House Republicans criticize NASA spending bill

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WASHINGTON — As the head of NASA emphasized what he saw as bipartisan support for the agency in Congress, several Republican members of the House criticized colleagues for a fiscal year 2021 spending bill they believe inadequately funds the agency.

The commerce, justice and science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee favorably reported a fiscal year 2021 spending bill July 8 that includes $22.6 billion for NASA. The bill, introduced a day earlier, passed on a voice vote without any amendments.

The bill rejected a proposed 12% increase in NASA’s budget, funding the agency at the same level as 2020. That request had included $3.3 billion for the Human Landing System (HLS) program to develop landers to transport astronauts to the lunar surface, but the bill provides less than $630 million for HLS.

Rep. José Serrano, chairman of the CJS subcommittee, made only passing references to NASA in his opening statement about the bill. “We reject the president’s proposed cuts to climate change research programs at NASA and NOAA and instead invest in those areas,” he said. The bill increases NASA Earth science funding by more than $250 million from the request.

The bill “provides robust funding for NASA, helping ensure continued American leadership in space,” said Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.), vice-chair of the subcommittee.

Republican members disagreed. “The flat NASA allocation reveals a determination to rebuke America’s moon-to-Mars Artemis initiative,” said Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), ranking member of the CJS subcommittee. “President Trump rightly wants more funding to reenergize America’s leadership in space, so much so he’s willing to pay for it within an overall austere budget request, and we should follow that lead.”

Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), ranking member of the full appropriations committee, contrasted the flat NASA budget with the National Science Foundation, which received a $270 million increase from 2020. “There’s not a penny more for NASA,” she said, citing in particular the HLS funding. “The inadequate amount included for our landers undermines prior years’ investments in deep space exploration.”

“Flat funding for NASA reveals a deliberate effort to undercut our path to renewed American space dominance,” she continued. “I think this is very shortsighted, to say the least.”

That partisan criticism was not limited to appropriators. “The president’s been clear, the vice president’s been clear, we want to get boots on the moon, we want to get the first woman and the next American man back to the moon by 2024,” said Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), a member of the House Science Committee, during a session of the Future Space 2020 conference held online July 8.

“There are those that don’t want to see this administration have that victory,” he claimed. “To me, that’s not a win for any administration, that’s a win for the country and a win for global freedom.”

That criticism stands in contrast to comments by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who has argued that there is bipartisan support for the agency in Congress. “One of the things that I’ve done from day one is build bipartisan consensus for what we’re trying to achieve,” he said in an earlier session of the Future Space 2020 conference. “We have to make sure that NASA, as an agency, maintains bipartisan support and, I would like to say, even apolitical support.”

Speaking later in the day at the NASA Exploration Science Forum meeting online, Bridenstine called the House bill the “opening salvo” in the debate about NASA’s 2021 funding. “That’s not everything that we asked for, but what it shows is there’s bipartisan support for this activity,” he said of the HLS funding in particular. “We can work with the Senate to get more resources as is necessary to achieve the 2024 landing.”

Bridenstine criticized perceptions, which he recalled from his time in the House, that Republicans supported lunar exploration and human spaceflight, while Democrats backed Mars missions and science. “These are false narratives that we have to work every day to unwind, to make sure that we’re looking at our agency as a whole,” he said.