WASHINGTON — With the Republican Party winning control of the U.S. Senate in the Nov. 4 elections, the new leadership of key committees may take a different approach to some key military space issues, although NASA is less likely to see a significant shift there.

Because Republicans won a majority in the Senate, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is widely expected to assume the chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee come January. McCain has been a powerful and persistent advocate of competition in the national security launch market. He also has been a vocal critic of government launch services provider United Launch Alliance of Denver the past two years.

In April, McCain asked the Defense Department’s inspector general to investigate an Air Force decision to reduce the number of competitively awarded contracts in its main satellite-launching program. In June, he asked the Pentagon’s acquisition czar whether the Defense Department is overpaying for the Atlas 5’s RD-180 engine

Additionally, McCain was the author of language in the Senate’s defense authorization bill that would ultimately ban the use of Russian engines, including the RD-180.

On the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) is in line to take over chairmanship from Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who spent much time and effort working on national security launch issues as well as questioning the Missile Defense Agency.

Durbin held a memorable hearing in March when he invited then-ULA Chief Executive Michael Gass and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Chief Executive Elon Musk to answer questions from the committee and, oddly, from each other. He has been a strong advocate of increased competition for national security launch missions.

Durbin also has been tough on Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, the director of the Missile Defense Agency, during Senate hearings. During the summer, Durbin implied that MDA tests were conditioned for success.

Besides losing control of the Senate, the Democrats also lost one of their key senators on military space issues, Mark Udall of Colorado, who lost to Rep. Cory Gardner. Udall was widely viewed as a key supporter of the space industry, particularly in Colorado. While many believe Gardner also will become an avid supporter of space businesses, industry sources say it will take time for him to develop the same seniority Udall had obtained on oversight committees, including the intelligence committee that oversees the National Reconnaissance Office, which launches the nation’s spy satellites. 

Gardner’s election also means SpaceX has an additional foe in the Senate. Gardner, who is not assigned to any House defense committees, signed a letter in July, along with Reps. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) and Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), asking NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to provide information on what they characterized as an “epidemic of anomalies” on missions performed SpaceX.

Changes to civil space policy are likely to be less significant despite the change in control, as NASA typically has seen more bipartisan support. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the current chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is expected to stay on as ranking member. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the current ranking member, may instead seek the chairmanship of the Senate Banking Committee. If so, Cochran is likely to chair the full committee, although Shelby may retain the chairmanship of the commerce, justice, science subcommittee, which funds NASA.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, which authorizes NASA, is in line to chair the committee. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who chairs the committee’s space and science subcommittee, will succeed retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) as the committee’s top Democrat.

There are few changes in store in the House of Representatives, where Republicans added to their existing majority. The biggest is the retirement of Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Barring an upset, McKeon is expected to be replaced by Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), who will lead a broad-based acquisition reform effort, sources said. For the military space community, that effort is expected to be led by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, with an assist from Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), who has shown an interest in space issues.

Also up for grabs is the chairmanship of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, which funds NASA, as current chairman Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) is retiring. Reps. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), the subcommittee’s current vice chairman, and John Culberson (R-Texas) are the leading candidates to succeed Wolf.


Twitter: @Gruss_SN, @jeff_foust

Email: mgruss@spacenews.com, jfoust@spacenews.com

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...