A Pragmatic Approach to Space

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Profile: Rep. Ken Calvert — Chairman, House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee

Rep. Ken Calvert of Corona, Calif., was a successful restaurateur and real estate broker when he was elected to Congress in 1992. Now he represents a district outside of Los Angeles that is near the heart of some of the top aerospace facilities and companies in the United States.

One of his goals, he says, is to inject Southern California-style entrepreneurship and pragmatism into government, including NASA.

Calvert’s new position as chairman of the influential House Science Committee’s space and aeronautics subcommittee could be his best chance to do it. The subcommittee starts the process of drafting the annual authorization bill that House members look to as the leading voice on NASA policies and spending priorities.

NASA’s budget might be flush by some standards, but the agency is trying to do so much in its new Vision for Space Exploration that efficiency will be more important than ever, Calvert says.

He took time out between congressional votes to speak by phone recently with Space News correspondent Ben Iannotta.

Has NASA put a period on the end of the space shuttle sentence without writing the next sentence?

That’s true.

What will Congress, NASA and the administration need to do to keep human spaceflight alive?

I think the president outlined that in his Vision for Space Exploration. Once the space station is complete the shuttle program will end, and no later than 2010. And at the same time, we need to move ahead with the new CEV [Crew Exploration Vehicle].

I support that program.

How would you make room for the Vision in the NASA budget?

You’re right. That’s a challenge. The aeronautics people weren’t happy because there are some cuts that are proposed that aren’t helpful to that industry.

The science people aren’t happy because they see science cuts outside of space flight.

We’re going to have to balance that carefully. I’m looking forward to a congressional authorization bill that will forge a compromise. We need to have a national vision for aeronautics like the president’s Vision for Space Exploration.

What do you say to critics who question the amount of political will and money behind the new Vision for Space Exploration?

Can we maybe prioritize better? Probably. We need to bring entrepreneurs into this to find new ways of doing business that may be more efficient and cheaper.

Why go to Mars?

This country wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for people who explored. As a culture, we are explorers. It’s in our soul. It’s an integral part of who we are as Americans. We don’t just go to space for science. We go for adventure.

You serve on both the House Armed Services and Science Committees, which oversee the Pentagon and NASA research budgets. You’ve talked a lot about structuring NASA to spend the agency’s money more efficiently. Could that mean more joint work with the Defense Department?

Joint work has always been done to some degree. The question is how much of that work should occur, and how do you coordinate research to avoid overlap.

I think that’s where [U.S. President George W. Bush’s nominee to head NASA] Mike Griffin is going to be helpful. He’s worn both hats. He’s been involved with DoD; he’s been involved with the Central Intelligence Agency; and he’s been involved with NASA.

NASA has had a long association with the military. I don’t think that’s any change.

Has the time come to accept the retirement of the Hubble Space Telescope?

Well, the Hubble was never meant to be a perpetual program. The [James] Webb [Space Telescope] was always meant to be a follow-on telescope. The Webb is intended to go up in 2009 to 2011. It has better and different technology, and we’ll probably be looking at other telescopes as well.

I think that the cost of renovating [Hubble], compared to the number of years we’d get out of it, is probably going to be hard to justify.

When I hear people say it would be too risky for astronauts to service Hubble, I wonder: How in the world then is the United States ever going to send astronauts into deep space?

I never said that, but I’ve heard that. I don’t think it’s a matter of risk. It’s a matter of cost relative to the amount of productive life left in Hubble.

When you look at the successes of the Spirit and Opportunity Rovers and their robotic technology, does that suggest that the initiative to send humans into deep space could be overcome by advances in robotics?

Robotics has an important role to play in the president’s Vision for Space Exploration. But as cute as all this little equipment is, it’s still not human spaceflight.

It doesn’t connect with people in the same way. I know some engineers would disagree with me on that, but most people aren’t engineers. They look at space exploration more romantically, I guess.

I’d like you to put on your Armed Services hat. Are there any weapons that would be inappropriate for the United States to launch into orbit?

I know the weaponization of outer space is quite a controversial issue. We have satellites today that are giving us reconnaissance and weather information, and can target our smart munitions. So, in that sense, it’s already weaponized. We as Americans must defend ourselves and look at space threats pragmatically, whether they be Russian, Chinese or whoever.

We need to be proactive and we need to be able to defend ourselves against those systems. It would be nice to say, ‘No further weaponization of space,’ but I think that would be somewhat naive.

NASA-funded scientists routinely study rocks that are billions of years old. They’re scouring the heavens for planets that might be developing life. Implicit in all this research is a trust in evolution. Yet polls show that many if not most Americans believe in the literal Biblical account of creation. Is America out of tune with NASA or is NASA out of tune with America?

You have to trust science to take you where it will go. Science will take us down new paths, that’s for certain. But that doesn’t take away from my personal beliefs.

Science is not inconsistent with how you can interpret Biblical texts, and I don’t think it dissuades me or others from their faiths.