On April 18, U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) spoke at a luncheon of the Maryland Space Business Roundtable, an annual address she’s given for more than 20 years. The event filled a ballroom at the University of Maryland’s conference center with more than 500 people, primarily NASA employees and contractors, hanging on every word she said about the upcoming NASA appropriations bill.
There was also, in the lobby outside the ballroom, a cash bar, should anyone feel the need for a drink to go along with her addres s . That bar appeared to do very little business leading up to her speech, as everyone already appeared to be in a celebratory mood to honor Mikulski in her final speech there as a senator.
In a ceremony prior to her speech, Mikulski received a plaque featuring a collection of NASA images. NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman recognized Mikulski’s contributions, calling her “Supernova Mikulski” and “America’s space senator.”
More telling, though, were comments by Rushern Baker, the head of Maryland’s Prince George’s County, where NASA Goddard and many contractors are located. He said that when he took office several years ago, he was unaware of the space industry’s presence in his county beyond NASA until Mikulski showed him around, including a tour of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite center there. “I visited NOAA, and found out it was an agency and not a person,” he quipped.
And Maryland’s space industry has done well in the 30 years Mikulski has been in office. Over the years she’s worked to support Goddard, the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) and even the Wallops Flight Facility, located just past Maryland’s border on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
That influence was clear days later when the Senate Appropriations Committee, where she is the top Democrat, passed an appropriations bill that provided $19.3 billion for NASA. A satellite servicing project at Goddard, RESTORE-L, received double NASA’s request of $65 million. A new space telescope project run at Goddard, WFIRST, got $30 million more than requested. Wallops and APL projects also fared well in the bill.
The problem for Goddard and Maryland’s space industry in general is that this is Mikulski’s last budget, and her successor will likely have far less inf luence. One of the candidates to replace her, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), does have a space policy track record as ranking member of the House Science space subcommittee. However, even if Edwards wins — she’s trailing in many polls ahead of the April 26 Democratic primary — and gets a seat on the appropriations committee, she’ll have limited influence in a body where seniority is often measured in decades.
The future, though, wasn’t on the minds of members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who gave Mikulski a rare standing ovation as they marked up the spending bill April 21. “When God made Barbara, she broke the mold,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
But that’s exactly the concern in Maryland: there will be no one with quite the same power as Mikulski for years to come.
If her successor continues the tradition of annual speeches at the Maryland Space Business Roundtable, next year the bar might have a little more business.