Nelson Lays Down the Law to NASA at Senate Hearing

Florida Senator Bill Nelson

The Orlando Sentinel reports on a tense hearing today on Capitol Hill today:

Tensions between U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and the White House openly erupted Wednesday when the Florida Democrat used a packed Senate hearing to accuse the administration of dragging its feet on a new NASA law that Nelson had a hand in crafting.

Nelson said the Senate had received word that NASA and “other parts of the administration” were working to undermine the law — which aims to replace the retiring space shuttle with a new “heavy lift” rocket and crew capsule — and instead enact Obama’s earlier plans, which would focus more on technology development. However, he offered no definitive examples or proof.

Still, his insistent questioning of John Holdren, who is Obama’s science adviser, finally prompted an exasperated Holdren to declare, “We are going to follow the law. I can’t emphasize that enough.”

“We found too many times, in the attempts of building consensus, there was too much evidence that the administration was not helping,” [Nelson] said. And he said a key reason that he called Wednesday’s hearing was to warn the administration not to deviate from the new law.

It’s not entirely clear what’s going on here. Part of it is probably related to Nelson and other Democrats being angry at the White House over their losses in the mid-term elections.

The more fundamental problem, I’m guessing, involves the heavy-lift vehicle that Congress wants NASA to build with remnants of the Constellation program. The space agency is casting a wider net than that — something that has displeased the Utah delegation and others who are backing ATK’s solid rockets for the HLV. And since Nelson brokered that deal, the senator is displeased because it’s making him look bad.

Precisely how much the law binds NASA to using Constellation hardware is really the crux the issue of how NASA moves forward. My sense is that NASA’s leadership sees a Constellation-derived HLV as being too expensive to build and operate, a program to keep employment high in certain states but will handicap the space agency with high costs in the long run. Without a specific mission or payloads to fly, it also probably seems premature at this point.

I can understand Nelson’s frustration here, but it’s also ironic that Nelson and others were sitting around complaining about NASA dragging its feet when the space agency doesn’t even have a budget yet. The whole agency will be limbo until the appropriations bill is passed. It would be nice if Congress got on the ball and passed a spending bill that would allow NASA to actually move forward.

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