WASHINGTON (CN) – For an investment of roughly $63 billion by 2024, the United States goals of returning to the moon, sending humans to Mars and finally launching a telescope that can see into the furthest reaches of the universe, could become a reality, NASA administrator James Bridenstine told senators Wednesday.
The proposals were considered during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee budget hearing where Bridenstine was called to defend NASA’s budget for 2019.
The agency has requested $10.5 billion with another $52 billion over five years more.
Though the ambitions of the agency are lofty, they are in line with what is expected from NASA’s core mission, the administrator said.
But the 2019 budget also features significant cuts to longstanding NASA programs like its Office of Education. The budget eliminates the department altogether and its related grants. There is also a $10 million cut to carbon monitoring grants for NASA’s Earth Science division. Those grants allow scientists to understand the impact of carbon dioxide throughout the world, including its impact on glaciers and ice caps.
The budget also eliminates science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, student outreach programs.
The cuts were “difficult decisions in challenging financial times,” Bridenstine told senators.
“This is one area that has been trimmed, but what I will tell you after being at NASA for just one month, NASA has education and inspiration in its DNA,” he said, adding that cuts to education programs wouldn’t hurt as much since money could potentially be redirected from operational funds.
Cuts to carbon monitoring research won’t be as damaging in the long run either, Bridenstine explained.
“In 2018, we’ve spent over $100 million measuring carbon, not just in the atmosphere but in oceans and the surface of the earth. It’s a critical piece of our earth science mission. The grant program was $10 million every three years but eight months ago, we issued grants that will go through 2020,” he said.
While the $100 million didn’t make it into 2019’s budget, NASA will continue related programs like the orbital carbon observatory, currently circling the globe, and another satellite that launches in January. Other carbon satellites like Geocard and Jedi will also be launched soon.
Bridenstine faced tough opposition from Senate Democrats during the confirmation process and was not a part of 2018 NASA’S budget talks. After waiting nearly a year, he was confirmed just a few weeks ago.
The pushback stemmed from Bridenstine’s comments while serving as an Oklahoma House Representative. He said federally funded global warming research was a waste of taxpayer dollars and requested then President Barack Obama invest in the study of destructive tornados instead.
Though he once appeared to miss the connection between climate change and destructive weather, the newly appointed administrator put Democrats on the committee at ease when he confirmed his newly-found perspective.
“It is extremely likely that human activity is the dominant cause of global warming and I have no reason to doubt the science that has determined that,” Bridenstine said, adding that he was committed to continue funding climate study programs at NASA.
With those questions put to rest, lawmakers focused on NASA’s deep space exploration ambitions. By 2020, NASA hopes to complete testing of the Space Launch System and the Orion crew vehicle so that by 2023, humans can return to lunar orbit.
The new budget also includes funding for the Human Exploration and Operations Missions Directorate which focuses on the development of robotics technology that could one day work in tandem with commercial satellite developers.
Bridenstine said he expects Earth’s low orbit atmosphere will be dotted with commercial satellites. Beyond reporting back scientific data to NASA, satellites could also become equivalent to today’s cell phone towers except with robotic steering tools available to the average person on the Earth whose looking for a signal.
The Mars Curiosity rover, while still reporting back discoveries from Mars, will be joined by a new lander in 2020. Funding has also tripled for research into hazardous near earth objects. For the first time ever, NASA will also attempt to deliberately alter the orbit of a near earth object. Funding will also continue to support the Parker Solar Probe, a satellite that will get closer to the Sun than ever before. It launches in June.
Bridenstine also told lawmakers that a funding limit on the James Webb telescope of $8 billion may need to be reconsidered in June when a status report is released. The Webb will be able to observe the most distant events and objects in the universe, including the formation of the first galaxies.
“It is an amazing capability that all of us are anxiously anticipating. As important as that mission is and critical to NASA, the U.S. and the world, it has had its challenges,” he said.
The telescope’s seals were damaged after being cleaned with an incompatible solvent. Its costly thrusters and sunshield have also malfunctioned in development.
Funding for the Webb telescope and other projects share a similar dilemma, Bridenstine said.
“We’ve spent so much money, come so far and so close, it’s important that we [finish these missions,]” he said.