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Flanked by moon mission astronauts, Kelly calls NASA the ‘Dolly Parton’ of government

Artemis II crew gets warm receptions from Congress, tourists

Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., speaks Thursday during a news conference with the recently announced crew of the Artemis II mission outside the Capitol.
Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., speaks Thursday during a news conference with the recently announced crew of the Artemis II mission outside the Capitol. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

News conferences outside the Capitol don’t always attract a crowd of visitors and tourists — but most also do not feature astronauts in flight suits.

“Sometimes I think, you know, NASA is the Dolly Parton of … government agencies. Like everybody loves Dolly Parton,” Sen. Mark Kelly, an Arizona Democrat and former astronaut, said, flanked by the crew of Artemis II, the planned mission to return humans to the surface of the moon.

The crew, which includes three Americans and one Canadian, has been making the rounds on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in Washington to promote the mission and funding for space exploration in general.

Kelly, along with the crew and the leaders of the U.S. and Canadian space agencies, praised the bipartisan support they have received as passing tour groups stopped to take photos and listen in to the news conference, held with the Capitol dome as a backdrop.

“As somebody who has flown on the space shuttle four times, as the commander twice, I do get a lot of questions here … about space. They’re usually really good question from my colleagues,” Kelly said.

“Sometimes they ask, you know, why the space shuttle isn’t landing on the moon anymore?” he said, getting a laugh, since the shuttle never left Earth’s orbit. “But generally … folks are really well informed.”

Jeremy Hansen, a Canadian Space Agency astronaut who will serve as a mission specialist, said that as an outsider he was inspired by meetings on the Hill that included key members of the House and Senate appropriations committees.

“Leadership here in the United States understands how amazing it is that they have a NASA that is doing amazing things in this country,” Hansen said. “The rest of the world looking in respects NASA, NASA is a leader. You have something extraordinary in your country, and I hope you treasure it and you’re extremely proud of it.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he hoped that the Artemis program, which aims to launch the first of a recurring series of missions to the moon in late 2024, would not be the target of budgetary cutbacks.

“Rs and Ds that sometimes are at loggerheads all come together. The space program is a unifying force. It’s also a job-producing force,” Nelson, a former Democratic senator from Florida who himself previously traveled to space, said. “That’s another reason that we are hopeful that this resolution of what’s going to happen on the debt ceiling is going to be resolved. … Because the kind of cuts that you have seen talked about would be devastating to NASA, to our programs and, indeed, this what you’re being presented with today, a crew that is taking us back to the moon after a half a century.”

Lawmakers who highlighted their meetings with the crew Thursday included Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., the chairman of the Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations subcommittee, and his Senate counterpart, Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.

A NASA spokesperson said that other meetings were being held with members of House and Senate leadership, as well as caucuses across the political spectrum.

Victor Glover, the Artemis II pilot, said he also left meetings inspired by the support the program received.

“What has happened is as we show up to places, folks are cheering us on and telling us how they’re going to support us and they’re going to make sure that we can keep doing the things that we’re doing,” Glover said. “They want to support us, they want to continue to support us, and they know how important the decisions and the debates that are happening right now are to the future, of sustainability, of that vision and execution of that mission.”

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