Congressional Reaction to Falcon 9 Flight Ranges From Enthusiasm to “Meh”

Florida Senator Bill Nelson

A roundup of what key members of Congress are saying about SpaceX’s successful Falcon 9 launch on Friday:

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson (D)

The Democratic Senator make a congratulatory call to SpaceX Founder Elon Musk. quotes him as saying that the successful flight gives him hope that Falcon 9 will be in “full operation delivering cargo to the International Space Station a year from now” with Dragon capsules.

Editor’s Note: Alan Boyle over at Cosmic Log seems rather surprised by the senator’s reaction, noting, “It’s unusual for Nelson, who has seemed a bit doubtful about NASA’s moves toward commercialization, to be so positive about SpaceX’s prospects.”

I think not…

Sen. Nelson was initially highly critical of the Obama Administration’s plan for NASA. However, his position has become more subtle and nuanced over the last few months. He continues to fight for key elements of the space agency’s existing program. That’s to be expected; his state will be hit especially hard by the end of the space shuttle era and the long gap in human spaceflights. He will fight as hard as he can for the people who elected him.

But, I think he also realizes the enormous potential of commercial space to transform Cape Canaveral into a modern launch facility with a balanced mix of civilian, military and private missions. This is a goal that has been embraced by state officials, who have given a big budget boost to a Space Florida agency reinvigorated under President Frank DiBello. NASA has proposed $2 billion in infrastructure improvements to make that goal a reality. If there is a consensus growing around what to do in Florida post-shuttle, this is where it’s developing.

I think that Nelson’s friendship with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, cemented by a space shuttle flight they flew together in 1986, should not be underestimated. I was especially impressed with Nelson’s introduction of Bolden during President Barack Obama’s visit to Cape Canaveral on April 15. His involvement in the visit seemed to be a signal that although he was not entirely happy with the Administration’s direction, he was willing to work with them on it.

Florida Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D)

“The successful test launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is a significant step in the development of the commercial space industry. There is no doubt that commercial spaceflight will play an important role in the future of our efforts in space, and I believe private companies can bring new job opportunities for the Space Coast’s highly-skilled workforce. But we must both support the emerging commercial space industry and ensure a robust, NASA-led human spaceflight program in order to maintain our international leadership in space and keep our economy strong. I will continue fighting at every opportunity to minimize the human spaceflight gap, protect jobs, and ensure a bright future for the Space Coast.”

Editor’s Note: One of Kosmas’ main initiatives is to extend space shuttle flights to close the gap. I think this to be highly unlikely given the opposition to it by NASA’s top brass, the long lead times for components like the external tank, and the costs involved. But, I’ve been wrong before….

My guess is that Kosmas fails, she will be able to tell her constituents that she fought the good fight. She will also continue to make the best of what the Administration wants to spend on the Space Coast.

Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R)

“This first successful test flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is a belated sign that efforts to develop modest commercial space cargo capabilities are showing some promising signs. While this test flight was important, the program to demonstrate commercial cargo and crew transport capabilities, which I support, was intended to enhance not replace NASA’s own proven abilities to deliver critical cargo and humans to low Earth orbit.

“Make no mistake, even this modest success is more than a year behind schedule, and the project deadlines of other private space companies continue to slip as well. This test does not change the fact that commercial space programs are not ready to close the gap in human spaceflight if the space shuttle is retired this year with no proven replacement capability and the Constellation program is simultaneously canceled as the president proposes.”

SpaceX CEO Musk reacted strongly to the criticism from Hutchison during a post-launch press conference, which has about 150 employees in the Lone Star State:

“We do all of our engine testing and development in Texas. We’re one of the fastest-growing employers in Texas. Why is she trying to hurt a Texas company? That’s wrong. And the people of Texas ought to be aware of that. The people of Texas ought to be electing politicians that are going to be working to help their state, not hurt their state.”

