Pence at Langley
Vice President Mike Pence, speaking at NASA's Langley Research Center Feb. 19, argued that there was bipartisan support for NASA's human spaceflight plans despite criticism of some proposed cuts. Credit: NASA/Langley

WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence said in a Feb. 19 speech that the administration’s budget proposal for NASA to support a human return to the moon by 2024 has bipartisan support, a claim echoed by NASA despite criticism about some proposed cuts in the bill.

Pence, speaking at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, made no major announcements in an address lasting more than half an hour. Instead, he reiterated the administration’s support for NASA and the goal of returning humans to the surface of the moon by 2024.

“I want to assure all of you,” he told an audience of agency employees, “that not only do you have the support of this president, this vice president, but I have every confidence that you have the support and admiration of the American people.”

He said he expected that support to grow once NASA’s commercial crew program restores orbital human spaceflight capabilities to the country, a milestone he said expected “before we even get to the summer.” “Once we have American astronauts on American rockets being launched from American soil, the American people are going to know we’re serious, right?”

Pence emphasized the agency’s fiscal year 2021 budget request of $25.2 billion, released Feb. 10, as evidence of that support. “I can assure you that the support for NASA is strong and broad in Washington, DC, and it is truly bipartisan,” he said. He thanked Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), whose district includes Langley, for attending and “for your strong support, not just of Langley, but of NASA.”

However, Luria, in a statement issued Feb. 19, criticized elements of the fiscal year 2021 budget proposal to cut education and Earth science programs at the agency like CLARREO Pathfinder. “I was disappointed by cuts to STEM Engagement, which helps inspire Coastal Virginia students to become scientists and engineers, and to the CLARREO Pathfinder (CPF) mission,” she said. “It is my hope that the Vice President’s tour showed him the immense value of CPF and will cause the Administration to reconsider its opposition to funding this program.”

In a separate speech at a Space Transportation Association luncheon here Feb. 19, Jim Morhard, NASA deputy administrator, offered a similar assessment of the support he saw for the agency’s budget. “All parties should have full confidence that we’re moving forward to the moon,” he said. “That was not the case when I got to NASA.”

That confidence, he said, comes from the that $25.2 billion budget request, which he said was “not an easy lift” to achieve. “If President Trump’s and Vice President Pence’s support for NASA wasn’t clear, it should be now.”

Asked about the reaction to the budget proposal, Morhard called it “very positive” so far, but called on support from an audience of space industry professionals. “We’re going to need your help to get these funds enacted, and that’s going to be our next challenge.”

One specific challenge is a clash between NASA’s approach to human lunar lander development, which calls for using public-private partnerships and buying landing services, versus language in a House NASA authorization bill introduced last month that proposes a more traditional contracting approach and is more prescriptive about the lander’s design.

Morhard called the bill a “positive bipartisan first step” that broadly supports NASA’s long-term vision of using the moon as a steppingstone for later human missions to Mars.

“We’ve had members from both sides of the aisle who’ve said that they don’t intend to have the final bill interfere with our goals of landing the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024,” he said, noting that the bill is still in the early stages of the legislative process. “I am confident that we’ll be able to work with the committee and figure it out so it’s a bill that will get through that process.”

Morhard did not directly address the proposed cuts in the bill, which include those education and Earth science programs as well as the SOFIA and WFIRST astrophysics missions, but indirectly referenced proposals in past years’ budget requests that also sought to cancel many of those programs, proposals ultimately rejected by Congress.

“There are reasons for a lot of the decisions that we made,” he said. “If you were going into this and were not aware of past precedents of how budgets are rolled out, you might be aghast at some of the things, but there’s not a lot of new things that we haven’t done before. I think most people in this room know the outcomes of how they turned out, and we’re hopeful that will be the case again this year.”

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...