place to find life on another world. So that’s sort of why I picked it up. Europa needed a friend.
There are those who say other missions need a friend too. Do you think it would be possible to expand NASA’s roughly $18 billion budget to $20 billion or even $22 billion some time in the next few years?
Absolutely. There’s strong support in Congress from both parties. It’s broad, deep support from both parties from all parts of the country to increase our investment in the manned and unmanned space program. I’m real optimistic.