Member, House Appropriations Commerce, Justice, Science subcommittee
here is nothing unusual about a congressman from Houston being a big supporter of the U.S. space program. But it is unusual when that
lawmaker tends to get more excited about Mars rovers, outer planetary probes and planet-hunting telescopes than he does about the human spaceflight programs that are the lifeblood of his hometown’s Johnson Space Center.
Rep. John Culberson, a Republican, insists he loves manned and unmanned space exploration equally, but his passion for robotic missions is evident in the
collection of framed Mars photos and memorabilia hanging
in his Capitol Hill office. The centerpiece
is a photograph of Culberson at NASA’s
Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where he was watching the Jan. 25, 2004, landing of the Mars Opportunity rover. Watching alongside him are
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Culberson’s friend and ally on the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee.
“I love NASA. I’m partial to JPL,” Culberson said. “They are, in my opinion, kind of the gold standard for the space program. Because they’re run by [the California Institute of Technology], they can fire people.”
An attorney by training, Culberson is a self-described amateur astronomer and geologist at heart who has been known to spend a Saturday morning
in the front row of an American Astronomical Society meeting rather than
his west Houston district. He’s fascinated with Europa, the
moon thought to harbor an ocean beneath its icy surface, and wants NASA to commit to sending an orbiter there in the next decade
Culberson, who was re-elected in 2006 with 59 percent of the vote, looks to be facing a tough campaign
this fall against
Democrat Michael Skelly, a renewable energy executive who took an early lead in fundraising.
Culberson spoke with Space News staff writer Brian Berger during a hectic final day of votes and meetings before the House began its two-week spring recess.
Does your embrace of robotic spaceflight cause you any grief with your constituents in an astronaut-centric place like Houston?
I embrace them both. I’m a zealous supporter of the manned and unmanned programs. I have always been fascinated with Mars and the outer planets, and have always admired the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Johnson Space Center. Among all the NASA field centers, I have always felt JPL and the Johnson Space Center set the gold standard for all of NASA.
Is NASA’s plan to replace the space shuttle and return to the Moon on a sound footing?
Overall I am deeply disappointed that the [U.S. President George W.] Bush
administration has not stepped up and given NASA the money they need to fulfill the president’s vision. All of NASA’s financial problems stem from the fact that the Office of Management and Budget and the White House in general have not stood behind the president’s vision with the dollars that are necessary to make that dream come true. NASA has far too much on its plate and far too little money. It’s been a continuing source of frustration for me and the committee because we are placed in the difficult position of attempting to make up for the shortfalls created by the White House’s refusal to fund the vision.
How do you think the vision
will fare in the next presidential administration?
I’m concerned because NASA already is so far behind in funding with the loss of the shuttle Columbia, the damage caused by the hurricanes and the refusal of the White House to fund the vision in budget after budget.
As an appropriator, what are your priorities for NASA?
Our first priority has got to be to make sure that NASA is compensated for the loss of Columbia and the damage inflicted on it by the hurricanes. As an absolute bare minimum we need to make sure that those costs that were directly out of NASA’s pocket along with the cost of returning to flight are paid for because NASA is self insured. The next step has got to be to make sure that there’s enough money there to not only fund the transition away from shuttle and into the Ares vehicle but to make sure there’s enough money for the science programs. The unmanned programs that NASA is starving today because of inadequate funding in general have got to be taken care of.
You and Rep.
seem to be of one mind when it comes to Mars exploration, the outer planets, and the Space Interferometry Mission (SIM) – all big JPL-led efforts.
He and I are working arm in arm. I believe, and Adam agrees, that after we get the manned program taken care of and fund retirement of the shuttle, that the focus in the unmanned program needs to be the funding of the missions designated by the National Academy of Sciences decadal surveys, and that means flying the Europa orbiter and flying SIM.
Why are the SIM and Europa missions so important to you?
The Europa mission, in particular, is a passion of mine. Unfortunately, NASA continues to take money away from it. NASA
finally has requested money to do the outer planets flagship mission, which is great, but now they act like there is going to be a competition between Saturn’s
moon Titan and Europa. The decadal survey picked Europa. So I hope it’sEuropa. I expect it will be Europa. Adam and I will be arm in arm in submitting identical requests and everything we advocate and work for will be along those lines. The same thing goes for the Mars program and SIM. SIM is the Dav
Crockett of space missions. It will identify the stars most likely to harbor Earth-like planets. If we don’t launch SIM and narrow the range down, then future exoplanet
hunters are going to waste an immense amount of time trying to find
will lay the foundation for the first interstellar probes. We’ll know what solar systems to go to.
Do you think NASA is pursuing the wrong priorities?
NASA’s single most popular Web site
has been the Mars rover site, yet they are trying to cut the Mars program because they don’t have enough money in general. The most popular seminars offered by space scientists are on exoplanet
research, yet they are trying to cut exoplanet
exploration in the SIM program. When it comes to outer planet exploration, the No. 1
priority in the decadal survey is Europa, yet they keep trying to cut it. It’s just aggravating. And it’s a symptom of there being not enough money to do everything on NASA’s plate. NASA has been starved year after year by the Office of Management and Budget and it’s just tragic because investing in the space program is one of the best ways government can assure the future prosperity of the nation.
Where will you look
money if there’s no top-line increase for NASA?
I’ll look to other cuts in other agencies; for example, the Department of Commerce. I’ll look to cuts at other agencies within the jurisdiction of my subcommittee and try to move money over. I will try to rearrange priorities and just shift money around within the jurisdiction of our subcommittee. But my first priority is to get as large a budget sub-allocation as possible for the subcommittee from the chairman;
that will make it a little easier to find money for NASA. That sub-allocation is critical because within it we’ve also got to make sure we are fully funding the National Science Foundation. I put at least as much emphasis on that
as I do on NASA.
How confident are you that Congress will finish work on its
2009 budget bills before the November election?
We may not get all the appropriations bills done before the election but our subcommittees will finish their work before the election. The Commerce-Justice-State bill will get done, I suspect, late this spring or early summer. So I’m optimistic. There are no party labels on our subcommittee. There are no philosophical differences in our shared passion and support for space exploration and scientific research that the National Science Foundation and NASA do. It’s a vitally important part of our nation’s prosperity and everyone on the subcommittee is equally committed to finding the money necessary to ensure that the American space program is the best in the world and that the work done by the National Science Foundation is the best in the world.