WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), a strong advocate of NASA’s exploration and planetary science programs, will chair the subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee that funds the agency in the next Congress, the committee announced Nov. 20.
In a statement, committee chairman Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) released the list of the 12 subcommittee chairs approved by the Republican Steering Committee. That list included Culberson as chairman of the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) subcommittee, which funds NASA as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) will continue to head the defense subcommittee, which funds military space and missile defense programs.
Culberson was widely considered to be one of two front-runners to succeed Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), the previous CJS subcommittee chairman, who is retiring at the end of this year. Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), the current vice chairman of the subcommittee, was also in contention for the post, but will instead retain the chairmanship of the agriculture and rural development subcommittee.
“I am honored that my House Republican colleagues have chosen me as the new chair of the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee,” Culberson said in a Nov. 20 statement. “I’m grateful to have earned Chairman Hal Rogers’s confidence, and it is a real privilege to succeed Chairman Frank Wolf.”
In the statement, Culberson said he would emphasize both law enforcement and science as subcommittee chairman. “It will also be a source of great joy for me to help lift up NASA and the NSF to ensure that America will always lead the world in space exploration and scientific discoveries,” he said.
In an interview with SpaceNews in September, Culberson said his top priorities for NASA included accelerating development of the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and Orion spacecraft as well as funding key space science missions. However, he was skeptical about NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, which seeks to move a small asteroid into lunar orbit to be visited by astronauts in the 2020s. “It just doesn’t, in my mind, make financial sense when NASA’s money is so scarce and so hard to come by,” he said in the interview. “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.”
Culberson is perhaps best known for his advocacy for a mission to Europa, a large moon of Jupiter believed to have a liquid water ocean beneath its icy surface that may be able to support life. As a member of the CJS subcommittee, he worked to set aside funding for a Europa mission in recent appropriations bills, including $100 million in the fiscal year 2015 CJS appropriations bill passed by the House in May. NASA had requested only $15 million for Europa mission studies in its 2015 budget request.
“It didn’t have an advocate. It didn’t have anybody pushing for it,” Culberson said of Europa mission proposals in the September interview. “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.”
Mike Gruss contributed to this story from Washington.