DECEMBER 2006 / JANUARY 2007 – NO. 11

Space Politics

by Jeff Foust


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Few people would disagree with the claim that the winds of change are blowing in Washington today. With the Democratic Party seizing control of both the House and the Senate in the November elections, the next Congress will be taking a very different look at many issues, from Iraq and the war on terrorism to health care and the economy. Will the Democrats' policy review extend to NASA and its plans to return to the Moon?

At first glance it would seem that NASA would be vulnerable to a change in power in Congress. It was, after all, President Bush himself who came to NASA Headquarters in January 2004 to announce a new course for the space agency. That new direction, a program with the generic moniker of the Vision for Space Exploration (often simply called "the Vision"), is both audacious and familiar:  after retiring the Space Shuttle and completing the assembly of the International Space Station at the end of this decade, NASA would develop a new generation of rockets and spaceships to lands humans back on the Moon before 2020, 50 years after the historic Apollo lunar landings. All this would be accomplished with just a modest increase in NASA's budget by leveraging the billions of dollars that would be freed up from the shuttle and station programs. Needless to say, many people were skeptical.

NASA also suffered a political setback earlier this year when it lost its most powerful patron in Congress, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. His suburban Houston district included NASA's Johnson Space Center, and he did not hesitate to wield his influence to support the agency. His efforts included a last-minute intervention in late 2004 just as the House and Senate were completing work on an omnibus budget bill, winning a few hundred million dollars more for NASA to enable work to begin on the Vision.

With the now-tarnished DeLay out of Congress and Democrats in charge, are NASA and the Vision for Space Exploration truly in danger? While NASA has benefited from the attention it received from Bush and DeLay, in fact NASA and space policy in general have enjoyed broad bipartisan support in Congress for years. In 2005, for example, Congress considered a NASA authorization bill that contained a provision explicitly endorsing the Vision. The original version of the bill passed in the House by a 383-15 margin; a later version won approval in the House by a voice vote and in the Senate by unanimous consent — a clear sign that space policy is not a partisan issue.

Moreover, many of NASA's biggest supporters in Congress are Democrats, particularly those who hail from states with major NASA centers. The senator likely to take over the science and space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, Bill Nelson of Florida (who flew on the last shuttle mission before the Challenger accident in 1986 while serving in the House), holds views on NASA virtually identical to his Republican counterpart on the committee, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. Barbara Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who will likely chair the subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee with oversight of NASA, has long used her influence to win funding for NASA, including a recent bipartisan effort with Hutchison to win an additional billion dollars for NASA's 2007 budget, which has yet to be approved by Congress. Steny Hoyer, the new House Majority Leader, represents a district in the Maryland suburbs of Washington that includes NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, and has helped funnel money to the agency in the past.

All this suggests that Congress is unlikely to make major changes in NASA in the next Congress. There is likely to be some increased attention paid to smaller NASA programs, like aeronautics research and science, which have suffered to some degree in the last few years, particularly as the budget was squeezed by the exploration program on one side and returning the Space Shuttle to flight after the Columbia accident on the other. A few NASA skeptics in Congress will have new power next year, including the presumptive chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, David Obey of Wisconsin, who has expressed his opposition to the Vision for Space Exploration in particular. On the other hand, a likely addition to Obey's committee will be the Democrat who won Tom DeLay's old seat, Nick Lampson, a strong supporter of NASA when he served on Congress prior to losing a reelection bid in another district in 2004 (a victim of the infamous Texas redistricting effort engineered in part, ironically, by DeLay.) Lampson's odds of winning reelection in 2008 are slim if he can't win continued funding for NASA — something both he and the Democratic leadership in the House are acutely aware of.

The real test for NASA and its Vision for Space Exploration will come not in 2007 but two years later. A new president will be in the White House and will have the prerogative to change NASA's direction if he (or she) so desires — provided that Congress is convinced it's in their best — and for many members, often parochial — interests. Only then will we find out just how farsighted this Vision really is.