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Space policy has been a topic of relatively limited interest in Congress outside of those from states and districts with NASA centers, something that needs to change. (credit: J. Foust)

All space politics is local


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“All politics is local,” said former US House of Representatives Speaker Tip O’Neill. But it seems that space politics is becoming excessively so. The lineup of congressional leadership in space illustrates that well. The new chair for the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics is a freshman congressman from Mississippi, Steven Palazzo. Obviously this was not a highly sought job for Republicans positioning themselves for 2012 leadership. The dominant consideration seems to have been to give it to somebody with a local interest—in this case, NASA’s Stennis Space Center. The first sentence of his announcement to the position read begins, “Representing the home of NASA’s largest rocket engine testing facility in the country…”

Other major issues are considered national issues. But when I go to speak to someone in Congress about space issues, I am most frequently told that I should find someone with a local interest who wants to champion that issue.

On the Senate side the leaders on the committees concerned with space issues are Bill Nelson (D-FL), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX). They have dominated the debate about the future of human space flight and it is their local interest views that led to the extraordinary over-specification of rocket design in legislation last year. Very little attention was paid to the goals and objectives of human space flight, let alone what the requirements might be to meet them. Very little was said about mission requirements in the discussion about using the Atlas, Delta, and Falcon for human access to low Earth orbit and developing a deep-space rocket that actually goes to deep space. Instead, attention was focused on how such projects might clash with or protect the status quo of existing contracts.

Congress ended the deep-space rocket debate last year by mandating a specific design for a so-called heavy-lift rocket that (i) could not go to deep space, (ii) would extend the gap in US access to the space station, and (iii) had no mission specification for its requirements. But it did satisfy the legislators from Alabama, Florida, Texas, and Utah by specifying a design that preserved their constituents’ vested interests.

The rub is that the rest of Congress does not seem interested. They have left the decision to representatives with local interests. Other major issues—health care, social security, education, immigration, national security, environment, energy, human rights, and agriculture—are considered national issues. But when I go to speak to someone in Congress about space issues, I am most frequently told that I should find someone with a local interest who wants to champion that issue.

I don’t bring this up to wring my hands or naively say that I wish the world was different. It’s my view that this dominance of local thinking is finally turning counter-productive to space interests. It is beneficial to have local interests advocate for space when the economy’s rising tide was lifting all boats. The bigger space budget is great. But when that tide is ebbing and choices need to be made, having those choices depend on local contract protection will almost certainly not be in the national interest or even the narrower interests of the space science and technology communities. That occurred a few years ago when the NASA budgets for science and technology were cut to try to fund Constellation. It turned out that both human spaceflight and science programs suffered.

It doesn’t take much political acumen to predict that NASA’s budget will be constrained and likely cut. Cuts lead to choices, and we need to ask now on what basis those choices will be made. The debate in the space community, in my view, has to move both up a notch and out a notch, to higher and broader public interest. Certainly we will not want to stop support from local interests, but we need popular support that extends to Congressional representatives who do not represent local space interests, and to opinion leaders in all parts of society. That actually shouldn’t be hard because space exploration still stands as one of most important symbols in the world for inspiring greatness and achievement.

The debate in the space community, in my view, has to move both up a notch and out a notch, to higher and broader public interest.

Its symbolism was evident in the president’s recent State of the Union address. President Obama harkened back to Apollo and Sputnik in making the case for “investments in biomedicine, information technology, and clean-energy technology.” True, he didn’t advocate space spending: it will be up to us to make the case that the Apollo and Sputnik analogies were not just products of a past-time, but derived from the intrinsic value of space exploration. Its breadth, inspiration, science and technology, and its far-reaching international attraction serve US national interests. Such national and international interests can serve as a political plus for congressional representatives without local space interests to advocate, just as they serve the president and his administration in advancing US interests with other countries.

The congressional wrangle on budgets and policy is tying NASA up in knots. My Gordian solution is to make a sword of the truly broad popular themes of achievement, adventure, scientific discovery, and exploration of the unknown and use it to cut through the special interests to reveal the true value of America’s space program.


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