WASHINGTON — The new chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee offered few surprises in his first hearing Feb. 24, calling for NASA to refocus on human space exploration but expressing his support for one of the current administration’s major space policy priorities, commercial crew transportation.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who became chairman of the space subcommittee after Republicans won control of the Senate in the 2014 elections, discussed both government and commercial spaceflight in the subcommittee’s first hearing of the new Congress.
“As chairman, my first priority for the space component of the subcommittee will be working to help refocus NASA’s energies on its core priorities of exploring space,” Cruz said in his opening remarks. “We need to get back to the hard sciences, to manned space exploration.”
Cruz, however, did not criticize the Obama administration’s current space policy in detail. Later in his opening statement, he expressed support for NASA’s work on commercial crew transportation, calling it “critical” to ending current dependence on Russia for accessing the International Space Station.
“I’m encouraged by the progress, both with regard to commercial cargo and commercial crew, but we need a continued focus on accomplishing the stated objectives with maximum efficiency and expedition,” he said.
The two-hour hearing was largely an exploratory one, with Cruz and other senators quizzing witnesses, including three former astronauts, on the current status and future direction of NASA’s space exploration plans, as well as the role of the private sector.
Some witnesses, including Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham, advocated for a human return to the moon before going to Mars. “I used to be one of those who was not wild about stopping at the moon in order to get to Mars,” he said, before concluding a lunar facility could have benefits. “I just think we need to get back on a program that’s going to have the moon as an intermediate step.”
Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin, through, was less enthusiastic about a return to the moon, arguing for only a modest role in any international lunar ventures. “We should participate in lunar development but avoid getting our human spaceflight budget captured by lunar gravity’s expensive consumption of funds,” he said.
“We need to go somewhere, and I think NASA has a plan to take us away from low Earth orbit,” said Michael Massimino, who flew on two shuttle missions before retiring from NASA in 2014. “Maybe we don’t know exactly where we should go, but we know we want to go somewhere.”
Cruz also devoted attention to the commercial space industry, discussing potential changes to commercial launch laws. “There’s more that can be done to create long-term predictability for the United States commercial space industry, so that launch activity will continue to grow,” he said.
“Regulatory uncertainty is a major barrier that the launch industry faces,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, in response to a question from Cruz. He recommended an extension of both the current indemnification regime for commercial launches and the “learning period” that restricts the ability of the Federal Aviation Administration to regulate the safety of people flying on commercial vehicles.
At the end of the hearing, Cruz said he planned to move ahead with an update of the Commercial Space Launch Act. “Regulatory reform is a component we’re going to look at,” he said.
The space community was strongly interested in the hearing given Cruz’s high political profile — he is widely considered a potential candidate for U.S. president in 2016 — and his past criticism of some NASA programs, particularly in the Earth sciences. Cruz did not directly address Earth sciences in his remarks.
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, did ask Massimino if he believed that NASA should be a “multimission agency” whose roles include “space-based observations of the Earth.” Massimino said that he did.
The hearing overall, though, had a bipartisan mood. After Cruz completed his opening remarks, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the full committee, endorsed them. “Blossoms are breaking all out over Washington because what you just said, you and I completely agree on,” Nelson said. “I look forward to cooperating with you.”
“Thank you, Sen. Nelson, for the very kind comments,” Cruz said. “I hope they are not used against you in your next campaign.”
“I was going to say the same thing to you,” Nelson responded, hinting at Cruz’s presidential ambitions. “Yours is a little more immediate than mine.”