COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Calling the Obama administration’s 2016 budget request for NASA “too skimpy,” the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee said April 27 she would seek to provide additional funding to the agency.
Speaking at a Maryland Space Business Roundtable luncheon here, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said she would seek to add an as-yet undetermined amount of money to NASA’s 2016 budget request of $18.5 billion.
“Although I appreciated what the president advised, I found that the funding for the space program needed to be more robust,” she said. “It’s too spartan and it’s too skimpy.”
Mikulski argued that, despite recent increases, NASA was still underfunded. The 2016 request “is actually less than when Al Gore was vice president,” once corrected for inflation, she said. In fiscal year 2001, the last budget approved while Gore was in office, NASA received $14.2 billion, or nearly $19 billion in present-day dollars.
Mikulski did not state in her speech how much additional funding she was seeking for the agency. In comments after her speech, she said she had not yet come up with a specific figure. “I’m not ready to put a dollar sign on it yet,” she said.
She did identify some specific programs, both at NASA in general and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, that she said would be priorities when developing an appropriations bill. That included, she said, continued support for the James Webb Space Telescope.
She also said she would seek to increase funding for NASA science programs in the 2016 budget proposal to start work on a new Landsat satellite as well as other science missions. “I will be working very, very, very hard to make sure that we add funding to the $5.3 billion to build Landsat 9 and continue our work in dark energy and other areas,” she said.
She also singled out a satellite servicing program based at Goddard as needing additional funding. “This is a cornucopia of new opportunity for business for Goddard and our private sector,” she said. “We have satellites that we don’t want to become space junk.”
In a hearing on NASA’s budget request by a Senate appropriations subcommittee April 16, Mikulski was more specific in her criticism of that satellite servicing program, saying that NASA’s budget request cut the program’s 2015 funding in half. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, testifying at that hearing, offered to meet with Mikulski about that program.
Mikulski’s promise to increase NASA’s budget puts her on a collision course with the House. While appropriators there have yet to take up a spending bill that includes NASA, an authorization bill to be marked up by the House Science Committee April 30 would offer $18.5 billion for NASA in 2016, the same amount as the administration’s request. That House bill, though, would transfer funds from Earth science and space technology programs to planetary science, the Space Launch System, and Orion.
“They are obsessed with human spaceflight and going to Mars,” she said of the House. She said that while she supported human spaceflight as well, she sought a more balanced program. “We also need space science and the kind of discovery done by technology to lay the groundwork for human discovery.”
She suggested that, in partnership with Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, the Senate would not accept the budget the House passes. “So, we’re going to take what the House says and say, ‘Okay, thanks a lot. We’ll get back to you,’” she said.
Mikulski, who received standing ovations from an audience of several hundred people at both the beginning and the end of her 25-minute speech, also discussed her decision in March not to seek reelection in 2016. She said she was planning to run again, but decided she couldn’t sign up for an “eight-year commitment” of a two-year race followed by another six-year term in the Senate.
She said, though, she will continue to fight for topics she finds important, including NASA, in her remaining time in office. “I am here today to tell you I am ready to fight, to work hard, to make sure the next 19 months are better than my last 19 years,” she said.