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U.S. Senator Pushes for More NASA Funding to Race China

As the top Republican appropriator for NASA in the Senate, Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas is set to play a key role in the emerging space race between the United States and China.

(TNS) — 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.”

Appropriators have highlighted national security to build support for continued funding. Many conservatives are wary of China and see it as a growing threat to the United States.

Moran, who also serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that intelligence and defense officials have made clear to lawmakers that funding for space exploration will also benefit national security.

“In the last five years, I think we’ve increased NASA’s budget by about $5 billion,” Moran said. “That’s a significant increase, but I would guess that China is advancing and spending more money more rapidly.”

China’s space program is opaque and operates its crewed missions under the auspices of the Chinese military. “The reality is that the Chinese government’s space program is not transparent,” Nelson said.

But NASA’s partnership with the private sector has given Moran hope that the United States will be able to outpace China, taking advantage of innovative companies facing competition and profit incentives.

“That’s one of the things that gives me hope and a belief of success around the corner,” Moran said.

SpaceX, a rocket manufacturer run by Elon Musk, tested its Starship spacecraft over the weekend, demonstrating signs of progress over its previous launch effort. The spacecraft is meant to be used in NASA’s future crewed missions to the moon and Mars.

Moran noted that many funding decisions for NASA require commitments to long-term investments, which can be difficult for voters to appreciate and lawmakers to support.

But he recalled his decision to back continued funding for the James Webb telescope project, which was sent into space in 2021 after years of cost overruns. The telescope has already made significant discoveries, helping scientists better understand the origins of the planet.

Chris Carberry, CEO and co-founder of Explore Mars, Inc., told McClatchy that meetings with lawmakers have shown him there is bipartisan support for NASA’s most ambitious missions.

“I think everybody agrees we’re going to go to Mars. It’s the horizon goal, and has been for a long time. We will eventually cross the horizon,” Carberry said. “It is one of the few issues out there that has strong and consistent bipartisan support from multiple administrations. It’s been building over the last ten years. And it has changed — a lot — since I started doing this.”

NASA’s current “Moon to Mars Architecture” includes plans to return humans to the moon by late 2025. Consecutive missions after 2028 will begin to establish a base near the lunar south pole.

The concept behind the return to the moon is to learn how to keep people alive on a celestial body for long periods of time, Nelson said, in anticipation of a longer mission to Mars.

Competition with China could spur U.S. support for the space program just as it did in the 1960s, during the first space race with the Soviet Union, said Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator under former President Donald Trump.

“The United States did not have the first human in space. The United States did not have the first human in orbit. But The United States did have the first person on the moon,” Bridenstine said. “And I will tell you, it took a lot to get the United States focused on achieving an objective that would be a demonstration of our technological prowess. It took Sputnik, it took Yuri Gagarin — the United States was behind.”

“I would say that pattern is probably going to be consistent here,” Bridenstine added.

Nicolas Maubert, space counselor at the French embassy in Washington, said that incorporating lunar missions into the plan will help show Congress tangible progress in the short-term.

“It’s a safe approach, also for the Congress, because if you say I want the money to go to Mars, I’ll be there 15 years from now, and it’ll cost hundreds of billions of dollars — it’s easier to justify this step from a budget point of view,” Maubert said. “It’s a whole strategy, what you can validate on Earth, on the space station, and what you need to do on the moon.”

Finally putting human beings on Mars would fuel the public’s imagination, help spur even more discoveries and motivate America’s youth to enter the sciences, Moran said.

“Is it easy to convince people? People want resources spent on things where they see the immediate benefit,” Moran said. “And space exploration is something where the benefits, while they are current, a lot of what we’ll see is what’s anticipated in the future.”

© 2023 The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.