Editor’s Note: I might also add that the gap in space flights that Hutchison decries is a result of the Constellation program being massively behind schedule and over budget. Particular blame for this lies in the Ares rocket program. There are a number of reasons for this (some outside of NASA’s control), but these are facts nonetheless. And as John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things.”

Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby (R)


Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, whose state of Alabama is also a NASA stronghold, further decried the launch as a display merely replicating what “NASA accomplished in 1964.”

“Belated progress for one so-called commercial provider must not be confused with progress for our nation’s human space flight program,” Shelby said. “As a nation, we cannot place our future space flight on one fledgling company’s definition of success.”

Editor’s Note: It might be impolite to state this, but SpaceX has accomplished something that NASA has not done with the Ares I, which if the designated space shuttle program. The “program of record,” which has been under development for five years, made a brief flight with a dummy upper stage that didn’t get anywhere near orbit. The vehicle wasn’t even the same type of Ares I rocket that will fly into space.

The proposed policy doesn’t rely entirely upon Falcon 9 to sustain America’s human spaceflight program. NASA wants multiple launch systems to send humans into space. It’s highly likely they will choose the Atlas V or Delta IV from ULA as one of its choices. These rockets have long heritages (the Delta family celebrated its 50th anniversary last week). They are built by a company (ULA) that is a joint venture of two aerospace giants (Lockheed Martin and Boeing) with deep experience in space. And ULA has one of its main facilities in Alabama.

  • Matt Collister

    Is it just me, or does it seem like Elon Musk has everything to win by playing the nice guy, rather than trying to butt heads with the likes of these politicians and even Neil Armstrong? Instead, say he respectfully disagrees with them. That SpaceX wouldn’t be where it is today if it weren’t for NASA technology and know-how. Maybe offer to host them on a tour of pad 40 or the factory in California (and say it would be an honor to do so), etc.

  • Hi Matt:

    Actually, I think Musk has been doing that, by and large. He’s certainly acknowledged NASA’s role in funding SpaceX through COTS. They’re not only funding development but providing a market for ISS cargo. Musk praised NASA and the Air Force for their support on the flight yesterday.

    I don’t find his comments about his Texas operations to be that aggressive. More of a statement of facts on the ground. SpaceX isn’t the only NewSpace company in Texas. Blue Origin and Armadillo have operations there. So does United Launch Alliance. All could benefit from NASA’s new direction.

    Musk also has pointed out repeatedly that NASA will likely pick ULA as one of its providers for commercial crew and that the decision would benefit Alabama and Texas, among other states. His statements on this point have been a lot clearer than most of NASA’s comments. Bolden just can’t see to get that message across, or his audience just doesn’t want to hear it. Probably both.

  • reader

    But, someone actually needs to call the politicians on the hypocrisy, in the open. Musk sort of has done that.

  • Matt Collister

    Well, maybe its just the coverage I’m catching. He made some comments on Miles O’Brien’s TWIS videocast last week that made me cringe a bit.

  • Nickolai_the_Russian_Guy

    Yea I felt strange as well about his comments. He played to the public perceptions that someone with a graduate degree from a prestigious university (ala Buzz with a PhD from MIT) is somehow “smarter” or knows what they’re doing better than someone with a normal degree.

    I’m working towards getting the same degree Neil got (Aeronautical & Astronautical ENGR from Purdue), and I support the new plan….

  • Yeah, I didn’t like that interview, either. Musk is not a humble man.

  • I do not understand how congressmen and women find the reasons to have almost vitriol hatred for commercial space companies. What does it stem from? They spew hatred for commercial companies like they robbed their houses.

    I cannot believe comments like:

    “Belated progress for one so-called commercial provider must not be confused with progress for our nation’s human space flight program,”

    What is that?? COMMERCIAL COMPANIES ARE OUR NATIONS PROGRAM, Just like NASA. It is extremely ignorant to say that an American company, doing amazing work in invigorating future space exploration in their own unique way, cannot benefit the nation it was born from at all.