On Saturday, Marco Rubio had an ideal stage from which to talk about space policy. The Florida senator, campaigning for the Republican nomination for President, made a campaign stop in Huntsville, Alabama. That’s one of the few places in the country where space is a local issue, thanks to the presence of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Rubio’s rally was on the grounds of the US Space and Rocket Center, with a full-scale shuttle replica, complete with external tank and solid rocket boosters, serving as the backdrop.
But space made only a cameo appearance during his speech. “This setting is fantastic. It’s a reminder of what great countries do,” he said early in his remarks. “When I’m President of the United States, America will be sending men and women into space again, whether it’s on Mars or an asteroid.”
“You know, we’re going to keep that space program going, folks,” Trump said. “We’ll be doing a lot of cutting, but when it comes to that, I have to tell you we’ll be keeping it going.”
Rubio mentioned space a little later in his speech, discussing its national security implications. “The space program is a key part of our national security. There is a reason why the Chinese are practicing blowing up our satellites,” he said. Rubio spent far more time in the speech attacking his major rival for the nomination, Donald Trump, as well as the current administration and a leading Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton.
A day later, Trump visited the neighboring city of Madison, holding a rally in a football stadium before a crowd he claimed exceeded 30,000 people. (Other estimates put the crowd at less than 20,000, but it was still significantly larger than the attendance at Rubio’s event.) Trump only briefly touched on space in his hour-long speech. “You know, we’re going to keep that space program going, folks,” he said early in his remarks. “We’ll be doing a lot of cutting, but when it comes to that, I have to tell you we’ll be keeping it going.”
Trump didn’t elaborate on how he would be keeping the space program going, or where it would be going, but the comment nonetheless reflects a potential change in opinion. In August, he called the idea of human missions to Mars “wonderful” but added, “I want to rebuild our infrastructure first, okay?” He made similar comments a few months later.
Those comments are noteworthy since they represent some of the few statements about space policy made by the remaining presidential candidates, Republican and Democrat, during the 2016 campaign. None of the candidates have offered much in the way of detail about what they would do with NASA, or space-related policy more broadly (including commercial and military issues), if elected this November.
That leaves open the possibility that the next President might make another major change to NASA’s human spaceflight program, just as the Obama Administration cancelled the Constellation program and redirected the agency from a human return to the Moon to longer-range plans for human missions to Mars by way of near Earth asteroids. To some in Congress, that’s disconcerting.
“Presidential transitions often have provided a challenge to NASA programs that require continuity and budget stability, but few have been as rocky as the administration change we experienced seven years ago,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee, during a hearing last week.
Smith chaired a hearing to discuss legislation that he and some other members of the committee believe could address that program. The Space Leadership Preservation Act, introduced last year by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), would alter the management of the agency to give what its proponents argue is more long-term stability, although critics believe the bill would instead create more partisan meddling in the agency by Congress.
The bill would establish an 11-person board of directors for NASA, appointed by the President and Congress. That board would select three nominees for the post of NASA administrator, requiring the President to choose one of them to serve a fixed, ten-year term. The board would also create its own budget proposal for NASA, separate from the agency’s one developed through the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and submit that proposal directly to Congress.
“We simply have to give NASA greater stability. We need to make this agency less political, more professional,” Culberson, the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, said in testimony before the science committee.
Culberson, in his testimony, cited a history of canceled development programs at the agency over the years, which he blamed on changing administrations and their shifting priorities. The restructured agency management in the bill, he said, was based on a study of models of government “that work well”; the ten-year term for NASA administrator, he said, came from the FBI.
He also argued that the bill would diminish the perceived influence OMB has on the space agency. “None of us now exactly know what NASA’s best minds have recommended,” he said. “As a practical manner, we all know that OMB runs NASA today. The bureaucrats, the beancounters at OMB are the ones making the big decisions for our nation’s space program, and it’s just unacceptable.”
Other witnesses at the hearing endorsed, if not the bill itself, at least the idea of providing stability to NASA, primarily by criticizing the most recent change in human spaceflight plans. “With the inauguration of a new administration and Congress, we will have both the need and the opportunity to restore American preeminence in space, and after that, to ensure stability in the policy and programs we create,” said former NASA administrator Mike Griffin.
Griffin, whose Constellation program architecture was largely dismantled by the Obama Administration, made it clear he was not a fan of the administration’s current plan. “There is no plan beyond the ISS, save for a nebulous commitment to visit an asteroid some time in the 2020s,” he said. “To quote my friend and colleague Jim Albaugh, the former Boeing commercial aircraft CEO, the current administration’s plan for space offers ‘no dream, no vision, no plan, no budget, and no remorse.’”
The bill’s formula for membership on the board, Johnson said, “injects partisan politics into a board that ostensibly is supposed to insulate NASA from politics.”
