This op-ed ran in The Wichita Eagle on December 23, 2018.

Fifty years ago, NASA’s Apollo 8 mission sent humans around the moon for the very first time on Christmas Eve. One out of four people in the world watched as the crew broadcasted back to earth: “Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

And late last month, we all cheered with NASA’s engineers as they celebrated NASA’s most recent accomplishment, the touchdown of the InSight mission on Mars – the first time in six years we’ve landed spacecraft on the planet.

Today, I am on a mission to make certain children across America can inherit these same opportunities to explore our solar system and beyond.

As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, which has jurisdiction over the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, providing strong support for NASA has been a priority, especially as it relates to programs meant to incentivize STEM education for the next generation.

Undoubtedly, employers increasingly desire that their employees hold and maintain a substantial degree of knowledge in the STEM fields.

In response to this mandate, my Senate subcommittee has produced an overwhelmingly bipartisan appropriations bill for the upcoming fiscal year that prioritizes education programs within NASA – not just in theory, but in actual dollars.

Included as part of NASA’s budget is the Office of STEM Engagement, which seeks to provide superior learning tools to young Americans and classroom educators in an effort to increase K-12 involvement in STEM.

Additional programs incentivize and provide opportunities for young women and minority students to engage in STEM in even greater numbers than they do today. Further, an award utilizing the expertise of the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson will bring STEM experiences and learning directly to Kansas classrooms.

I recently hosted NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and NASA astronaut Don Pettit for a day of activities in Wichita and Hutchinson, where they visited with more than 150 students, families and educators about NASA, space exploration and the importance of remaining curious.

The event confirmed what I know to be true: the idea of space travel is utterly captivating for students, and that astronauts, in particular, hold a special place in our hearts. To so many of us, NASA astronauts are genuine American heroes.

During a visit to Exploration Place, Pettit provided the audience with this advice: “Find your frontier . . . and then the hard work begins. Now, you have to start doing something about your frontier. You’ve got to start exploring.”

It strikes me as I drive across Kansas seeing highway and roadway signs declaring that any certain town is the hometown of an astronaut. This spring, Nick Hague from Hoxie will become the fourth Kansan ever to travel to space. He follows Steve Hawley of Ottawa, who flew five Space Shuttle missions, and astronauts Ron Evans of Topeka and Joe Engle of Abilene, who both flew on Apollo missions. And Kansas City, Kansas, native Capt. Edward Dwight became the first African American named to the astronaut program in 1963.

Kansans have always had a pioneering spirit, and I believe that many students in our Kansas classrooms right now are searching for their frontier, and will someday be our nation’s scientists, engineers, mathematicians — even astronauts. My mission is to help students realize that no matter where you grow up, you can pursue any dream you can imagine.

I’m committed to helping make certain NASA continues to inspire our future innovators and has the tools it needs to recruit and retain top talent. Through my role as an appropriator, I will continue prioritizing and providing resources for forward-thinking and sensible programs to help young people in Kansas and across the country connect with NASA.

I am doing all that I can in Congress to help today’s students prepare for the jobs of tomorrow — jobs that may just land on Mars.

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