Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) crosses her fingers for a successful Pluto flyby. Credit: SpaceNews photo by Jeff Foust
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LAUREL, Md. — The member of Congress who played the biggest role in getting New Horizons funded and launched paid a visit to the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) on Monday  (April 13) to wish the team the best for the upcoming flyby.

“We’re all holding our breath. We all have our fingers crossed,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, during a press conference Monday.

She spoke to reporters after visiting the Mission Operations Center for the mission at APL, with NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman, NASA associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld, and APL director Ralph Semmel in tow.

Mikulski used the event to recount her effort, 15 years ago, to get a Pluto mission — what became New Horizons — funded after NASA canceled an earlier Pluto mission concept.

“I was willing to gamble” on an APL concept for a Pluto mission in 2000, she recalled, but was confident in the center’s expertise and ability to carry out the mission.

Would a successful New Horizons flyby, with all the media attention focused on it, offer a boost to NASA’s fiscal year 2016 budget request?

Mikulski repeated earlier comments that NASA’s budget is “spartan and skimpy” and that the agency needs more money, but didn’t sound like she expected a breakthrough after the flyby. “I’m counting on the flyby more than Congress right this minute,” she said.

You can also put Mikulski in the class of people who still believe that Pluto is a planet. “The United States, after tomorrow, will be the very first nation to reach every planet with a space probe,” 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...