WASHINGTON — Rep. Steven Palazzo praised NASA’s move away from studying the Earth and instead focusing resources on the rest of the universe.
During a House Appropriations Committee hearing Thursday, the Mississippi Republican applauded the agency for proposing to eliminate five Earth science missions designed to measure a number of global warming factors such as ocean ecosystems and carbon levels. President Trump’s proposed budget also would cut funding for Earth research grants and would terminate the Carbon Monitoring System, a project that NASA developed in 2010 in response to congressional direction.
Republicans, including Palazzo, have long complained the Obama administration diverted too many of NASA’s limited resources pursuing climate change data when other agencies were conducting similar inquiries.
“I do think it’s important to be focusing on planetary sciences,” Palazzo said at a hearing Thursday of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies. “Looking out there’s already over a dozen agencies that study our Earth, but there’s only one agency tasked with space exploration and that’s NASA.”
“With limited funds, flat funding and budgets, I think our resources are better spent exploring the deep space,” he said.
Not that NASA is getting out of the business of Earth science completely.
Acting NASA administrator Robert Lightfoot told two House committees Thursday there are 20 other Earth science missions NASA still plans to conduct.
“There’s a lot of analog to learning about Earth and how it plays with the other planets because Earth is a planet as well and how Earth evolves we learn a lot. … on what can happen to Mars, what can happen to Venus,” Lightfoot told Palazzo during an afternoon hearing. “There is a value for us in learning about Earth as well. But I understand your point.”
In March, Palazzo, former chairman of the House Space Subcommittee, joined other lawmakers at the White House when Trump signed a $19.5 billion bill to fund NASA programs. Palazzo, whose district is home to Stennis Space Center, was instrumental in helping craft the bill.
Palazzo, who has pushed for a return-to-the-moon mission, questioned Lightfoot Thursday about whether the nation could put a man back on the moon and eventually Mars.
Lightfoot said the agency’s goal of sending a human to Mars by 2033 remains on track despite concerns raised about future funding and independent assessments that suggest such a mission is unlikely without a sizable, long-term increase in funding.
“It’s kind of a stepping-stone approach,” he said.
Lightfoot told lawmakers the $3.9 billion in the budget proposal for human exploration would allow NASA to continue developing its two key pieces of hardware: the Orion vehicle that will carry astronauts into deep space and the Space Launch System rocket that Orion will ride on past the moon and toward Mars.
Both systems are scheduled to be tested: first, in an uncrewed flight in 2019, then with astronauts into lunar orbit, no later than 2023.
“The budget we proposed has got the systems we need in 2018 to keep making the progress we think we need,” Lightfoot told members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.
But some Republicans had issues with the proposal, including Hal Rogers of Kentucky, who questioned the elimination of the education office when Lightfoot came before members of the Appropriations subcommittee.
“The education programs hopefully have been spreading the word about NASA’s (accomplishments),” Rogers told Lightfoot. “I can’t understand why you would want to cut that.”
The administrator said NASA is trying to weave education outreach and promote space careers into other areas.
“I don’t deny that the (education) programs have been pretty successful for us but we felt like in the balance of things we could do this more effectively in a different way,” he said.
Follow Deborah Barfield Berry on Twitter at @dberrygannett.
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