(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

(This post has been updated.)

A hearty Loop welcome back to Mitch Daniels – Bush II’s budget director, former Indiana governor and the “moderate” Republican who was supposed to save the party from itself in 2012, but backed out – as he returns to Washington this week an expert in space exploration.

In February 2013, Daniels was appointed by the National Research Council to serve on a board reviewing NASA’s human spaceflight program. After 18 months of work, the congressionally-mandated committee will present its recommendations on Wednesday. And Daniels, as the group’s co-chair, is testifying before the Senate Science, Space and Technology Committee.

Daniels surely dealt with the NASA budget as OMB director, but beyond that we’re unaware of any background he has with space issues. (We’ve reached out to him to see. Maybe he’s a big “Star Trek” fan?)

One connection: Daniels is currently president of Purdue University, which is the alma mater of first man on the moon Neil Armstrong as well as astronauts Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, who were killed during a pre-launch test of Apollo 1 in 1967. A Purdue spokeswoman sent us background of the university’s long history of space research. Apparently the school is called the “cradle of astronauts” with 23 astronaut alums in all.

Daniels is expected to tell Congress that NASA won’t be able to send people to Mars under current budgets and programs. Washington Post colleague Joel Achenbach spoke to Daniels at the beginning of the month when the report was made public, and wrote in detail about the report’s recommendations, which include a case for going back to the moon.

There’s serious debate over whether to spend taxpayer dollars on space exploration versus serious domestic needs (crumbling infrastructure, failing schools) in America and on Earth. The Congressional Budget Office in November 2013 said that eliminating human space flights would save the federal government $73 billion between 2015 and 2023.

Yet, the GOP-led House actually advanced an appropriations bill that allocates spending for NASA in fiscal 2015 slightly above what the Obama White House requested. During a debate on the House floor a few weeks ago, Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas) defended NASA funding, reciting from every elementary school teacher chalkboard across America: “Imagine inspiring and encouraging young American students to shoot for the stars.”

UPDATED: Daniels called the Loop Tuesday afternoon to talk space. He said he plans to frame his argument to Congress this way: “Do you want to go to Mars or don’t you?”

Responding to criticism that space travel is a luxury not affordable during times of economic frailty, Daniels said, “most Americans overestimate what’s involved”… and that cutting off NASA spending would do little to address the nation’s larger budgetary problems.

“I don’t want to go cosmic on you,” he said (pun intended, we assume), but the government needs to focus its reforming on entitlement program spending.

Daniels said he was “captivated” by the Apollo missions as a kid, but beyond that was not especially interested in space exploration before this assignment.