How will the 2018 midterms affect NASA space policy?

How will the 2018 midterms affect NASA space policy?
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The 2018 midterm elections featured the switch of the House from Republican control to Democratic control, the increase of Republican control in the Senate, and the fall of at least three space supporters from public office.

The defeat of Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonFlorida not using Broward County's recount tally because it uploaded results 2 minutes late Election Countdown: Florida Senate race heads to hand recount | Dem flips Maine House seat | New 2020 trend - the 'friend-raiser' | Ad war intensifies in Mississippi runoff | Blue wave batters California GOP DeSantis holds lead over Gillum after recount MORE, a Florida Democrat, at the hands of Rick Scott, the outgoing Republican governor, was fraught with irony. About this time last year, Nelson was leading a full-throated campaign to derail the nomination of Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineOklahoma New Members 2019 How will the 2018 midterms affect NASA space policy? Cruz vs O’Rourke race puts NASA’s future on the Texas ballot MORE, then an Oklahoma Republican congressman, as NASA administrator. Nelson has cast himself in the role of NASA champion and guardian of the interests of the Kennedy Space Center. But he was willing to spark a leadership crisis at the space agency to stop a man from leading it who he personally did not pick and would not have much control over. Now Bridenstine is firmly in control of NASA, and Nelson is facing life in the private sector for the first time in decades. The election may be headed for a recount at the time of this writing, however.

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The most heartbreaking loss was that of Rep. John CulbersonJohn Abney CulbersonTexas New Members 2019 Republicans must learn from the election mistake on immigration How will the 2018 midterms affect NASA space policy? MORE, a Texas Republican, who, as an appropriator, was very generous to NASA. Culberson championed the Europa Clipper, envisioned to look for life beneath the ice-shrouded surface of the moon of Jupiter. Support of space and science are considered virtues, especially in Houston, where the Johnson Spaceflight Center resides. However, Culberson’s opponent, a corporate litigator named Lizzie Fletcher, was able to use Culberson’s support of the Europa Clipper and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope against him. One ad, which contrasted Culberson’s support for the telescope with certain votes that affected dam improvement, was judged to be “mostly false” by Politifact.

Another ad, run by Michael Bloomberg’s super-PAC, mocked the congressman’s support of exploring Europa, depicting a crude, cartoon version of Culberson in a UFO flying by Jupiter.  No one knows whether Fletcher will attempt to cancel the Europa Clipper or the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope when she takes her congressional seat.

Finally, long-term congressman Dana RohrabacherDana Tyrone RohrabacherDemocratic gains erasing House GOP in California California New Members 2019 McCarthy defeats Jordan for minority leader in 159-to-43 vote MORE, a champion of commercial space and a critic of certain NASA programs such as the Space Launch System, lost his seat in California.

The question arises, what does all of this mean for NASA space policy going forward?

First, Sen Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzO'Rourke writes blog post describing a literal run from near the capitol to near the White House Cruz brushes off question about campaign claim on O'Rourke paying for caravan Texas New Members 2019 MORE, a Texas Republican who won reelection in a race against Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke, has become the main champion of NASA and commercial space in the Senate. As chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Space and Competitiveness, he has already benefited NASA and commercial spaceflight with the passage of legislation that ensures that space miners can keep the resources they extract from the moon and asteroids. Any new space policy initiative will come out of Cruz’s subcommittee.

Second, the control of NASA oversight and funding in the House has passed from Republicans, who are enthusiastic about space exploration and commercial space, to Democrats who are less so. They are all in for climate change research, the more the better. One of two outcomes suggests themselves depending on what the Democrats want.

The House Democrats could choose to compromise, trading support for more space exploration and commercial space reforms for more funding of climate change research. Bridenstine, a former congressman with friends on both sides of the aisle, would shine by negotiating such an agreement.

On the other hand, the House Democrats might oppose space exploration simply because they oppose President TrumpDonald John TrumpAvenatti ‘still considering’ presidential run despite domestic violence arrest Mulvaney positioning himself to be Commerce Secretary: report Kasich: Wouldn’t want presidential run to ‘diminish my voice’ MORE, who has made the return to the moon program one of his priorities.  In that scenario, we would have at least two more years of gridlock and political acrimony.

It remains to be seen if the new chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, probably Rep. Eddie Bernice JohnsonEddie Bernice JohnsonPelosi should acknowledge realities with proposed climate change committee House Dems split on how to tackle climate change Dems to hold two days of hearings on climate MORE of Texas, would weaponize NASA against Trump, with endless oversight hearings and investigations. In that scenario, the third attempt to return Americans to the moon would be placed in political jeopardy.

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”