- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2012

It is a growing concern that the public believes NASA is closing its doors. This is far from true. Although NASA’s shuttle fleet retired in 2011 after 30 years of admirable and groundbreaking service, the space agency’s vibrant mission is far from over. We need to keep the fires of the agency’s spirited agenda burning by ensuring NASA is fully funded to carry out what it has been tasked to do for our country.

The future of our nation’s space program lies in the hands of those elected to represent the people of the United States. A great responsibility is placed before these decision-makers. While we face economic obstacles that challenge every decision made in Washington, decisions made merely for political gain must stop. It’s time to restore civility in Congress. It’s time for action where action is needed - all politics aside.

As legislators consider the fiscal 2013 budget over the next few days, it is of vital interest that our leaders uphold the bipartisan tradition of support for NASA’s charter. Our nation’s space program deserves support, and such an example of congressional civility should spread throughout the Capitol and the nation.

Many may wonder why space is the topic at hand. If you do wonder, I ask you to learn about all that our nation’s space program does for our country.

First, and perhaps foremost, studies have shown that space exploration inspires our children to pursue education and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It also continues to inspire the child inside all of us. But there is much more to it.

Astute investments in NASA’s science and technology portfolio provide both tangible and intangible benefits. They strengthen our national security by winning the long-term respect of our global allies and rivals alike. Additionally, these investments provide opportunities for collaboration with academia, industry and the international community on unprecedented levels. They contribute to a steady stream of breakthroughs with a track record of strengthening the U.S. economy and placing a spotlight on the importance of math and science education. They provide domestic manufacturing, engineering and research jobs in a time when these opportunities are often outsourced to foreign entities.

Right now, NASA is building the next-generation deep-space crew capsule and heavy-lift rocket to explore farther than ever before. NASA is also expanding use of the International Space Station by partnering with American companies to create transportation capabilities for reaching the station in low Earth orbit. This will stimulate the economy and decrease our reliance on foreign launch providers. Congress has directed all of these activities in a bipartisan manner.

NASA also is developing advances in aviation and space technologies, and reaching farther into our solar system through innovative exploration missions. These programs not only expand our technological capabilities and scientific knowledge, but they also boost our economy, create jobs and expand opportunities for skilled workers.

These projects cannot be abruptly stopped and restarted. Projects that can take several years to develop and perhaps decades to operate cannot be relegated to nearsighted annual budget planning. They must be sustained to assure the availability of a capable domestic engineering and scientific skill base and to achieve advancements in science and technology that will improve life here on Earth. NASA’s achievements, each many years in the making, are the products of a long-standing commitment to NASA’s multi-mission tradition with an enviable record that promises to pay dividends for decades to come - if Congress acts responsibly.

Despite global economic concerns, other nations are continuing to push forward and invest in their space capabilities. A U.S. withdrawal from the industry will only allow others to surge in their own capabilities, potentially impacting our national security and technology competitiveness in the future.

NASA’s current budget request represents a small decline, affirming the agency’s willingness to make tough choices to restrain spending along with the rest of the federal government. In total, the agency’s spending plan represents less than half of 1 percent of the total federal budget. Our nation cannot continue to cultivate technological breakthroughs with bargain-basement, unpredictable funding.

There is no question that we all want a secure nation, an educated and competitive work force, a robust economy with jobs for people across the nation, and for America to remain a leader in technological breakthroughs and innovation. As Congress moves forward in its consideration of the president’s budget request, I urge members to consider that there is more at stake than losing just our inspiration. We cannot afford for the rumors of NASA’s demise to become a reality.

Former Democratic Rep. Nick Lampson is a Coalition for Space Exploration Advisory Board Member and current candidate for Congress in Texas.