Barbara Mikulski Senate
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Bill Hrybyk

WASHINGTON — Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), one of the most powerful figures in space policy in Congress, announced March 2 that she will not run for re-election in 2016.

“I will not be seeking a sixth term in the United States Senate,” Mikulski said at a press conference in Baltimore that was announced only a few hours ahead of time. “This has been a hard decision to make.”

Mikulski said she decided not to run in order to devote the next two years solely to working in the Senate, rather than campaigning and raising money. “I want to give 120 percent of time focused on my constituents,” she said.

The decision is not based on any health issues or frustration with the Senate itself, Mikulski added.

Mikulski currently serves as the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and its commerce, justice, and science (CJS) subcommittee, whose oversight includes NASA. Mikulski has served on the committee since she was first elected to the Senate in 1986.

James Webb Telescope
Sen. Barbara Mikulski has sought full funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, while still pressuring NASA to improve its management after it suffered major schedule delays and cost overruns.

Mikulski has used that position to become an influential figure in space policy, particularly in programs involving the Goddard Space Flight Center and the Space Telescope Science Institute, both located in Maryland. She has also supported NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, which is located in Virginia just south of the Maryland border and managed by Goddard.

She was also instrumental in helping the International Space Station off the ground despite programmatic difficulties and cost overruns that fueled deep skepticism about the program’s value in many corners of Capitol Hill.

Similarly, Mikulski has been a major supporter of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is still in development, seeking full funding for the program while pressuring NASA to improve its management after it suffered major schedule delays and cost overruns.

Several smaller programs, including a satellite servicing effort based at Goddard, have benefited from her support in recent years.

At a May 2014 hearing of the CJS subcommittee, Mikulski, who at the time chaired the panel, criticized President Barack Obama’s proposed 2015 budget for NASA, saying she was “deeply troubled” by the overall funding level and in particular a $200 million cut in programs administered by Goddard. “I don’t want science to fund, to be a bank account, for other projects that might or might not happen in the future,” she told NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at that hearing.

Mikulski’s committee later approved a $17.9 billion budget for NASA, close to the $18.01 billion that the agency received in the final omnibus spending bill and more than half a billion dollars above the administration’s original request.

Richard Shelby Senate
Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) have worked closely together in recent years on the CJS subcommittee, . Credit: American Association for Cancer Research

Mikulski has worked closely in recent years with the top Republican on the CJS subcommittee, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), each supporting the other’s priorities. At a markup of the 2015 spending bill in June, she said she “listened to Sen. Shelby when he said we needed more money for the [Space Launch System] rocket” than what the administration’s request provided. Both the Senate bill and the final omnibus fill provided $1.7 billion for SLS, an increase of more than $300 million from the administration’s request.

Mikulski, Shelby and other members of the CJS subcommittee are scheduled to hold a hearing on the administration’s 2016 NASA budget proposal March 5.


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...