In back-to-back House hearings, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot firmly defended his agency’s fiscal year 2018 budget request, including proposals to eliminate support for five Earth Science missions and the Office of Education.
(Image credit – NASA)
In back-to-back hearings on June 8, members of the House Science Committee and the House Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittee which oversees NASA’s budget, questioned Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot about NASA’s fiscal year 2018 budget request. Lightfoot firmly defended the request, emphasizing that it maintains continuity of mission and purpose at NASA.
“While we had to make some difficult decisions with regard to Earth science and education, this remains a great budget for NASA,” Lightfoot insisted during his opening statement. Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) agreed that NASA has good reason to be pleased with the budget request, observing that although it faces a 3 percent funding cut it received the most favorable budget of all non-defense agencies in the federal government.
NASA’s human exploration endeavors were a primary topic at the hearings, as NASA aims to develop a roadmap and build technical capacity over the next decades to pursue a human mission to Mars. But the space agency’s science and education missions also received considerable attention from committee members.
Notably, Democratic and Republican members were united in praise of NASA’s education programs and questioned the administration’s plans to eliminate the agency’s $100 million education office. Several recounted stories of the positive impact of various NASA education programs in their home districts and urged Lightfoot not to lose sight of the space agency’s role in inspiring the next generation of young people to pursue careers in STEM fields.
Lightfoot: Earth Science budget sufficient to meet needs
Only Democratic members pushed back against the agency’s proposed 8.7 percent cut to Earth Science and elimination of five Earth Science missions and instruments. A few Republicans, including Smith, explicitly supported “reversing the significant growth” of the division that occurred under the Obama administration and putting a higher priority on other divisions, especially Planetary Science. In his opening statement, Smith said:
There are many other federal agencies involved in Earth Science research, but only one agency that promotes space exploration. This budget reflects the idea that while NASA can continue to develop state of the art Earth sensing programs, it is not a piggy bank for funding climate activities already addressed elsewhere in the federal government.
Other Republicans echoed Smith’s sentiments, encouraging NASA to direct its focus beyond Earth’s orbit. A few sought assurances from Lightfoot that the administration’s proposed cuts to Earth Science would not be problematic.
Rep. José Serrano (D-NY), the ranking member of the CJS appropriations subcommittee, however, challenged the administration’s Earth Science cuts, calling out not only the proposed elimination of the five missions but also a significant proposed reduction in external research grant funding. When Serrano asked Lightfoot why NASA had not prioritized research grants for studying our own planet, the acting administrator explained the decisions were the outcome of a “risk management approach” NASA took to prioritize programs and missions for the budget.
Under the approach, NASA identified programs’ and missions’ scientific value, in part indicated by National Academies’ decadal surveys, and their performance as indicated by metrics such as cost, schedule, and budget. NASA also took into account that the next Earth science decadal survey is expected from the National Academies later in 2017, and that the scientific community will be articulating a new hierarchy of mission priorities in that release.
Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) pressed Lightfoot for further details on the potential lost opportunities from the termination of Earth Science missions and instruments. Lightfoot assured him that the division’s 20 ongoing missions would “provide the data that NASA should be providing decision makers going forward,” and that NASA would have the science and data necessary to understand changes to the planet. He added that the division is investing in two new, higher priority missions — GRACE Follow-on, which will track the movement of water across the planet, and ICESat-2, which will measure the extent of ice sheets, glaciers, and sea ice — even as it is cancelling the five lower priority missions and instruments.
Committee heads show enthusiasm for Planetary Science
Lightfoot highlighted a number of NASA’s science missions in development, including the James Webb Space Telescope, which is on schedule for a 2018 launch and which he said will be “our next giant leap forward in our quest to understand the universe and our origins.” Lightfoot devoted nearly half of his opening statement to reciting the aims of the science missions NASA has on the horizon.
In their questioning, committee members showed particular interest in the Planetary Science missions. House Space Subcommittee Chair Brian Babin (R-TX) praised the budget for “returning support to a robust planetary exploration program,” saying he was concerned that the Obama administration had allowed the “pipeline for outer-planet missions…to run dry.”
Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), chair of the CJS appropriations subcommittee, also focused his comments on Planetary Science, asking if the budget would be sufficient to ensure the launch of Discovery, New Frontiers, and flagship missions, consistent with the latest decadal survey for planetary sciences. Lightfoot replied that he believed it is.
Culberson also peppered Lightfoot with a series of questions on the plans and timeline for missions to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn that scientists believe contain vast subsurface oceans that may harbor life. The Europa Clipper and a future Europa lander mission are top priorities for Culberson, and he has directed NASA, through fiscal year 2016 and 2017 appropriations, to keep them on track. Culberson explained his enthusiasm:
The science community believes [Europa is where] we have the best chance of discovering life in another world. … It’s going to be a turning point in human history when we discover life for the first time [elsewhere]. … And I’m convinced…when we make that remarkable discovery of life in another world, it will encourage the public, reinvigorate the public’s already deep admiration for NASA, and allow us to have enough money for the program for the future.
Members underscore NASA’s role in inspiring future generations
In his opening statement, House Space Subcommittee Ranking Member Ami Bera (D-CA) raised concerns about the proposed cuts to the Office of Education, making the case that one of NASA’s primary goals is “education and inspiring that next generation.”
Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), former chair of the House Appropriations Committee, made a similar point during the appropriations subcommittee hearing, drawing on his own youthful fascination with space in the 1950s. “The country needs the inspiration that you and I both gained from early NASA activities,” Rogers told Lightfoot, and pointed to the value of two specific NASA education programs to his Kentucky district: the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) and National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program.
In reply, Lightfoot affirmed,
We truly believe that our entire [NASA] budget is for inspiring the next generation. … And I think our missions are what inspire people, and I think that as long as we’re doing the missions we’re doing, we’ll continue to inspire the new generation.
He pointed to NASA’s announcement the day earlier of a class of 12 new astronauts at Johnson Space Center in Texas, and how that event, which was attended by the vice president, generated great excitement. He also cited the TRAPPIST-1 discovery of seven exoplanets earlier this year, which alone amassed four billion hits on social media.
Even with the dissolution of the Office of Education, Lightfoot explained that NASA education activities, including certain research fellowship programs with universities, would continue: “I think that the important thing to remember is we still do a ton of education within our mission directorates. … We have the STEM Science Activation activity in [the Science Mission Directorate] that’s still there. … We felt we could better balance those.”