WASHINGTON — Republican senators used a hearing on NASA’s fiscal year 2024 budget proposal to criticize the agency’s role in topics like climate change and social issues they argued were a distraction to its efforts to return humans to the moon.

During the 90-minute hearing by the Senate Commerce Committee May 16, senators raised few issues with the substance of the agency’s $27.2 billion budget proposal for fiscal year 2024. Instead, top Republicans on the committee targeted items on the periphery, from plans to replace the agency’s fleet of motor vehicles with electric vehicles to investments in diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

“I do worry sometimes that we may be losing focus on what makes America the preeminent spacefaring nation,” claimed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), ranking member of the committee. He cited development of an equity action plan by NASA and regulations that NASA, along with the Defense Department and General Services Administration, to have contractors identify their greenhouse gas emissions.

“Rather than helping us win the space race, the proposed rule would ensure that NASA could do less exploration and less science for more taxpayer dollars,” he said. He added that he and fellow Republican senators were dissatisfied with the response from NASA Administrator Bill Nelson to a letter they had about the proposed rule.

Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), ranking member of the committee’s space subcommittee, made similar arguments. “I strongly disagree with this administration’s obsession with misguided, woke policies related to climate change and diversity, equity and inclusion,” he said, arguing they were a diversion from a human return to the moon. “We must be laser-like focused on our approach.”

The two senators claimed that such policies risked politicizing NASA, which has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support. Nelson, testifying before the committee, reiterated his longstanding desire to keep NASA a “nonpartisan” agency.

He added, though, that he did not necessarily agree with their claims. “The reality, Sen. Cruz — and you know I love you — is the fact that we have political differences,” he said. “But I can guarantee you that NASA is being run in a nonpartisan way.”

Nelson declined to engage on some of the other criticisms about climate change and DEI policies beyond noting that the rulemaking on the greenhouse gas regulations is still in progress. Echoing comments from past hearings, he agreed with them that NASA is racing China to the moon, and warned that if China got to the lunar south pole before NASA, it might claim water ice resources there.

Other Republican senators at the hearing did not echo those criticisms, focusing their questions on topics such as aeronautics, space nuclear propulsion and, in the case of former committee chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), investments in NASA’s Stennis Space Center in his state.

Multiyear NASA authorization

The chair of the committee, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), reiterated at the hearing her desire for a new NASA authorization. She announced in February that she wanted to enact a multiyear authorization just a year after a NASA authorization was included in the CHIPS and Science Act.

“It is my goal to complete another NASA bill this Congress, this time with a multiyear authorization that will help ensure that the nation’s leading space and aeronautic research agency has stable, predictable funding that it needs to succeed,” she said. That would be the first multiyear authorization for NASA since 2010.

Nelson, who as a senator spearheaded the passage of that 2010 authorization act, endorsed a multiyear authorization, saying it would provide stability for both the agency and industry. “I would welcome a multiyear approach,” he said. “I think a five-year authorization bill would be very, very well received in the aerospace community.”

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...