Van Hollen
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said March 15 he's working to convince House appropriations to accept spending levels from a Senate bill for several NASA programs. Credit: AAS webcast

GREENBELT, Md. — With a stopgap spending bill set to expire in just over a week, House and Senate appropriators are continuing to negotiate provisions of an omnibus bill, including funding levels for some NASA programs.

In a speech at the American Astronautical Society’s Goddard Memorial Symposium here March 15, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he was fighting to restore funding for Earth science and technology demonstration programs targeted for cancellation in the administration’s original 2018 budget request.

“We’re in the process of translating the overall numbers into specific budgets for specific agencies,” he said. “We’re doing that right now.”

Van Hollen indicated negotiations were ongoing with House appropriators to reconcile differences between their respective appropriations bills. Those final numbers would need to fit within overall spending levels set as part of a recently-passed two-year budget agreement. That work needs to be done, and the resulting omnibus appropriations bill passed, before the current continuing resolution funding the government expires March 23.

The House had been expected to introduce that omnibus spending bill this week but has not yet done so. “We’re still waiting to see what they put together and we’re still trying to negotiate a lot of these numbers,” he said.

Van Hollen said he had “preliminary good news” in the form of the Senate spending bill. That included restoring funding for several NASA Earth science missions targeted for cancellation in the administration’s 2018 budget request. That included the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud and ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission and the Earth observing instruments on the Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft.

“We’re trying to work those out,” he said of those missions, which were not explicitly funded in the House bill. “I’m optimistic, but again, it ain’t over until it’s over.”

He said he was also advocating for Restore-L, a satellite servicing mission that the administration sought to restructure into a technology development effort in both the fiscal year 2018 budget request and the new fiscal year 2019 budget request released last month. “We have been able to restore, in the Senate bill, funding for Restore-L,” he said, with $137 million allocated for it. The House supports the mission but has not explicitly funded it, and Van Hollen said he’s seeking to win funding for it in the final bill.

He also expressed support for NASA’s education program, which the administration has sought to shut down. “It is so important that we have a robust NASA education budget so that they can reach out to the next generations of scientists,” he said. Both the House and Senate bills, he noted, included funding for the program, at slightly different levels.

Van Hollen asked conference attendees to lobby House appropriators on NASA funding. “Please call them and ask them to accept the Senate numbers on the NASA budget,” he said. One exception, he said, was support for NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, which he said is slightly stronger in the House bill than the Senate one.

Besides discussing the budget, Van Hollen used the speech to thank NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who announced March 12 plans to retire at the end of April. “He’s had a long and distinguished career at NASA, and we all wish him very well in his next adventures,” he said.

The administration’s nominee for NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, is stalled in the Senate because Van Hollen and his fellow Democratic members are opposed to him, as well as, reportedly, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

“I think all of us wish that the search for his replacement was not as contentious as it has been,” Van Hollen said of the debate regarding Bridenstine’s nomination. “I’m hopeful that we will resolve this as soon as possible because it’s very important that NASA have an administrator.”

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...