Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, said a new 2017 spending bill should be released soon. Credit: Jeff Foust

WASHINGTON — House appropriators are ready to move ahead with spending bills for 2017 that should provide near-term stability for NASA’s current programs.

In a speech Feb. 7 at a Space Transportation Luncheon here, Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the commerce, justice and science (CJS) appropriations subcommittee, said a new version of a spending bill that funds NASA and other agencies for the rest of the 2017 fiscal year should be released soon.

“We’re basically done with our bill,” Culberson said. “The bill is largely agreed to. I just need a green light to go forward” and formally introduce the bill, he said. “The CJS bill is literally there, ready to go.”

NASA, like most other federal agencies, is operating under a continuing resolution that funds it at fiscal year 2016 levels through April. While there has been some discussion of simply extending the CR through the rest of 2017 to allow Congress to instead focus on upcoming fiscal year 2018 appropriations bills, Culberson said it was important for him to get appropriations bills passed for this year first in order to provide more detailed direction to agencies.

“Every detail in that bill is essential to make sure that the deal is consummated and carried out in the way the parties intended,” he said, likening an appropriations bill to a contract. “That’s why you’ve got to have a detailed appropriations bill. If you do a CR, you’re abandoning all of the ability of the Congress” to provide that detailed oversight.

Culberson said he could not disclose the contents of the bill, including how it differed from the bill his committee approved last year that provided $19.5 billion for NASA. That was $500 million above the Obama administration’s request released earlier that year, and included significant increases for NASA’s exploration programs and planetary science, but cuts in Earth science. That bill, though, was not enacted and died at the end of the last year.

In his speech, he stressed that the country was in a “difficult and tough fiscal environment.” However, he told an audience that included NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, as well as several new political appointees at the agency from the Trump administration, that “when you see the ’17 commerce, justice and science appropriations bill, you’ll be very pleased.”

Culberson touched on familiar themes in his speech, including support for NASA’s Space Launch System. “We obviously have to also make certain that the SLS rocket is fully funded, that it stays on time and on track,” he said.

He also offered continued support of a mission to Europa, the moon of Jupiter thought to have a potentially habitable ocean beneath its icy surface. He has funded the mission in past years at far higher levels than what NASA has requested. “The Europa mission is a top priority of the scientific community,” he argued. “I’m convinced that that mission will result in the discovery of life in that ocean. That’s the magic moment that we need to ignite a passion for the American space program.”

Culberson, though, didn’t take a position on NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which has faced sharp criticism from some members of Congress. “Can’t say for sure. Don’t know,” he said when asked if he felt ARM would continue. “There are vital technologies, very important technologies, that are a part of that mission,” such as solar-electric propulsion and rendezvous systems.

He also expressed conditional support for NASA’s Earth science programs, which the Trump campaign proposed should be moved to other agencies. “NASA’s Earth science continues to do great work,” he said. “The role of NASA’s Earth science division should be to provide us with good data, free of any political filter or agenda.”

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...