How NASA became an election issue for Rep. John Culberson

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Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) is the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees NASA and other science agencies, such as the National Science Foundation. Culberson is facing a stiff challenge for reelection by a Democratic lawyer named Lizzie Fletcher. These two facts have created an issue involving Culberson’s support for NASA’s Europa Clipper mission and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, currently under construction at the tip of South America.

The Houston Chronicle, in its editorial endorsing Fletcher, took note of Culberson’s support for the Europa Clipper and connected it to the destruction wrought by Hurricane Harvey:

{mosads}“It’s not that Culberson doesn’t care about water. He does. But most of the time, he seems to care a bit more about the water on Europa, an icy moon orbiting Jupiter, than he does the water in the Addicks and Barker dams. Or in our bayous. Or in our homes.” 

The implication is that Culberson neglected flood control projects in favor of exploring Europa, an ice-shrouded moon of Jupiter thought to contain a warm water ocean that may teem with alien life. Culberson has won plaudits from the scientific community for championing a project that does not directly benefit the Johnson Spaceflight Center in Houston. The discovery of alien life is considered the most important scientific goals in history.

Fletcher took up the theme during the single debate she had with Culberson, using the sound bite that her opponent cares more about water on Europa than the water that inundated Houston in August 2017. The city was devastated by the torrential rains caused by Harvey, with many billions of dollars in property damage and tens of thousands of people losing their homes and businesses. Fletcher is betting that the issue she has raised will resonate, even in Houston, where NASA is a source of pride.

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope became the subject of a Fletcher attack ad in which she claimed that Culberson voted to allocate $680 million for the telescope while voting against spending to fix dams and prepare FEMA for floods. Politifact rated the ad “mostly false.” The article noted that Culberson actually voted to add $71 million to the project for the 2019 fiscal year in order to accelerate the telescope’s development. The $680 million has already been approved by Congress. The telescope is designed to survey the entire night sky every three days, thus detecting any changes and movements of celestial objects. 

The dam and FEMA bill the ad referred to a 2007 measure that would have rehabilitated some dams that are not federally owned. The money would not have affected the Addicks or Barker dams, which figured in the Harvey devastation, because they are federally owned. The money for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope could not be transferred easily for flood control because they are in two separate appropriations accounts. The same could be said for the Europa Clipper. 

Culberson, who is usually reelected comfortably, is in a tight race with Fletcher, ahead by only a few percentage points. Most political analysts ascribe the tightness of the race to anger some suburban women hold against President Trump. But the attacks on science projects by Fletcher are disquieting, to say the least.

Fletcher, during the debate with Culberson, claimed that she shared the pride that most Houstonians have about NASA and the exploration of space. Ironically, if she were to succeed in toppling the long-serving congressman from his seat, NASA will lose one of its most fervent champions, especially if the House flips to Democratic control. The development may imperil funding for NASA projects that do benefit the Johnson Spaceflight Center, such as President Trump’s return to the moon program. 

More interestingly, Fletcher has not revealed what she would do about the Europa Clipper and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope if she were to be elected to Congress. Would she move to have both projects, which are in the advanced stages of development, defunded in order to pay for flood control projects?

It should be noted, also, that Culberson, as an appropriator, has been using his influence to get funding for projects like the expansion of the Addicks and Barker dams, the addition of a third dam, the expansion of bayous that are designed to carry flood waters away from Houston, and a barrier along the Gulf Coast designed to stop storm surges from hurricanes. The loss of Culberson would complicate those projects, as well.

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.”

Tags Donald Trump John Culberson John Culberson Mark R. Whittington NASA Space

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