Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.)

Member, House Appropriations Commerce, Justice, Science subcommittee

When NASA’s Mars Phoenix Lander touched down May 25, U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff was in , half a world away from his , congressional district where Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists and engineers were celebrating the first successful soft landing on the red planet since Viking 2 more than three decades ago.

“This is a country where not much that we do is very well thought of. Nonetheless, splashed across the front page and the top story of the news on TV was the landing,” Schiff recalled. “There’s this enormous fascination around the world with what NASA does, whether the Mars program or manned spaceflight. And I would hate to see us step back from that investment.”

Schiff, a 48-year-old former federal prosecutor seeking a fifth term in Congress this fall, was given a coveted seat on the House Appropriations Committee in 2007 where he is one of eight Democrats assigned to the commerce, justice, science (CJS) subcommittee responsible for drafting NASA’s annual budget. The CJS spending bill that cleared committee June 25 included $17.8 billion for NASA in 2009, about $155 million more than the White House requested.

Schiff has emerged in the past year as a vocal and effective advocate for Mars exploration and space science in general – hardly surprising given his district is home to one of the crown jewels of the planetary science program.

But Schiff, a Blue Dog Democrat – a term commonly used to describe conservative Democrats in Congress – who also serves on the House Select Intelligence and Judiciary committees, said it is equally important for the to remain at the forefront of both human and robotic exploration. With NASA proposing to throttle back on Mars exploration at the same time it is bracing for a five-year gap in the ability to launch its own astronauts, Schiff worries that NASA, and the prestige it brings to the nation, could both be in jeopardy.

“The worst-case scenario would be to have this long, multiyear gap in our capacity to bring our astronauts into orbit and [at] the same time have a multiyear gap in the Mars program. There will be very little to keep public interest in NASA strong.”

Schiff spoke with Space News staff writer Brian Berger during the last day of legislative business before Congress recessed for the U.S. Independence Day holiday.

Does the CJS bill have any chance of reaching the president’s desk this year?

I certainly hope so. I know that is betting against the odds at the moment. There’s a considerable point of view that few if any of the appropriations bills will get to the president’s desk. But I hope we push forward. It’s enormously important to set the appropriations policy in a detailed and thoughtful way. It’s hard to do that in an omnibus or in a continuing resolution.

Any idea when the bill might go to the floor?

No. It is very much up in the air. Ultimately the minority party is going to have to make a decision about whether they want to partner with us and try to get bills passed and to the president. If they do, it won’t be very difficult to get the bills done. Notwithstanding that this is an election year and tensions are running high, I do not think we should allow the business of the government to grind to a standstill. There is very significant opportunity, in terms of NASA, to take some steps forward instead of treading water.

If Congress ends up passing a continuing resolution (CR) for at least part of 2009, are there any exceptions to the 2008 funding levels you think should be made for NASA?

There certainly will be some I will be advocating. The level of funding for NASA compared to the aspirations we’ve set for the agency are really far too low. We can’t do all that we’ve set out to do, so we are frequently having to rob Peter to pay Paul.

We’ve set tremendously high objectives and I support them. I’d like to see us go back to the Moon, I’d like to see us land a man on Mars – or a woman. I’d like to see us do far more in planetary science and space science. But if we are going to do all that it means we need a budget that’s much more reflective of the overall priorities.

We’ve tried through emergency supplementals to boost NASA’s funding by $1 billion. We haven’t been successful at that effort. I hope at a minimum, through a continuing resolution, that we can make up some of the lost ground from the last CR and that we can make up some of the lost ground from the shuttle disaster. But I think that’s going to be a challenge. There are few candidates for exceptions in emergency CRs, just as there are in emergency supplementals. We’ll be making the case that NASA is an area where we should make an exception. But I think it will be a difficult task.

What NASA exceptions do you favor?

I am particularly concerned about cuts to the Mars program, which have been multi hundred million-dollar cuts and potentially devastating. When Alan Stern testified before the subcommittee during his limited tenure as NASA’s science chief, he commented on how the scientists had given the Mars program an ‘A’ and other things like Earth sciences a ‘C’ or a ‘D.’ And I responded at the time I fully concur with bringing all the sciences up to an ‘A’ but I think what they are proposing with a massive Mars cut is to bring Mars down to a ‘B’ or a ‘C.’

I don’t think that’s the direction we want to head. The cuts to Mars, if they are allowed to persist, will be absolutely devastating. This is a program that has captured the world’s imagination and has had phenomenal success after phenomenal success.

Under Stern, the NASA Science Mission Directorate was planning to defer near-term Mars missions to build up a funding wedge for an eventual Mars sample return mission. Any sense that strategy will change under Ed Weiler?

I’ve talked with the administrator and Ed about this. I think there’s a real willingness to examine the proposed cuts to the Mars program. I recognize certainly the challenges that have been presented with the cost overruns on the Mars Science Laboratory mission. At the same time we only have certain windows of opportunity to launch from Mars and we don’t want to miss any of those opportunities, and I don’t think we need to. I think there is a willingness on NASA’s part and a keen interest in Congress that the Mars program remains healthy and we meet those launch objectives.

Just before Stern abruptly resigned in March, word surfaced of a proposal to turn off the Mars Exploration Rovers and put the savings toward the Mars Science Laboratory. Any idea what really was going on there?

That was an absolutely insane idea, which we jumped on the moment it raised its ugly head. The idea that we could go to all of the difficulty and expense of landing rovers on Mars and then effectively walk away from all that because we weren’t willing to spend the relatively small sum needed to keep them running was just crazy. So I’m glad that idea was put to bed.

What key NASA issues await the next Congress and new White House?

Both through the authorization and appropriations bills, the Congress has said NASA is a high priority and we want it to be healthy and strong. Nonetheless we are at a crossroads. Up until now we’ve espousedbig goals but haven’t funded them. That has caused a lot of problems within the agency.

The next president is going to have to decide whether we are serious about going back to the Moon and on to Mars, and if we are to put the resources into it. If not, maybe we need to develop a different set of goals. But I hope we adopt the more aggressive approach. We can land someone on Mars. That is an attainable objective. We need to figure out how we do that and not cannibalize the rest of the space program.

The other thing is we’ve got global competitors now. is emerging in space. At this rate who knows who’ll get to the Moon first? I don’t want to see us lose our international edge. Not only is there a scientific rivalry, there also are security considerations as we saw with the anti-satellite test. Moreover, I think there is an underutilized diplomatic angle to what we do at NASA, which I saw most clearly when I was in . Here’s one thing we do that’s viewed positively everywhere in the world.

How would NASA fare under a President BarackObama?

I think NASA will fare very well. There’s enormously strong commitment to the sciences within the Democratic party and our leadership. There’s also probably a far more realistic expectation of what it will take to embark on these ambitious plans and that we are going to have to put our money where our mouth is and make the investment if we are serious about it. I see a strong appreciation among Democrats that advancing the sciences – and in particular the space sciences – helps us with our international competitiveness well beyond the space program. And I see that in our presidential candidate as well.

How is climate change shaping the political agenda and how in turn might that impact NASA?

Climate change may be the defining environmental challenge of our time and ultimately if we get it wrong it may be the defining challenge of our time, period. NASA has a key role to play in helping us understand the science of global warming and in measuring its effects. So I would expect to see a tremendous surge of investment in Earth sciences with NASA at the center of this research.