The tenure of Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) as chairman of the House Science Committee has been one of solid and objective oversight of the U.S. civil space program, and his departure this December will be a loss, even though his support for NASA is far from unconditional.
Rep. Boehlert’s March 17 announcement that he will not seek re-election this year comes as no shock: He’s in his 12th term, after all, and in any event was running up against his six-year term limit as Science Committee chairman. But for space scientists increasingly worried about getting suffocated by human spaceflight, the retirement of a senior Republican lawmaker who has long supported their cause might be viewed as heaping insult on top of injury.
Rep. Boehlert has distinguished himself over the years as a strong advocate for scientific research, an activity that is easy to overlook with so much attention focused on the war in Iraq and partisanship in Washington. He is perhaps best known in national political circles for being a moderate, and the qualities that earned him that label — a preference to judge issues and programs based on merit, and a willingness to seek out the middle ground — have guided his oversight of NASA. He has proven more effective than most at getting meaningful and positive space-related legislation passed.
NASA has had more-ardent supporters on Capitol Hill, but no one can reasonably question Rep. Boehlert’s credibility or agenda. With no NASA centers or major contractors in his central New York district, he seems genuinely more interested in what the American public at large gets for its investment in civil space activity than where that money is spent.
And while interested mainly in basic science, engineering and technology research, Rep. Boehlert has never backed away from his NASA oversight responsibility, whether it be in advocating caution in returning the space shuttle to flight, or balance between the human spaceflight program on the one hand and science and aeronautics activities on the other.
On the latter subject Rep. Boehlert has been particularly vocal of late, and with good reason. NASA’s science activities have come under tremendous budgetary pressure as the agency labors to get the space shuttle up and flying again while starting development of a shuttle replacement and other systems needed to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020. Space science is slated for just a 1.5-percent spending increase in 2007, and several projects — including healthy ones — are facing cancellation.
Rep. Boehlert has made clear he will press hard to maintain the integrity of NASA’s science program during his remaining time in office.
Among the most important achievements already under his belt is the passage late last year of the NASA Authorization Act of 2005, Congress’ first official authorization of U.S. President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration. Rep. Boehlert initially was skeptical, but eventually came to recognize the vision as the only logical and realistic course for NASA’s human spaceflight program — provided it does not squeeze out everything else the space agency does.
Winning over Rep. Boehlert — someone disinclined to rubber-stamp initiatives out of party loyalty or parochial interest — has given the president’s vision a degree of credibility that it otherwise might not have. The fact that the authorization legislation was able to pass despite serious differences between the House and the Senate over some of its provisions is due at least in part to Rep. Boehlert’s legislative skills.
The same can be said of the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, informally known as the suborbital space tourism bill, which was co-sponsored by Rep. Boehlert and passed despite what appeared to be insurmountable hurdles.
Rep. Boehlert also deserves note as a lonely voice of Republican outrage following revelations that political appointees in NASA’s public affairs office had tried to muzzle an agency scientist whose views on global warming did not mesh with those of the White House. As the congressman so eloquently put it in a sharply worded letter to NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, “Political figures ought to be reviewing their public statements to make sure they are consistent with the best available science; scientists should not be reviewing their statements to make sure they are consistent with the current political orthodoxy.”
That statement accurately sums up where Rep. Boehlert stands when it comes to issues of politics and science. It also helps to illustrate why he has been so well suited to the NASA oversight role, and why the agency is better off for it.