Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) is now chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Commerce, Justice, and Science. His Houston district is close to the Johnson Spaceflight Center, so he's enthusiastic about NASA—and he's especially excited about a mission to Jupiter's moon, Europa.
Scientists have long speculated that the ice covering the surface of Europa conceals a liquid water ocean, warmed by tidal forces, making it a candidate for finding extraterrestrial life. And Culberson is a strong believer. In an interview last December with the Houston Chronicle, he said:
I'm certain that there's life elsewhere in the universe. And I'm also certain that the first place we will discover life on another world is Europa. It will be discovered in the oceans of Europa. And it will be a robotic mission designed and flown by NASA that discovers it. About an hour and a half ago I got off the phone with Robert Ballard, who discovered the Titanic. We've become friends through my interest in science. He wanted to be remembered for something other than the discovery of the Titanic. So I introduced him to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and told him he should get involved in the Europa mission. I think he should help design a penetrator, swimmer, sniffer that would punch through the ice of Europa and find and photograph life in Europa's oceans. I think it's going to be a match made in heaven.
If I'm successful in becoming chairman of the subcommittee that's going to be right when the Europa mission will need its maximum funding. It needs to be a flagship mission. The biggest and best we've ever flown. I really feel blessed. I feel like I'm one of the luckiest people on Earth. I'm blessed with a wonderful family, a great district, representing Houston in the greatest state in the greatest country in the world. I got on this incredible committee where I will be in exactly the right place at the right time to be able to help turn NASA around, to not only preserve America's leadership role in space, but I also hope to be a key part in discovering life on another world for the first time. We're only going to have one chance at this in our lifetimes. We've got one shot. I want to make sure you and I are here to see those first tube worms and lobsters on Europa.
And now, Culberson is the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee, which gives him considerable influence over the budgets of NASA and the NSF.
As the Planetary Society's Director of Advocacy, Casey Dreier, notes on his blog:
NASA has a strong advocate for this mission who has the power to provide the resources it needs. If NASA requests a mission in the 2016 budget, funding would surely follow. And with the Republican party likely to hold the House for at least the next eight years, so would a certain amount of stability.
Of course, nothing's certain in politics. NASA may yet decline a request for begin a Europa mission next year, or larger issues relating to political standoffs between the Republican congress and the Democratic White House may torpedo budget deals. But just requesting a new start for Europa seems like an easy decision to me: it's bipartisan, has strong scientific backing, and is the kind of bold exploratory mission that truly engages the public.