Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.)

Chairman, House Science and Technology Committee

In the three months since Bart Gordon took over as chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, the 12-term Democrat from middle Tennessee has held no fewer than five hearings on Earth science and climate change, including a jam-packed joint session featuring testimony from former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who won a 2006 Academy Award for his global-warming documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Gore had chaired the committee before jumping to the U.S. Senate in 1984, vacating the House seat that Gordon has held ever since. Gordon cites Gore’s influence as one of the reasons he has served on the science committee for so long.

As chairman, Gordon is one of NASA’s lead overseers in the House, responsible for setting policy guidelines for the space agency and examining its programs in detail. Gordon also oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In that role, he has been highly critical of NOAA’s management of the nation’s next generation of operational polar-orbiting weather satellites and publicly called last year for the removal of NOAA chief Conrad Lautenbacher.

Gordon has been supportive of NASA’s plans to retire the space shuttle and replace it with new vehicles capable of carrying astronauts to the Moon. But he’s been just as adamant that the agency not focus on getting back to the Moon at the expense of its aeronautics and science portfolio.

Gordon spoke with Space News staff writer Brian Berger and deputy editor Warren Ferster about NASA’s budget predicament and other space matters.

How is the Vision for Space Exploration faring politically three years since President George W. Bush unveiled it?

Well, how many times has he mentioned it since? I think that’s an indication. I think the program will be in trouble if the president doesn’t start talking more about it and doesn’t provide the funds that are necessary to implement it. Clearly I support the Moon and Mars missions, I think it’ll be good for the country.

Do you think your view is widely shared among House Democrats?

No, I don’t for a couple reasons. One, by virtue of the president not talking about it since the original inception, there’s not that much of an understanding of it. Two, by virtue of the president underfunding it, it’s not a matter so much of not supporting it, but supporting other NASA interests more. That’s the limit we have.

What changes have you seen at NASA under Mike Griffin’s leadership?

Candor. Sean O’Keefe had lost credibility. Griffin, in an amazingly short time, has gotten it back. A lot of that is just answering questions truthfully and with candor, whether the news is good or bad.

Are you satisfied with NASA’s 2008 budget request?

The good news is that they are getting an increase when other important programs are being decreased. The bad news is that it is not enough to keep up with the mission that NASA has been given.

Should NASA expect Congress to trim its exploration request in order to give more money to science and aeronautics?

I hope that working with the president we’re going to get the funds to do it all. I don’t want to concede yet, but if we don’t then we’re going to have to look at some reallocations and some budget firewalls to make sure the money stays where we put it.

What are your budget priorities, if NASA does not get all the money it needs?

We first need to try to see if we can’t get consensus around putting more money in. If we can’t do that, then we need budget firewalls to make sure that the exploration program doesn’t cannibalize other portions of NASA. But no matter what happens, you’ve got to go forward with the Crew Exploration Vehicle if the United States doesn’t want to lose its ability to put astronauts in space after the shuttle retires. Those are the parameters that we’ve just got to make work.

Should NASA throttle back on Orion and Ares to free up money for science and aeronautics?

We are one shuttle accident away from losing access to space on some type of an American vehicle. So I certainly don’t want to see us slow it down. The shuttle is fragile enough as it is and to be pushing it beyond 2014 is where it becomes dangerous.

If Orion and Ares cannot be fielded before 2014, would you favor flying shuttle longer to narrow the gap?

Depends on how long. If you have another shuttle mission that needs to be flown in early 2011, I think that can be worked out. Another two or three years is another matter. But two months, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.

Do you see House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis
.) as
a substantial obstacle to increased NASA funding, particularly for space exploration programs?

He’s a fairly substantial problem for any funding he’s not happy with.

What are your predictions for how NASA will fare in this year’s budget?

We have the potential for an appropriation train wreck with NASA if the rest of Congress doesn’t feel comfortable that we’ve struck the right balance. Most of these appropriations bills are done under open rules and there can be a lot of mischief done if the Congress does not have confidence in NASA’s mission and its priorities.

Members could try to reapportion money on the floor, or there could be motions to strike, which just takes money out and doesn’t put any back in, which would make a bad situation worse. If we can’t work with the president and NASA to get a balance we all can articulate and defend, you are going to see a bipartisan coalition pop up in the appropriations process that could do a great deal of harm.

Where do you stand on the National Research Council’s call for more Earth
science spending?

It’s serendipitous that the National Research Council’s Earth Science decadal survey came out almost simultaneously to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, signed by 113 nations, including the United States, stating that there is a 100 percent chance of global warming and a 90 percent chance that human activity has exacerbated it.

At the same time, the decadal study is telling us both how we are losing much of our capacity in terms of Earth science research and how much more we need to do. Global warming is real and if we’re going to do something about it, we need better climate measurements. And that’s why I think the decadal study was so important. We need good science to guide us as we respond to global warming.

Do you think the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) is on track following last year’s restructuring?

It breaks your heart to think about all the tradeoffs we’ve been talking about at NASA when there’s been billions of dollars wasted by the NPOESS program. And I think we’ve still got the potential for more waste. The Secretary of Commerce was in here the other day, and I really took him to task. He said NPOESS was a high priority for him and we heard the same thing from the contractor, so hopefully folks are finally focused on this. But we’re still going to wind up with less costing us more.

Are you in favor of adding climate-monitoring capabilities back to NPOESS?

We have to be practical. Besides poor management, one problem with NPOESS is they probably reached further than they technically could get. I certainly would like to see additional sensors added, but I don’t want to get into a situation where we’re making perfect the enemy of good and putting us further behind. Those capabilities that cannot be added back, I would like to see addressed by other satellites.

Last year you called for the head of the NOAA
, Conrad Lautenbacher, to resign because of his handling of NPOESS. Does he have your confidence today?

I certainly wouldn’t have reappointed him, but the president has and so this is where we are and we’re just going to have to make the best of it.