Mikulski's Last NASA Budget Hearing

Mikulski's Last NASA Budget Hearing

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland), one of NASA’s staunchest supporters, participated in her last NASA budget hearing yesterday.  She is retiring this year.  Her recounting of how she came to know and admire NASA as a Maryland politician was perhaps the most interesting aspect of the otherwise perfunctory hearing.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) chairs the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, which held the hearing.  He made a forceful opening statement, chastising the Obama Administration for the budget gimmicks used in its FY2017 budget request and how the request really is for $18.26 billion, not $19.025 billion.  Shelby pointedly complained about cuts to the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion, and planetary science programs.   NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden replied with a general answer explaining why, from his point of view, the request is $19.025 billion, but did not address any specific program.   Shelby let it go at that. He then asked about NASA’s view on how many Russian RD-180 engines are needed and Bolden replied that he is in “lock step” with Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James.  She and Shelby insist that flexibility is needed in how many engines the United Launch Alliance should be allowed to acquire, while Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) wants to sharply limit the number.

Mikulski asked about the status of two of her favorite programs — the James Webb Space Telescope and satellite servicing — to which Bolden replied that all is well. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi), chairman of the full appropriations committee, asked no questions, but praised Bolden for his service.  Sens. Shelley Capito (R-West Virginia) and John Boozman (R-Arkansas) asked narrow constituent-oriented questions.   The hearing was over in about 45 minutes.

Mikulski’s reminiscences were interesting, though.   Mikulski was elected to the Senate in 1986 after serving in the House of Representatives for 5 terms representing Baltimore.  At that time, NASA was included in an appropriations subcommittee that oversaw the Departments of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) — the “VA-HUD” subcommittee.  A former social worker, she wanted to be assigned to VA-HUD because of those issues and thus had to learn about NASA.  She acknowledged that she knew very little about NASA at that point in time and thanked former Senators Jake Garn and John Glenn for tutoring her.  Garn chaired the VA-HUD subcommittee at the time and was the first politician to fly on the space shuttle (STS-51D in 1985).  Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962.

Thus began her interest in NASA, which grew over the years.  She stressed that during her time on the subcommittee — which she chaired when Democrats controlled the Senate (she also chaired the full committee in the last Congress) — the key was the “B” word:  bipartisanship and a balanced NASA budget.

This was her last NASA budget hearing and Bolden noted this is probably his last hearing before this subcommittee as well.  He does not expect to remain in his position after the end of the Obama Administration.  Bolden still has at least two more budget hearings before other committees, though, both of which are coming up next week.  He is scheduled to testify to the House CJS subcommittee on Tuesday and to the House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Space on Thursday.

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