WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), a former Lockheed Martin  contractor who worked at the Goddard Space Flight Center long before she represented some of its employees in Congress, has emerged in recent weeks as a prominent voice on NASA policy matters. 

The NASA contractor-turned-lawyer won her House seat in a 2008 special election following the resignation of 15-year incumbent she trounced in the Democratic primary earlier that year. She immediately joined the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and this past January became the space subcommittee’s ranking Democrat.

On July 23, Edwards will take the podium at the monthly Maryland Space Business Roundtable fresh from two eyebrow-arching NASA policy speeches.

The first was delivered July 8 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies where she laid out a “21st century space innovation agenda” big on science and technology investment. While she took her Republican colleagues to task for advancing an authorization bill that would cut NASA’s budget and limit funding for Earth science and technology development –two Obama administration priorities important to her Goddard constituents —  she also voice skepticism about the asteroid retrieval mission at the center of NASA’s 2014 budget proposal. House Republicans want to ban the mission and restore the Bush administration’s Mars-by-way-of-the-Moon human spaceflight agenda.

The second speech was delivered July 19 toward the end of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s markup of a largely Republican-authored NASA authorization bill that cleared the committee without aid of a single Democrat’s vote. Edwards spiced up the otherwise rote proceedings with an amendment that would have looked at closing the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Although Edwards insisted that she was not advocating for closing NASA centers, she said lawmakers had a duty to at least consider such a step as long as Republicans insisted on sequester-level funding. 

Ultimately, Edwards withdrew the proposal and the committee subsequently approved that bill with a party-line vote— but not before she took six minutes to make her case for center consolidation.

A SpaceNews transcript of her remarks follows.

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) introduces — and withdraws –an amendment to establish a Center Realignment and Closure Commission that would be given six months to evaluate “[c]onsolidating all rocket development and test activities of the Marshall Space Flight Center and Stennis Space Center in one location” and recommend a location promising the greatest cost savings. 

 “I’m introducing this amendment actually quite reluctantly. I have, as you know, worked on, and we have as Democrat members worked on, a substitute amendment that fully recognizes the multimission function of NASA, and what it takes to move it into the 21st century. We have put in funding levels to meet that function as is our responsibility as authorizers. 

“And yet here we are today with an underlying bill that does great damage to the nation’s space program. We will no longer be international leaders with the program that has been proposed by the majority. 

“And so I introduce this amendment reluctantly, because I don’t think that the committee has really taken seriously the dire budget realities faced by NASA as a result of sequestration funding levels that then are codified in this bill. And I want to make clear from the outset that while the amendment takes a look at a really difficult choice, it by no means is a declaration of support for such a consolidation. 

“In fact, I think, Mr. Chairman, as you know, if I had my way, if we had our way as Democrats working together, we would have robust funding proposed for a unique and new and visionary policy direction for the agency that would not have to result in the kind of consolidation proposed in this amendment. 

 “An independent center on realignment and closure commission would be tasked with studying the cost-savings to government, as well as the job impacts of closing and consolidating operations at certain NASA facilities.

“It would help this committee determine how best to allocate NASA’s limited resources. And I think if the majority is willing to make such deep cuts, the majority should also be willing to make the tough choices that those harsh budget cuts can result in, in looking at the centers and making sure that the agency has the resources to meet its responsibilities. 

“In light of the funding levels that have been proposed in the underlying bill, we have to consider those options. Sadly, we have to consider those options. We have to consider what the impact is to the workforce, and what it is to the work. And there might be duplicative missions at NASA centers, and we ought to know this.  

“And this amendment first asks the commission to look at the Marshall Space Flight Center and the Stennis Flight Center [sic] to determine if their rocket related activities should be combined at one location rather than split between the two. As both centers focus on rocketry, there could be benefits in co-locating scientists and engineers from both facilities. I don’t know the answers to those questions. By tasking the commission to look at job impacts such an action may have, it will help this committee have a better sense of the total effects of such an action, especially in this funding environment where the majority has decided to strip away a billion dollars from the president’s request.

“The amendment also asks the commission to look at the benefit and costs of consolidating functions at Marshall Space Center and the Stennis and Johnson Space Centers, two other major human space flight and rocketry centers. Already as has been indicated and present in the underlying bill, $600 million-plus has already been stripped out of the Goddard Space Flight Center, and so you don’t need to rip that apart anymore. 

“The amendment tasks the commission with determining the job impacts in both the private and public sectors resulting from such an action. It might be that the negative impacts to employment felt in one community will be offset by gains in another community. I don’t know. I guess we’ll just have to see.

“We don’t have any ability within the purview of the committee to look at other areas of the federal budget for savings. Only in this one. 

“And so to reiterate, I’m not advocating that any of these steps be taken. Marshall and its work force have provided great value to our nation. But rather [than] hampering NASA’s future over misgivings about social programs that this committee has no jurisdiction over, I think we have an obligation to examine all of the options and to put them on the table. But not studying these options, I think, would be a dereliction of our duties to be fiscally responsible with taxpayer dollars. 

“I look forward to continued debate. 

“Although I will say that in consideration of my colleagues, I would choose perhaps to withdraw the amendment, and I would do that because I believe in the multi-mission function of NASA in all of its centers and all of its agencies. I believe in the science mission of this nation, I believe in the space mission of this nation as a leader internationally. I just don’t think it can be accomplished with the budget that’s been outlined by the majority. 

“And so I wanted to say to you, Mr. Chairman, that yesterday you approached me about possibly withdrawing these amendments, and you said that they seemed deeply personal to two members of this committee. But you know what? It’s not personal. Because what is deeply personal is $600 million in cuts to the Goddard Space Flight Center where I live. That is deeply personal. 

“But we should be talking about the direction of this agency and talking about investing in the future, and doing that in a bipartisan way and trying to strike the kind of bipartisan approach that already has been taken by Sen. Shelby, by Sen. Nelson, and by my … Senator, Barbara Mikulski, on the Senate side. They represent the same interest that we do here on this committee, and yet they have managed to come up with an agreement that strikes the right balance among the centers, but also takes seriously the responsibility of asking NASA not to do more with less. Not to put a laundry list of things that it’s required to do and not provide the funding levels that will allow them to meet the responsibilities. 

 “With that, I will withdraw my amendment.”

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...