House Republicans Still Seeking Answers on Constellation

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Committee on Jan. 23 promised continued scrutiny of NASA’s human spaceflight plans, including a further review of the costs associated with President Barack Obama’s cancellation of his predecessor’s Moon-bound Constellation program.

“The Committee will continue to provide oversight of NASA’s human spaceflight program as it undergoes a period of uncertainty and transition following various Administration proposals,” the committee wrote in its oversight plan for the next two years.

“Within the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee’s jurisdiction, activities warranting further review include costs associated with cancellation of the Constellation program, NASA’s approach to develop and fund a successor to the Space Shuttle, and investment in NASA launch infrastructure,” the oversight plan continues. “NASA has not clearly articulated what types of future human space flight missions it wishes to pursue, or their rationale.”

NASA’s current plan for human spaceflight is to outsource transportation of astronauts to the international space station to private companies, while developing a new capsule and heavy-lift rocket for deep-space missions.

An Obama administration official chided committee Republicans for wanting to rehash the president’s 2010 decision to scrap development of separate NASA-owned crew and cargo rockets and shelve plans for building an outpost on the surface of the Moon. “Even with inheriting an untenable space policy, we quickly learned it is often more productive to focus our efforts on the future rather than the past,” the official said.

The oversight plan was released here Jan. 23 during the House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s organizational meeting.

The full committee is now chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who replaced Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) earlier this month. Hall had to step down because of House GOP term limits.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a budget hawk who has voiced loud support for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, is now vice chairman of the full committee. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) remains the committee’s ranking member. Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.) continues as chairman of the space subcommittee. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) is the new ranking Democrat.

Of the 39 full committee members in the new Congress, 20 are new additions and 19 have served on the committee before, Smith said during the brief organizational meeting. There are nine new Republican members and 11 new Democrats.

Congressional redistricting completed after the 2010 census resulted in new representatives for some key space districts after U.S. elections in November. Two such representatives who have joined the House Science, Space and Technology Committee as a result are:

  • Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas), whose newly minted 36th District includes NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston. Stockman, elected in November, last served in Congress in the late 1990s, representing Texas’ 9th District. In the previous Congress, the Johnson Space Center was represented by Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas).
  • Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.), whose 8th District includes the Kennedy Space Center. Posey was elected to a third term in November.

No hearings of the new House Science, Space and Technology Committee have been announced, but Smith said committee members will meet Feb. 5 for a “bi-partisan retreat” in the Rayburn House Office Building. The meeting will be closed. Regular members-only committee meetings, meanwhile, are scheduled for the first Thursday of each month, according to the new committee rules adopted Jan. 23.

By Smith’s tally, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee is responsible for agency budgets totaling about $39 billion dollars, most of which is devoted to research and development. NASA alone had a 2012 budget of $17.8 billion.

Meanwhile, there has been at least one notable development among committee staff. Christopher Shank, a top aide to former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, has been named the House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s  policy director. Shank, a former House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee staffer, left NASA in 2009 and returned to Capitol Hill in 2011 as Smith’s deputy chief of staff.

Shortly after the new House Science Committee adjourned its organizational meeting, the recently formed House Science and National Laboratory Caucus, a bipartisan group spearheaded by Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) and which includes NASA’s top Democratic House appropriator, Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), hosted congressional staff and media for a presentation by astrophysicist and speaker Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson, a staunch NASA advocate who in 2012 started a grassroots petition to double NASA’s $17.8 billion budget, told SpaceNews after his speech that despite his high esteem for NASA, he was not interested in running the agency.

“Then you work for the president,” Tyson said. “As long as we are citizenry with a voice, then the president works for us.”

Tyson was, however, supportive of  Obama’s plan to outsource astronaut transportation to the international space station to private firms.

Responding to an audience question about the viability of private enterprise in space, Tyson said that “NASA knows how to get to low Earth orbit. It is not a space frontier. Save NASA for frontier work, and by all means, farm out the routine parts of what you need to do. It should have happened long ago.”

“But,” Tyson added, “private enterprise will never lead a space frontier.”