Irony-Free Legislators Target Space Settlement, NASA Reorg

Rep. Dan Rohrabacher
Rep. Dan Rohrabacher

The hard working but chronically underachieving members of Congress have been back at it. And that means all sorts of legislation ranging from good to bad to what the frak? Some of it relates to space.

Settlement Act

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) is preparing to introduce the Space Exploration, Development and Settlement Act that would enshrine permanent human settlement as part of the National Aeronautics and Space Act, the legislation that created NASA and includes its goals and objectives.

The measure is being spearheaded by the Alliance for Space Development (ASD), a coalition of 11 space organizations that launched earlier this year. ASD has been trying to line up Congressional support for the legislation.

This move falls into the Why Not? category. It might help to focus NASA, it might not. It really depends upon external circumstances, i.e., what a particular Administration wants to do in space, whether Congress can look beyond how much money is coming into individual states and districts, and what the nation’s short- and long-term finances look like.

The move to amend NASA’s founding legislation involves some ironies to which most in Congress are probably blind. (Congress generally doesn’t do irony.) During his recent treks to Capitol Hill, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was at great pains trying to explain to Congressional overseers precisely what his agency actually does.

The main point of contention involves NASA’s Earth Science budget. A number of Republican elected officials thought that NASA shouldn’t be doing this type of work, or at least shouldn’t be spending as much money on it. Or that the work should be transferred to some other government department — any other government department.

Bolden, who remains far more patient with Congress than he really should be after nearly six years on the job, politely but firmly pointed out that this responsibility was written into NASA’s 1958 founding legislation  – the very measure that Rohrabacher is trying to amend. In fact, it’s the first responsibility mentioned in the legislation.

Members of Congress also seemed confused about what the NASA Earth Science budget actually funds. Rohrabacher and others consistently and erroneously referred to it as the space agency’s global change research, which the majority of his GOP brethren appear to believe is a giant conspiracy headed by Al Gore.

Global warming research is certainly part of the Earth Science budget, but spending is broader than that. How Congressmen like Rohrabacher can spend year after year overseeing NASA without a basic understanding of that is rather mystifying.

Congress’s Space Leadership Preservation [and Power Grab] Act

John_Culberson
John Culberson

Meanwhile, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) has once again introduced his Space Leadership Preservation Act (H.R. 2093), which seeks to “depoliticize” the space agency by creating a board of directors that would be appointed by Congress. The directors would create a pool of candidates from which the President would appoint an administrator for a 10-year term. It also would largely cut the White House out of NASA’s budget formulation.

“Too many NASA programs have been cancelled due to cost-overruns, mismanagement or abrupt program changes at the start of each new Administration,” Culberson argued in a press release. “In the last 20 years, NASA has spent more than $20 billion on cancelled programs and our astronauts now rely on the Russians to get to the International Space Station.

“It is unacceptable to allow our space program to atrophy because of lack of vision and the changing political winds from year to year,” added Culberson, who chairs the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee which overseas funding for NASA.  “We must depoliticize NASA, and let the agency refocus on its core mission of exploration. Science should drive the mission – not politics.”

The idea of depoliticizing NASA by giving that sort of appointment power to what is arguably the most politicized and dysfunctional legislature in the country seems rather absurd on its face. It’s difficult to conceive that any president of any political party would hand over that much power over NASA to Congress. All this probably explains why the legislation has gone nowhere since Culberson introduced it in 2012.

In the “we don’t do irony” category, the space leadership act also “requires NASA to follow the priorities outlined in the Decadal Surveys, which represent consensus among the nation’s brightest scientific minds regarding exploration goals for the next 10 years.”

The irony is that Bolden and the Obama Administration did exactly that with the Earth Science budget. Funding had been held low by the Bush Administration, which was run by a pair of former Texas oil men. NASA has responded appropriately to a decadal survey that indicated Earth Science needs more funding.

Instead of being praised for following the advice of “the nation’s brightest scientific minds,” Bolden has gotten nothing but grief about it over the past month. In fact, the House spending measure just doesn’t deny NASA an increase in the Earth Science budget; it slashes the request by $500 million.

So, the question is: what is the actual value of requiring NASA to follow decadal surveys — or putting space settlement into its governing legislation — if Congress is going to ignore these provisions every time it’s convenient?

The only potentially useful element of the measure is that it “gives NASA multi-year procurement authority to build rockets and spacecraft the same way the U.S. Navy builds aircraft carriers and submarines.”

If Congress thinks that’s a good idea, why not just give NASA the power to do it? Why would you need the rest of the measure?