As the new US administration weighs its extraterrestrial options, a key figure will be Rep. Don Beyer, the Virginia Democrat who will chair the space policy subcommittee in the US House of Representatives. Beyer, the only certified mechanic in Congress and a science-fiction buff, will be tasked with enacting the annual legislation that lays out NASA priorities. Quartz spoke to Beyer yesterday; our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What are your goals for the committee this year?
I’d love for us to reauthorize NASA this year at new funding levels that make sense with the different ambitions the new president and administration will have. I’m looking forward to fighting for continuing to expand our financial commitment to NASA. I’d love to have Mars and the moon still on track. I had a Mars 2033 bumper sticker on my car until it finally fell off. I’m not sure we have to go to the moon by 2024 to get to Mars by 2033. I’m looking forward to a comprehensive look at the schedule.
Per NASA’s expectations or requirements, we underfunded it last year, and I’m not sure that we’ll be able to catch up, given all the other budget pressures, especially with monthly child tax credits and COVID relief and infrastructure. We’re running pretty big deficits right now.
How do you expect NASA’s priorities to change under president Biden?
I’ve not talked with any of the folks at the White House yet, [but] the one that jumps out is that, we’re coming after an administration where the former president thought climate change was a hoax, and climate scientists weren’t allowed to go to climate conferences. [Former lawmaker and NASA administrator] Jim Bridenstine and I had battles my first few years, because he came from Oklahoma and didn’t believe climate change was real. Now, to his credit, I don’t think NASA retreated on their climate science. I do think the next director will probably elevate its priority.
What kind of person would you like to see lead NASA?
Interesting to hear [names like former Senator] Bill Nelson, [former astronaut] Pam Melroy…[former NASA chief scientist] Ellen Stofan is a dear friend, I don’t think she even wants it—that’s my understanding from her, that she’s very happy at the [National Air and Space Museum.]
I would love to see somebody who would continue to build and renew the culture at NASA, make people feel really valued and needed and that the mission is important—that people don’t want to go home. That tends to be someone who is pretty good at the math and physics, and also a good leader and manager. A lot of folks want the first woman, which would be great for me.
Your predecessor on the committee was notably opposed to using public-private partnerships to build landers for potential crewed missions to the lunar surface. Where do you stand on that?
I’m not as rigid…I think that the private sector has an enormous amount to offer here. Not just private sector à la Lockheed Martin and Boeing, but you look at what Orbital Sciences [now part of Northrop Grumman] and Virgin Galactic and SpaceX and all these other smaller firms—sometimes led by very rich people—have been able to do. I don’t want to shut them out. Where you can have a meaningful public partnership, we should continue to pursue it.
I love our NASA engineers, and I don’t think everything should be done on the profit motive, but having a little bit of a profit motive and market forces mixed in can be helpful. I represent more federal employees than any other member of Congress; I also represent a lot of government contractors who are managing their people to also contribute a lot.
Dave Thompson, who started Orbital Sciences, has been a friend for 30 years. I remember when he was a poor MIT graduate with three or four people and the first bunch of rockets crashed, and he built it into a really successful company that also was able to very cost-effectively take supplies up to ISS.
We saw human spaceflight return to the US last year, and this year we expect the first tourists at the International Space Station since 2008. What does that mean to you?
I think the long-term view, if we jump up to your grandchildren, maybe a whole lot more of us will be going into space. I think that’s wonderful…I love the idea of space tourism. In the short run it’s going to be really rich people, sort of societal inequity there. In the old days, it was first the rich people who had cars, went on airplanes, took trains, but little by little we’ve lifted an enormous number of people out of hunger and out of poverty. We have to start someplace.
China looms large as a rival in space, and Congress has forbidden NASA from working with China. How do you view that relationship?
I am on the collaborationist, cooperative side. Not just because at the end of Andy Weir’s book it was the Chinese who helped save the Martian. The dilemma, in the short run and probably the medium run with China, is there are huge human rights violations, and those concern me more than the economic system…what they’ve done with the Uighurs, what they’ve done in Hong Kong, the threat to Taiwan, these are all things where we have to be really strong.
If they are not playing by a lot of other rules in terms of good international relationships, then it’s going to be hard. I would love for us to get to a point, 10 years or 15 years down the road, where we are strategic competitors but we can also partner on things like space. We’ve got lots of issues with Russia right now and yet we are still doing things in space together. That has been very helpful and constructive, I think, for mankind. It’d sure be a whole lot better if we can be partners, or even strategic competitors, but competitors where we are all playing by the same rules.
What excites you about space exploration?
The two things I’m most excited about, I’m plagiarizing [Obama-era NASA administrator] Charles Bolden. I said, what’s NASA’s central mission? And he said science, he didn’t hesitate. And then fifteen seconds later, he said, well, Mars. I agree with him. For me the really exciting part is all the new science that will be accessible to us because of NASA. And then secondarily, I’m really excited about interplanetary travel. The 2033 timeline, I hope it doesn’t get pushed, but even if it gets pushed, as long as it’s still happening while you’re alive, it’s really important. I’m just fascinated to see, as we go deeper, what it does to philosophy, to religion, even to politics.
A version of this story was originally published in Quartz’s Space Business newsletter.