NASA shows off its tech on Capitol Hill

NASA shows off its tech on Capitol Hill
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NASA came to Capitol Hill on Thursday to highlight its work to lawmakers and staffers as the space agency faces the threat of budget cuts and questions about its mission.

"NASA Technology Day on the Hill" featured both its own work and projects from universities partnering with the agency.

It's the sixth year that the agency has held an event like this, according to Derek Wang, public outreach manager for the new Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD).

Wang said the program started off small, with private companies presenting technologies they developed using NASA research. The event has gradually grown to include broad areas from aeronautics to human exploration.

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"It's about inspiring people and developing technology," said Chris Cassidy, an active Navy SEAL and NASA astronaut, who attended.

"I think it's time in our nation's history to really push the boundaries again of where our technological capabilities are for space and go ultimately to Mars."

Cassidy was the 500th person to fly into space and has spent a total of 182 days in space.

Kelly A. Stephani, a professor at the University of Illinois Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering, was one of the attendees from the nation's universities. She touted her work to better protect spacecraft when they reenter earth's atmosphere.

"When we reenter the atmosphere, the gas and the vehicle gets hot and we need to find ways to protect the vehicle," she said. "We work on modeling that system, that whole process."

Other exhibits included the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer mission, which studies the behavior of neutron stars, and the Satellite Servicing Projects Division, which is working on developing an autonomous craft that can refuel satellites. 

The event comes as many advocates for the agency express worries about its mission and its future.

NASA has long been in GOP crosshairs for its climate and earth science programs. Republican lawmakers say it should be focused on space exploration.

But Democrats say Republicans are just targeting climate science.

President Trump's fiscal 2018 budget unveiled in March would cut the agency's overall budget by 0.8 percent from $19.3 billion to $19.1 billion. The president's blueprint, though, is unlikely to be adopted by Congress.

In March, Trump also signed the NASA Transition Authorization Act, giving NASA $19.5 billion for fiscal 2016. NASA had requested $19.1 billion. However, the budget will effectively close NASA's education office, which will only receive $37 million — a sharp drop from the $100 million it got in previous budgets.

Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for the STMD, addressed the cuts to the education office.

"We're going to work to see what we can do in the other mission directorates, and try to maintain an education presence externally," he said. "Some of [the office's] activities will continue in the other mission directorates."

Jurczyk said he believed NASA still has strong bipartisan support in Congress and at the White House.

He said the agency still had an ambitious agenda ahead.

"We're going to continue operating the International Space Station and reduce risk for exploration beyond the Earth's orbit, we're going to start developing operating systems around the moon," he said.

"And then our ultimate goal is human exploration of Mars. And that has not changed."

This story was updated at 10:32 p.m.