Profile: U.S. Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.)

Ranking Members, House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee

T he typical voter in Mark Udall’s Boulder, Colo., congressional district is probably more concerned about open space than outer space. But the four-term Democratic congressman also counts among his constituent’s many scientists, engineers and business people involved in national security space, planetary exploration, commercial remote sensing and space weather forecasting.

“I’m the consummate layperson. When I was elected to Congress in 1998, I knew that my district was full of scientists and important federal labs,” Udall said. “I have enjoyed immensely learning about all the amazing things that are happening. But I have also come to understand just how crucial [space] is across the board to commerce, public safety and how we live our lives. I see it as my role to promote a greater understanding in the general public about these important functions.”

As a member of the House Armed Services Committee and the senior Democrat on the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee, Udall is in a good position to fulfill that role while also serving constituents who work on national security and civil space projects at Ball Aerospace & Technology, explore the solar system from the comfort of the Southwest Research Institute, forecast solar storms at Space Environment Center, and market remote sensing imagery for Digital Globe in nearby Longmont.

In the past year, Udall has helped secure a number of important victories for his constituents, including NASA’s reversal of an unpopular decision to cancel a Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission and the inclusion in the 2005 NASA Authorization Act of commercial remote sensing legislation he had been pushing for several years.

This year Udall says his top goal is to help find a way for NASA to maintain its momentum on the Vision for Space Exploration without “hollowing out space and Earth science” or sacrificing aeronautics research important to the United States maintaining its technological edge.

“My overall goal is to maintain critical mass in space and Earth science. That’s number one,” Udall said. “We also need to attain a similar status in aeronautics and then find a way to implement the v ision that doesn’t rob Peter to pay Paul. I think the solution is pretty simple ‑‑‑ fund NASA at the authorized levels.”

Udall recently spoke with Space News staff writer Brian Berger.

NASA’s science spending outlook has a lot of your constituency very worried. How do you serve them while trying to take a broad view of all of NASA’s priorities?

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) put his finger on an important action we have to take and that is to make the case to appropriators that we have to fully fund NASA at the authorized levels, starting with $17.892 billion for 2007. That number was not just pulled out of the air. That was the number people felt made sense. That’s where we have to start.

With Rep. Tom De Lay (R-Texas) leaving Congress this spring, can NASA’s supporters realistically expect to get the agency anything close to the authorized level?

You don’t serve in public office unless you are an optimist. But I wouldn’t write off Mr. DeLay in this appropriations cycle. He still has influence. He still has friends. He still is committed to the space program. There will be sentiments in the House to do the right thing by Mr. DeLay. I think he still has leverage. There is still a Texas delegation that is strong and well rooted and you could say the same thing about California and Colorado.

How would NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration fare under a Democratic Congress or White House?

You had to ask me such a question. I think in general this is a bipartisan undertaking with bipartisan support. The challenge we face in raising the profile of the vision and the importance of U.S. space activity is the same whether you have a Democratic or Republican Congress or a Democratic or Republican White House. The players would change somewhat, but it’s a reminder to me I need to be doing some spade work now with our leadership. And as the 2008 presidential race unfolds, we need to do the same sort of work with our potential presidential nominees. That also goes for industry. They ought to be working to make the case and educate those candidates about the importance of this endeavor.

The National Weather Service’s Space Environment Center in Boulder had its 2006 budget cut 44 percent. Why?

I don’t think we still have a clear answer. All I know is I am going to fight for the funding. This isn’t about the local interest, even though the Space Environment Center has a local presence. Their work is vitally important and so much of what we depend on in the world of commerce, the world of military information and countless other applications would be damaged — in some case beyond repair — if we don’t have this alert system in place that the Space Environment Center provides.

Do you think evoking China’s space ambitions is a good tactic for getting more money for NASA?

The competition that is unfolding with China could help secure additional resources for NASA, but I am loathe to create another bipolar security environment such as the one we had with the Soviet Union. From a national security perspective, we ought to be wary of the Chinese, we ought to watch what they are doing, but we shouldn’t default to identifying them as our main enemy in this century. Rather, we should draw them closer to us, because I worry the cost of that sort of competition would put enormous strain on us and the Chinese when those resources could be better used in other ways.

Do you favor the U.S. cooperating with China in space exploration?

We are going to compete with China; we can also collaborate. It doesn’t have to be a mutually exclusive choice. You can generate interest by competing with the Chinese, but I have concerns about setting them up as an enemy rather than as a competitor. Maybe that’s the distinction to make.

Right now we have 16 nations involved in the space station. I know there are naysayers and cynics, but if you have citizens of a number of countries inhabiting a common environment in space looking down on spaceship Earth that cannot but help drive the feeling that we are all in this together on this wonderful marble in the universe. Taking that kind of approach with the Chinese could pay real dividends.

Why aren’t we hearing the same level of complaint about the aeronautics budget as we are the science budget?

Actually we are. There’s a lot of concern that there were promises made on the aeronautics side that aren’t being met. There is a critical mass threshold that if you don’t have the research up and going at a certain level that you lose the engineers, you lose the researchers, you lose the commitment. And there is so much more to be done in building quieter engines, less-polluting engines, new airframes.

That’s where we are also competing with the European Union, and our domestic airplane production industry is still a very important part of the job base here. There’s always been this collaboration between industry and government in aeronautics, and I don’t see that industry can quite do the work alone that the federal government has provided in the past and should be providing in the future.

How do you feel about NASA’s back to basics approach?

We are in a series of discussions with [Lisa Porter, NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate associate administrator] . Both Republican and Democratic members have an interest in making sure that the back-to-basics effort isn’t just a way to slowly downsize aeronautics.