Space News sat down Monday with Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, in line to become the chairman of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee that oversees NASA spending. Should that happen as many expect, Culberson has a number of changes in mind for how the space agency is run, how it spends money, and how much money it spends. He represents a district that includes the Johnson Spaceflight Center, but his proposed reforms go beyond just the human spaceflight programs that center operates.
Culberson intends to push for a reform package that would do two things for NASA. First, its administrator would be selected from three candidates who would be nominated by a board of directors. The board would be named by the president and the Congress. Whoever the president selects and the Congress confirms would serve for a fixed tenure, much like the director of the FBI. The theory is that the NASA administrator would achieve some measure of political independence.
Second, NASA would develop its budget recommendations that would be presented directly to the House and Senate appropriators, bypassing the Office of Management and Budget. This proposal is doubtless in response to the tension that took place between OMB and NASA in the latter part of the George W, Bush presidency caused by the budget agency cutting space agency programs, including the Constellation return to the moon project. Former NASA chief Mike Griffin has blamed OMB for some of the fiscal problems that program suffered that led to its cancellation.
Culberson has a keen interest in space exploration that goes beyond the sorts of things that a Texas congressman would be interested in. He is a supporter of NASA’s human space exploration program but is in favor of a return to the moon and not the asteroid redirect mission favored by the Obama administration. Most experts outside the administration prefer a return to the moon in advance of a human expedition to Mars.
Culberson is also a fan of a robotic probe to Europa, something that would not directly benefit Texas. Europa, even more than Mars, is thought to be a possible abode of extraterrestrial life, because it has a warm ocean beneath a layer of ice. The Europa mission has been a top priority for scientists but has been hampered by tight NASA budgets.
Culberson is in line with the Obama administration and with the pro-business culture of Texas in that he is also a warm supporter of the commercial crew program. Recently two companies, Boeing and SpaceX, have been chosen to provide launch services to the International Space Station. SpaceX recently announced that it would build a commercial spaceport in south Texas.
Finally, Culberson is in favor of gradually increasing NASA’s budget to as much as $22 billion a year. Increasing NASA’s budget would address a huge problem the space agency has faced, especially under the Obama administration, of having not enough money to pay for the programs it has been mandated to carry out. Culberson hints that there is broad bi-partisan support for hiking the space agency’s budget.
Whether Culberson will succeed in his reforms is an open question. While the Republicans are expected to take control of the Senate and hence its appropriations powers, President Obama will still be in office for two years. How he will react to efforts by the conservative Texas congressman to seize control of space policy remains to be seen.