The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews
 

 
US Capitol
Members of Congress and their staffs appreciate details and specific requests far more than general pleas for support of NASA. (credit: J. Foust)

Blitzing Capitol Hill

The Space Exploration Alliance (SEA) held its third Capitol Hill Blitz last month during what is undoubtedly one of the most pivotal times in the history of the American space program. After the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 expressed support for the Vision for Space Exploration and officially endorsed funding levels appropriate to meet the challenge of transitioning from the Shuttle to the next generation of exploration vehicles, Congress has consistently under-funded NASA, and President Bush’s budget proposals have provided little in the way of support: this year’s budget, for example, is over $1 billion shy of the amount authorized in 2005. As a result, NASA has been left in the vulnerable position of having no replacement for the Shuttle ready at its retirement in 2010, and little chance of being able to point to concrete results in its quest to return to the Moon and go on to Mars when the next president formulates their official space policy. This position makes NASA and human spaceflight an easy target for cuts in this time of skyrocketing federal deficits. If NASA and its budget—which represents roughly one half of one percent of all federal spending, and little more than 10 percent of the recent hastily-passed economic stimulus package—are to survive the next administration, Congressional support will be critical.

Many offices repeated the refrain that they were generally supportive of NASA funding, but when looking at the realities of this year’s budget environment, they simply had no choice but to throw their support to areas besides space exploration.

This year’s Blitz included a diverse group of participants, hailing from across the country and including lawyers, engineers, a historian, and even a junior high student attending with her father. These participants met with a total of 123 members of the House and the Senate. This number, which represents roughly 23 percent of Congress, is a stunningly large amount for an all-volunteer group to meet with over two days, and is a testament to the hard work of the National Space Society’s Rick Zucker and the Mars Society’s Chris Carberry, who did the lion’s share of this year’s scheduling.

The results of these meetings were predictably mixed. Some offices continued to show the strong support they have given NASA over the years; others continued to emphasize other priorities, such as food stamps and Medicaid, over full funding for the NASA budget. The vast majority of the offices visited, however, were somewhere in between these two extremes. For those offices without an obvious bias for or against NASA, the proverbial devil was in the details. Many offices repeated the refrain that they were generally supportive of NASA funding, but when looking at the realities of this year’s budget environment, they simply had no choice but to throw their support to areas besides space exploration.

More interestingly for space exploration advocates was the way that these offices responded to specific details in the SEA talking points. When discussing general issues, such as the need to ensure that NASA is fully funded, staffers tended to show a head-nodding, eye-glazing lack of interest. Discussion of concrete realities such as the fact that NASA is facing a five-year post-Shuttle period where it will be reliant upon the Russians to send humans into space, or that for just $178 million, the Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems (COTS) program is sparking a multi-billion dollar private space industry in the United States, led to vibrant discussion with both staffers and members of Congress.

These discussions presented an important opportunity for us “Blitzers.” Many offices were either unaware of the COTS and Centennial Challenges programs (the latter of which follows the X Prize model and sponsors prizes for specific space-related achievements), or had only heard of them in passing. After hearing about these programs in detail, many offices expressed strong support for them. Several offices were caught by surprise at the size and scope of NASA’s plans to rely on the Russian Soyuz after the Space Shuttle is retired in 2010 until the Constellation program brings a replacement vehicle online in 2015, and many of them expressed a newfound interest in reducing that reliance on the Soyuz as much as possible. Dozens of offices requested follow-up on issues such as these and the National Security Space Office’s October 2007 preliminary study re-examining the economic and technical feasibility of space-based solar power, which was met with a particularly enthusiastic response given its clear tie-in to American energy independence, one of this year’s most important election issues.

Whenever possible, space advocates should make their pitches in support of NASA or other space exploration activity very targeted and explicit.

The fact that Congressional offices reacted most positively to detailed discussion of the issues should come as no surprise. While most Americans see Congress as an entity more concerned with making broadly appealing speeches of little substance than doing the actual job of running government, at the end of the day, the members and their staffers must work closely with these details in order to craft legislation, compile budgets, and find ways to steer tax dollars back to their home districts. A given Congressional office typically knows their district inside and out, but is often not as knowledgeable on the intricate details of larger national programs. By providing a Congressional office with specific information about the cost or the results of a given program, space advocates—whether or not they travel to Washington—make that office’s job that much easier by easing their research load and providing them with good talking points for use in support of NASA during debate.

The lesson to be learned from this is simple: whenever possible, space advocates should make their pitches in support of NASA or other space exploration activity very targeted and explicit. A letter or a call to an office that simply states general support for space is certainly preferable to no contact at all, but if an individual or a group can call for funding for a specific aspect of space exploration, or come out in support of or opposition to a specific bill, their impact will be magnified substantially.


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