WASHINGTON — Space policy is not a major factor in the Nov. 4 midterm congressional elections, but the outcomes of a number of key races could alter control of the U.S. Senate and the leadership of key committees that deal with space issues.
Republicans, who are currently in the majority in the House of Representatives, are seeking to pick up several seats in Senate elections. A gain of at least six seats would give the Republican Party a majority in the Senate as well.
One race that may determine which party controls the Senate is in Colorado. Sen. Mark Udall, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Forces strategic forces subcommittee, is running for re-election against Republican Rep. Cory Gardner. Recent polls give Gardner a slim lead, although typically within the polls’ margin of error.
Should Republicans take control of the Senate, it would change the leadership of key committees. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) would be in line to take over the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain, in recent months, has been critical of United Launch Alliance and the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle block-buy contract it won from the U.S. Air Force.
Changes would be less obvious in the Senate Appropriations Committee, where Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) would take over from Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) Shelby and Mikulski have worked closely together on NASA issues when drafting appropriations bills that fund the agency, and a change in leadership would not necessarily result in major policy or funding shifts for NASA.
Sorting out the Senate Could Take Weeks
Whether Republicans take control of the Senate may not be known for weeks, though, depending on the outcome of some elections. Races in both Georgia and Louisiana with multiple candidates may mean no single candidate wins a majority of the votes, requiring runoff elections.
In Louisiana, where Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu is facing two Republicans, a runoff between the top two finishers would take place Dec. 6. In Georgia, where Democratic, Republican, and Libertarian candidates are running for the seat held by retiring Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a runoff between the top two finishers would not take place until Jan. 6, three days after the new Congress is sworn in.
Besides Udall, few other members of Congress who play key roles in space policy topics are facing serious challenges. Two members of the House Science Committee that represent districts with NASA centers are expected to win re-election despite challengers that have made space policy an issue.
Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.), whose district includes NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, is running against Democrat Gabriel Rothblatt. In campaign materials, Rothblatt expressed his support for entrepreneurial ventures, and advocated for full funding for NASA’s commercial crew program as well as the Experimental Spaceplane 1 (XS-1) program by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), whose district includes NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, is facing an independent candidate, Mark Bray, an engineer working on NASA’s Space Launch System program. In an Oct. 27 interview on “The Space Show” Internet radio show, Bray said that, among other issues, he disagreed with Brooks’ perceived “antagonistic” opinions of commercial space ventures.
Neither Brooks nor Posey appear to be in danger of losing their seats. The Rothenberg Political Report, which tracks all congressional races, rates both seats as “Safe Republican” for this election.
Obama “Optimistic” about Space Program
Although space policy has not been a major issue in midterm elections, it did come up Nov. 3 in the daily White House press conference. At the end of the hour-long briefing, a reporter asked White House press secretary Josh Earnest if the recent failures of Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares rocket and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo spaceplane, coupled with the current state of relations with Russia, meant “the administration was reconsidering its funding of NASA.”
Earnest provided an overview of the administration’s space policy, noting the U.S. and Russia were still cooperating in space despite strained relations on Earth. “Despite some of the more recent setbacks, in some cases tragic setbacks, the president continues to be optimistic about the future of the U.S. space program,” Earnest said.
Midterm Elections Could Shape the U.S. Launch Debate