Rep. Brian Babin (left) discusses the International Space Station with ISS Flight Director Norm Knight. Credit: NASA Photo

Profile | Brian Babin
Charirman of the U.S. House Science space subcommittee

‘Ready To Go To Work’

The rise of Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) to the chairmanship of the U.S. House Science space subcommittee was an unusually fast one. The dentist-turned-politician was elected to Congress only in November, but by June had assumed leadership of the space policymaking panel, replacing Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), who took a seat on the House Appropriations Committee.

Babin’s interest in overseeing NASA and its programs couldn’t be more obvious: His district includes the Johnson Space Center in Houston, NASA’s lead center for human spaceflight. Despite the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, Johnson still draws some 25 percent of NASA’s $17 billion-plus annual budget — by far the largest portion of any agency center — and employs some 15,000 civil servants and contractors. The center is responsible for operating the International Space Station and has the lead development role in the Orion crew capsule being developed for future deep-space missions.

By the time Babin was handed the gavel, the space committee had already done most of the heavy lifting for the current legislative year, drafting the NASA authorization bill for 2016, still awaiting final approval in the House, and a commercial space bill known as the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act, which passed on the House floor May 21.

But both bills will have to be reconciled with Senate versions before they can become law, and it is here that Babin, who supports both House measures, can make his presence felt. By his own admission, Babin is still climbing the space learning curve, and while clearly sharing the NASA policy sensibilities of his more outspoken Republican colleagues he appears undecided on key issues facing the space agency.

Babin spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Dan Leone.

Your subcommittee drafted major bills affecting NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation before you took over as chairman. What are your legislative priorities for the remainder of the legislative session?

I think there’s plenty left for us to do. Sitting on the authorizing committee, first and foremost, I think NASA needs to get back to what their original mission was: human spaceflight and exploration, and aeronautics. That’s what we need to do. We need to get off of the dependency upon Russia. We need to be able to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil. That’s a very noteworthy and worthwhile endeavor and goal to have.

Would you consider amending NASA’s charter, which lists Earth and space science alongside human spaceflight as core agency missions?

I’m not taking away anything from NASA at all, but there are other agencies, I think 13 other agencies, that have the function of Earth sciences and the things that the president and his administration really hold dear, such as climate change. Now, nobody’s going to do weather satellites better than NASA, for example, but as I said, we’re going to have to prioritize where our spending is going to be. I’m a conservative Republican; I’m not for raising taxes. I think we’ve got an over-spending federal government. That doesn’t mean we’re going to stop doing certain programs, but it means we’ll have to divvy up these funds in the way our priorities are.

How about saving money by consolidating NASA’s field centers?

That’s a fair question. I’m not going to tell you we need to phase out or combine centers, but I think in today’s budgetary squeezes it might make sense to look at something like that. But I’m not out to pit one facility against another. As the space subcommittee chair, I’m looking at the program as a whole. But by the same token, I represent the 36th District, which includes the Johnson Space Center. And there’s no question we have lost personnel and missions.

There has been a continuing tug of war between Congress and the White House over NASA’s commercial crew program, which will end U.S. dependence on Russia for astronaut transport to and from the International Space Station. The White House wants to support development of two such services, while many in Congress have advocated immediately down-selecting to one. Where do you stand?

I can’t say right now. I think that idea has some merit. We go back to the budget issue. I understand why we have two contractors out there: for backup. But I’m not prepared to sit here today and say we’re going to drop one of the providers. I think that’s something we certainly can study. It bears studying, let’s put it like that.

Do you support the Space Leadership Preservation Act sponsored by your colleague, Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), that would change NASA’s management structure by giving the administrator a 10-year term and empowering the White House and Congress to appoint an agency board of directors?

I’m familiar with it, but all I can tell you is we definitely need long-term stability in our NASA program. If you look at the changes in the administration and you look at a graph, you see ballooning of funding for certain programs and then you get a new administration and it dies off and a new one blossoms. I think we need consistency, but we need to work out details. I can’t sit here and tell you that we don’t have a problem there with consistency.

Has Mr. Culberson been here to your office to talk about his bill?

I’ve talked to Mr. Culberson on a number of occasions.

The House version of the commercial space bill would continue government indemnification for commercial launches and extend a regulatory grace period that keeps the FAA from writing safety rules for the commercial spaceflight industry until 2025. The Senate’s bill extends both measures to 2020. Could you support the Senate’s version of this legislation?

I’m not prepared to come down on either side of the fence there. It’s going to depend on what’s in the bill after we get to conference. I did support our House version of the SPACE Act. There are differences of opinions on certain things; that’s why we have conference committees. I’m new to this job; we’re still plowing some ground on a learning curve.

What do you think of NASA’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission, which would utilize the Orion crew capsule, on which Johnson has the lead role?

Well, it’s an interesting mission and I’m sure we could derive some good things, knowledge, from it, but I think a return to the moon and along to Mars is a noteworthy mission as well.

How do you feel about flying the International Space Station until 2028? The White House has proposed keeping it up until 2024, but Boeing, the station prime contractor, says it can go at least four years beyond that.

I’m not going to unconditionally say anything. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. We don’t know what the Russians are going to do. The Russians, at least the government under [President Vladimir] Putin, are in an adventurous mode right now, not real nice to their neighbors. That hasn’t affected our space programs, according to [astronaut] Scott Kelly. There’s great camaraderie between the Russians and the Americans. But you can’t predict what’s going to happen with Russia’s plans.

You haven’t been in office very long. How did you wind up with a chairmanship so quickly?

It was unexpected, very unexpected. When we heard that Chairman Palazzo was going to vacate the seat, there were several folks in the industry and our staff who discussed it, and we went to the leadership. I knew I was really junior compared to some of the other congresspeople. But you know what? We got the job and I’m ready to go to work.

What spurred you to pick space?

I’ll tell you what spurred me: the fact that we’ve seen a NASA, our space program, that’s been in the doldrums. And we’ve seen Johnson Space Center lose about 40 percent of their personnel. And having grown up during that time, during the time of the heyday of the space program, I remember well when Sputnik went up, I remember the speech by President Kennedy at Rice University when he put the challenge out there that we’re going to put a man on the moon. And we did it, by gosh, and we started from behind, after Sputnik went up. I remember those years very well, because it spanned a time period of my life between when I was about 9 up until about my early 20s. I think it’s the pinnacle of human achievement, what we’ve done in the space program.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.