Search for Alien Life Faces Imminent Funding Test

With Rep. John Culberson’s loss in the midterms, the NASA mission to Jupiter moon Europa could have a problem.

Rep. John Culberson during a visit by Vice President Mike Pence to NASA's Johnson Space Center on Aug. 23 in Houston
AP Photo/David J. Phillip
Nov. 13, 2018, 8 p.m.

The next three weeks are rapidly turning into a crucible for the search for extraterrestrial life, with Congress set to define that quest for years to come.

President Trump’s space agenda continues to raise eyebrows, prompting ardent support and pithy mockery alike. The commander in chief is pushing ahead with plans to create a Space Force, a potential sixth military branch, and he’s poised to keep up the pressure for long-term use of the moon as a staging ground for solar system exploration.

But the search for alien life may soon take a hit similar to the one its chief proponent took at the polls a week ago. Rep. John Culberson, the top House appropriator for NASA, lost his reelection bid as the Democrats captured the lower chamber.

And now, Culberson’s years-long plan to send a spacecraft to monitor Europa, an ice-coated moon that orbits Jupiter, faces a critical test as lawmakers scramble to patch together legislation to fund NASA and a range of other federal agencies for fiscal 2019. Current funding expires Dec. 7.

But the nine-term lawmaker is bullish on the prospects.

“My whole bill is in good shape,” he told National Journal on Tuesday, referring to the Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations account that includes NASA. “We’re at a [NASA] funding level equivalent to where we were during Apollo, and there’s more money than they ever dreamed possible for the planetary missions.”

Culberson aims to deliver funding that will facilitate a 2022 launch and an arrival at Europa three years later. That timeline is contingent almost solely on ongoing appropriations talks, and experts say a new Congress—without Culberson—may take a different approach to the mission.

“You will likely see that pressure wane,” Casey Dreier, senior policy adviser at The Planetary Society, told National Journal. “You had one person that went that extra mile.” Still, Dreier said Europa funding will likely continue into the future, just not at the levels set by Culberson.

In 2015, Culberson forced language onto an omnibus spending bill that mandated a NASA mission to Europa. Since then, he’s secured funding for the mission well above NASA requests.

The Trump administration requested $425 million for Europa in fiscal 2018. Culberson, along with other appropriators, delivered nearly $600 million. Then the administration requested roughly $265 million for fiscal 2019. Senate appropriators signed off on that request. Culberson, meanwhile, punched it up to $545 million in House legislation. He also tacked on $195 million for the spacecraft to a dispatch a lander to the surface.

Neither the House or Senate bills have hit the floor in each respective chamber. Now, they’re part and parcel of ongoing negotiations to avert a lapse in federal funds.

NASA, meanwhile, said in its fiscal 2019 budget estimate that it prefers a 2025 launch for the Europa mission, citing “potential impacts to the rest of the science portfolio.” But experts say that’s a financial decision, likely involving the Office of Management and Budget, rather than commentary on the feasibility of the 2022 date.

Despite his success in scoring funding, the emphasis on Europa may have cost Culberson, who describes himself as an amateur astronomer, at the polls.

“John Culberson’s ideas are out of this world. He wanted NASA to search for aliens on Europa,” an ad supporting the incumbent’s opponent said on the campaign trail. “For Houston, Lizzie Fletcher will invest in humans, not aliens.” Fletcher won by roughly 5 points.

Culberson’s emphasis on Europa wasn’t parochial, experts say. The Johnson Space Center, located only miles from his district, wouldn’t have benefitted much from the mission, if at all.

“He’s convinced there is life in the oceans under Europa’s icy crust, and he wants to be the person that made sure that the United States built a probe to find it,” Marcia Smith, editor of SpacePolicyOnline.com and a veteran of more than three decades at the Congressional Research Service, told National Journal.

To be sure, scientists don’t believe aliens exist anywhere in the solar system, let alone on Europa. The search targets microbial life, which could give some hints to the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere.

Culberson isn’t the only champion of Europa on Capitol Hill. But a key partner on that front is also riding off into the Texas sunset. Rep. Lamar Smith, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee chairman, is retiring. Smith is still aiming to get a NASA reauthorization bill across the finish line.

That legislation authorizes $21.21 billion for NASA in fiscal 2019, an increase of nearly $500 million from enacted levels. NASA’s Planetary Science Division would get an increase of $400 million, which would include more financial support for Europa.

The NASA-funding debate, however, has played out almost exclusively with appropriators, and the reauthorization bill faces a steep climb to make it into law before the next Congress is seated.

But members of the Science panel have also taken up a debate that is likely to spill over into 2019 and beyond on both the Science and Appropriations Committees. That’s the funding fight that often pits Earth science, most notably climate science and disaster-response research, against planetary science.

The NASA reauthorization bill—sponsored by Rep. Brian Babin, who represents the Houston district that includes the Johnson Space Center—originally axed NASA’s Earth-science budget by $471 million. Smith reached a compromise with Science Committee ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson to restore that cut during an April markup.

Johnson, who in all likelihood will claim the committee chair in January, rejected the idea of a trade-off between Earth- and planetary-science priorities.

“It is a false premise that we have to choose between exploration and climate science. Both are worthy investments in our future and I strongly support both,” Johnson said in a statement to National Journal.

“It would be foolhardy and short-sighted to stop studying the planet on which we live, especially in light of climate change,” she added. “But it would also be short-sighted to stop exploring the far reaches of space. I have made no secret of my willingness to invest more in NASA, because it is an investment that will pay long lasting dividends to this nation.”

But Johnson struck a less diplomatic tone during the NASA markup, taking the Earth-science cuts to task. “Where does all this money go?” she said at the markup prior to the agreement that restored the Earth-science authorization. “The majority diverts it to searching for space aliens and to the president’s unexamined initiative to build an orbiting moon base, among other things. I really wish this was a joke.”

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