Lightfoot House hearing
NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot discusses the agency's 2018 budget proposal before the House space subcommittee June 8. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

WASHINGTON — House members criticized a NASA budget proposal for fiscal year 2018 that would cancel several Earth science projects and close the agency’s education office.

In back-to-back hearings June 8 by the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee and the commerce, justice and science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, members expressed general support for the agency’s $19.1 billion proposed budget.

However, members of both parties opposed the proposal to defund the Office of Education, which received $100 million in the fiscal year 2017 appropriations bill. The office would receive $37.3 million in 2018 to close out its operations.

“I’m concerned about, in your budget, your cuts to the Office of Education,” said Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), a former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee who is now a member of the CJS subcommittee. “I can’t understand why you would want to cut that.”

NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, the sole witness at both hearings, said the decision was the outcome of an assessment on how the agency could do its outreach activities more efficiently. “We felt we could balance them better,” he said of the various NASA education activities, including those in its mission directorates. “We felt like, in the balance of things, we could do this more effectively, in a different way.”

However, Rogers and other members criticized the cuts to programs such as Space Grant, Experimental Project To Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) and Minority University Research and Education Program, which are all part of the Office of Education. Members expressed concern about how the cuts would affect programs in their home states.

Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-W.V.), a member of the CJS subcommittee, pressed Lightfoot in particular on the fate of EPSCoR, which supports research infrastructure in underserved regions of the country. When Lightfoot said EPSCoR would not be funded in the proposal, Jenkins responded, “I will be going to bat because I believe that EPSCoR has been very effective.”

“This budget request zeroes out funding for three long-standing programs within NASA’s Office of Education,” said Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the CJS subcommittee. “I hope we can work together, in a bipartisan manner, to preserve these programs that so greatly benefit the American people.”

Serrano and other Democrats on both committees also criticized the planned cuts to NASA’s Earth science program, including the termination of five projects. “I do want to make sure that the Earth sciences mission is also protected,” said Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), ranking member of the space subcommittee.

At both hearings, Lightfoot said that NASA used a “three-tier process” to determine what Earth science projects to cut. “We said what is in the decadal [survey], what gives us the best science value for the return for what we’re doing and how they are performing,” he said at the space subcommittee hearing.

“We still have 20 operating missions, we still have an airborne science campaign, we’re spending $1.7 billion on Earth science and have a pretty good portfolio that allows us to understand what’s happening,” he said at the CJS subcommittee hearing.

Most Republican members of both committees supported the Earth science cuts. “The budget promotes a much better balance among NASA’s many scientific endeavors, especially for planetary science, and starts to reverse the significant growth in Earth science,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee.

An exception, though, was Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), a member of the space subcommittee, who opposed NASA’s plans to cancel the Radiation Budget Instrument being built by Harris Corp. in his district. “I would like to work with you, and my colleagues, to make sure that we don’t discard investments that we’ve already made in these next-generation technologies,” he told Lightfoot.

Much larger, and often more controversial, programs like the Space Launch System, Orion spacecraft and commercial crew programs received far less scrutiny at the hearings. Lightfoot reiterated the rationale behind the decision announced in May to not place a crew on the first SLS/Orion mission, and the reasons for delaying that mission to some time in 2019.

“The fiscal year 2018 NASA budget shows that Congress and the administration both support a consistent, focused space program,” Smith said. The requested levels for those key human spaceflight programs, he said, “are realistic and reasonable, providing an increased level of stability and continuity of purpose.”

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the CJS subcommittee, noted in his opening statement that he had worked in the past to fully fund SLS and Orion. Later, he asked Lightfoot if he was confident in the current schedule for SLS and Orion. When Lightfoot said he was, Culberson offered a one-word response: “Terrific.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...