Former astronaut Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a shuttle mission, said she and NASA colleagues were shocked by the administration’s 2010 decision to cancel Constellation, saying the timing of the decision, so close to the shuttle’s retirement, left the agency with few options. (She did not mention that the decision came after months of public debate in the form of the deliberations of the Augustine Committee, which strongly hinted that Constellation should, at the very least, be revamped.)
“The legislation that we’re discussing here today has some ideas that will certainly address this problem,” she said. “I believe that program cancellation decisions that are made by bureaucracies behind closed doors, without input by the people, are divisive, damaging, cowardly, and many times more expensive in the long run.”
Collins and Griffin, though, put any added stability to NASA as secondary to their desire to roll back the Obama Administration’s changes to NASA human spaceflight. “While I certainly support the stability for NASA that is the topic of this hearing today, I would not want that desire to prevent us from correcting the problems that have been created over the last seven years,” Griffin said.
The few Democrats who attended the hearing expressed skepticism about the bill. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the full committee, called the bill well intentioned but flawed. The proposed board of directors, she said, appeared modeled after the National Science Board, which oversees NSF. “Of course, NSF and NASA are quite different agencies, with quite different missions, so the applicability of the NSF model to NASA is unclear,” she said.
She also raised questions about the structure of the board. As the bill proposes, 8 of the 11 members would be picked by Congress, three each by the majority party in the two houses and one each by the minority party. If one party is in control of both houses, it would have majority control of the board regardless of who was president. That approach, she said, “injects partisan politics into a board that ostensibly is supposed to insulate NASA from politics.”
Later in the hearing, Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) asked witnesses about an apparent contradiction: while they complain NASA has suffered low morale since the cancellation of Constellation, surveys show NASA to be one of the best places to work in federal government, with high job satisfaction results. “How do you reconcile NASA being a great place to work with Rep. Culberson’s concern about a lack of morale?” he asked.
“I think that is a very good question, because it depends on who you talk to,” Collins responded. “It’s not entirely clear to me.”
Collins and Griffin, while supporting the general goals of the bill of providing stability to NASA, didn’t necessarily agree with all of its provisions. Collins noted that the proposed ten-year term for NASA administrator might be too long. “The concept is good,” she said. “It may be hard to find somebody, of all the qualified people out there, who initially want to commit for ten years.”
No NASA administrator has served for ten years under the current system, where they are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Only one has come close: Dan Goldin served as administrator from April 1992 to November 2001, a span of about nine and a half years.
Griffin, meanwhile, questioned whether any board of directors would be able to develop its own budget proposal, in parallel with the agency’s official one done through the OMB. “I didn’t want anything in it that I didn’t support, didn’t agree with,” he said of his efforts of developing budget proposals as administrator. He said a board-developed budget would likely rely heavily on NASA, with the only difference being in priorities.
He did welcome, though, any concept that would strip OMB of its current power in the budget process. “Anything that can be done to ameliorate and control the influence of the OMB on the process would be welcome,” he said. “The OMB is a haven for largely unelected, unappointed, not-very-well-qualified staff who seek to exercise a level of power and control in their area that their accomplishments have not earned.”
He also seemed willing to transfer, as the bill seeks to do, more control over space policy from the executive branch to the legislative branch. “We need a cultural change. Our space program is not something which the nation can afford to have be a playground for newly-elected presidents and unelected staff,” he said. “The legislature is the proper repository for the long-term stability in these plans and programs that we need.”
“The OMB is a haven for largely unelected, unappointed, not-very-well-qualified staff who seek to exercise a level of power and control in their area that their accomplishments have not earned,” said Griffin.
That proposed shift in power, though, makes it unlikely this bill will ever become law. Any president, regardless of political party, would be reticent to give up control and influence over NASA, particularly its budget process, to Congress without getting something back that this bill doesn’t appear to offer.
The bill, in any case, seems doubtful to pass anyway. While it may have enough support in the House to pass later this year (although it languished for ten months between its introduction last April by Culberson and last week’s hearing), getting through the Senate, where bipartisan support will be critical, is another matter. With the Senate slow to take up even NASA-related bills that breezed through the House, like authorization legislation, this bill is unlikely to find traction there this year.
This lack of overall attention to NASA, either in Congress or on the campaign trail, is a sign of a more fundamental problem: NASA, despite all the rhetoric from the industry, and the handful of politicians who do think about space policy, civil spaceflight is not a major issue. It’s why candidates can given the topic only a passing mention in a speech where a full-sized shuttle model serves as a backdrop, and bills to reform management of the agency get limited attention.
That means the next president, when he or she has time to think about space policy, will be free to propose more changes to NASA. Or not: Rubio, for all his criticism of the current administration, suggested a pair of destinations for human spaceflight that are already in NASA’s plans.
This article was first published on The Space Review. Jeff Foust is the editor and publisher of The Space Review, and a senior staff writer with SpaceNews. He also operates the Spacetoday.net web site. Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone.