NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot speaking at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s 16th Annual Aviation Summit March 2, 2017. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

GREENBELT, Md. — NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said that a new NASA authorization bill should provide continuity for the agency’s programs despite swirling questions about potential budget cuts.

Lightfoot, speaking at the American Astronautical Society’s Goddard Memorial Symposium here March 8, praised the passage the previous evening of a new NASA authorization bill by the House, two and a half weeks after the Senate approved it. That act, expected to be signed into law in the coming days, is the first NASA authorization bill passed by Congress since the fall of 2010.

“It’s pretty exciting for us. We hadn’t had one since 2010,” he said. “For me, the overall theme of that document is constancy of purpose. It says, ‘Keep going with what your plan is and keep moving.’”

The bill reaffirms Mars as a long-term destination for human spaceflight, but does require NASA to develop more detailed plans for achieving that goal. The bill also includes a variety of provisions covering the agency’s human spaceflight, science, and other programs.

Lightfoot called out in particular the section of the bill establishing a long-term medical monitoring program for former astronauts. “Something that NASA had been trying to do for a while is astronaut healthcare,” he said. That monitoring, he said, was part of an “ethical framework” for issues associated with human missions into deep space developed for NASA by the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine. “This is really important to us as we talk about going forward” with such missions, he said.

Despite the uncertainty at NASA created by the transition to the new administration of President Donald Trump, Lightfoot said the agency was still focused on continuing its activities. “We don’t get paralyzed by the transition. We just continue to press forward,” he said.

Lightfoot emphasized that, even though the new administration has offered few details about any changes it plans to make to NASA’s activities, that he believes that the White House does support the agency. He mentioned the passing references to space in both the president’s inaugural address and one to a joint session of Congress Feb. 28.

“I do remain extremely confident that we have a president and an administration that supports what we’re doing at NASA and wants us to succeed,” he said.

Lightfoot said later that he has been working in the last few weeks to make sure NASA is aligned with administration policies. “We’ve been trying to integrate with the rest of the administration and their policies, so that we know what each other is doing,” he said. He added he works on a daily basis with an administration appointee, senior White House adviser Erik Noble, to ensure NASA’s plans are integrated with the administration’s policies.

There remains uncertainty, though, about NASA’s funding levels, particularly given plans announced last week by Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), that spending for non-defense discretionary spending, including NASA, would be cut by $54 billion in the administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposal. That overall cut would offset an increase in defense spending in the budget proposal, whose outline is scheduled to be released next week.

Lightfoot declined to discuss details about the administration’s budget proposal, but did say the agency had responded to the budget “passback” document it received from OMB outlining its plans for NASA’s budget. “I think we have fared fairly well,” he said. “I think you will see that, at the end of the day, NASA has done okay.”

Others, though, are less confident about the agency’s budget prospects. In a conference luncheon speech, Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), a member of the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee, said he was concerned based on reports of severe cuts in other agencies.

“We don’t have any specifics for agencies like NASA and the National Science Foundation yet, but based on what we know the Trump administration’s push to massive cut civil discretionary spending to levels far below the draconian sequester levels that we’ve seen, there’s little room for hope that they will fare much better in the president’s budget,” he said.

Peters added that he would oppose any budget proposal that makes sharp cuts to NASA or other civil agencies. “I will fight to send any proposal that rejects science, compromises our security, hurts the environment and mortgages our future straight to the garbage dump, if I can,” he said, a line that triggered an impromptu round of applause from the audience.

Among agencies reportedly facing sharp cuts in the 2018 budget proposal is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A Washington Post article March 3 said that NOAA’s satellite division could see its budget cut by more than 20 percent, or $500 million, in the request.

Former NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan, who was at the luncheon to receive the society’s John F. Kennedy Astronautics Award, alluded to the proposed cuts in brief remarks. “It is at our peril that we cut the stream of data that equips us with the environmental intelligence that is so vital to public safety and our economy today,” she said.

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...