Editorial | Mikulski Retirement Looms Large

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Long-serving Senator Mikulski Has Stood Tall for NASA

There is no way to calculate the loss NASA will feel when U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) retires at the end of her term next year.

But there can be no doubt that it will be substantial and far reaching.

The diminutive but fiery lawmaker, who surprised friends and foes alike March 2 when she announced she would not be seeking a sixth Senate term, has been a towering figure in civil space policy circles for more than 20 years. Her committee assignments — she has alternated over that period between chairwoman and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA — have accorded her tremendous power over the space agency’s purse strings, and she’s never been shy about wielding it.

Senior NASA officials had to welcome this unwavering support, even if she publicly called them to the carpet from time to time when things went awry on high-profile programs. And while she was a formidable foe of any lawmaker who contemplated diverting resources from Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, Mikulski was well known for reaching across the aisle to forge close alliances with her Republican counterparts, most recently Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, chairman of the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Bill Hrybyk

Over the years Ms. Mikulski has been instrumental in ensuring robust funding for NASA’s mostly Goddard-managed Earth science program, which is unpopular with many Republicans. She has also defended the massively overbudget James Webb Space Telescope, which is being developed at Goddard and whose operations will be managed by the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

But her patronage has never been limited to Goddard and the Wallops Flight Facility, which is located on Virginia’s eastern shore just south of Maryland and managed by Goddard. In the 1990s, for example, she was a powerful advocate for the International Space Station when the program — then known as Space Station Freedom — was struggling to win support on Capitol Hill. More recently, she has helped secure more funding for the Space Launch System, a shuttle-derived heavy-lift rocket whose development is being led by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

To be sure, Ms. Mikulski has occasionally been a bit more prescriptive in her oversight than NASA would have preferred — she has blocked agency attempts to discontinue low-priority or poor-performing programs and carved out questionable roles for Goddard in others. NASA has unquestionably fared far better with her than it would have without her.

The question now becomes who, if anyone, will fill the very large void left by Ms. Mikulski’s departure less than two years from now. It’s not hard to find lawmakers willing to fight for NASA programs that directly benefit their districts and states — and make no mistake, Ms. Mikulski has always brought home the bacon for Goddard. What has set her apart is her unabashed support for the civil space program as a whole.

If there’s one NASA activity in particular to worry about in the post-Mikulski era it’s Earth science, which, in part because of its connection to the political hot-button issue of climate change, has been a Republican target for nearly two decades. Her departure will leave that program vulnerable absent the emergence of a new power broker who shares her vision of a healthy and balanced civil space program.

During her speech announcing her retirement, Ms. Mikulski said she’d rather spend the next two years fighting for her constituents than raising money for the 2016 campaign. The statement was classic Mikulski, one that underscores perfectly for NASA and others why she will be so badly missed.