WASHINGTON — Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas likes to think of himself as the space senator — and as the top Republican appropriator for NASA in the Senate, he is set to play a key role in the emerging space race between the United States and China.
Beijing has aggressively advanced its space program in recent years, with plans to construct a permanent base on the moon by the end of the decade. China’s ambitions have fueled competition with Washington and spurred a new era of space exploration — one that officials in both countries hope will eventually put humans on Mars.
“I would say that we’re in a space marathon,” Moran said. “And it isn’t short term — it’s not just proving one point.”
In order to compete, Moran has to help convince his colleagues that funding NASA through the new space race is an important use of taxpayer money, in a moment when he and his Republican colleagues are looking to significantly cut government spending.
A major battle over government spending has been brewing in Congress over the past several months, as a group of conservative hardliners in the House are pushing for serious cuts to government funding in the midst of a ballooning national debt.
Because programs like Social Security and Medicare — which make up the majority of government spending — are considered off limits, any serious reductions would have to consider cuts to government spending for agencies like NASA.
So far, House Republicans have prioritized NASA funding. The House Appropriations Committee approved a budget that would spend $25 billion on NASA, similar to the Senate, though the committee highlighted that it appropriated $1.8 billion below NASA’s request.
Still, the House included nearly $8 billion for space exploration, about $230 million more than the Senate appropriated$7.74 billion appropriated by the Senate. The two chambers will eventually have to agree on a number sometime early next year.
“Exploration – frontiers – are a part of America’s DNA. It used to be that we pressed westward to develop this continent. Now we press upwards. And in that, there is inspiration,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told McClatchy in an interview.
“It needs sustained appropriations, but we think the Congress has been very supportive of this,” Nelson added. “And I believe that they will continue to be.”
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