Profile: Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.)

Vice Chairman, House Appropriations Science, State, Justice and Commerce Subcommittee

A s a congressman representing the Cape Canaveral area of Florida, it is no surprise that Rep. Dave Weldon takes a deep interest in space issues. The six-term Republican lawmaker has been steadfast in his support for NASA, which employs thousands at Kennedy Space Center in his neighboring district. And he has been unwavering in his determination to keep Florida at the forefront of the launch game.

Today, Weldon holds one of the coveted seats on the House Appropriations Committee and serves as vice chairman of the science, state, justice and commerce subcommittee, a position that gives him a direct say on NASA budget matters.

Before moving to Appropriations in 2003, Weldon, a co-founder and chairman of the House Aerospace Caucus, served eight years on the House Science Committee as one of NASA’s closest overseers. He said the experience has made him “keenly aware . . . of the fact that NASA is trying to do too many things with the resources it has.”

A New York native, Weldon moved to Melbourne, Fla., in 1987 after serving three years active duty in the U.S. Army, which had put him through medical school.

Weldon, a practicing physician who still occasionally sees patients at the veterans medical facility in his district, was elected to Congress in 1994, part of a wave of conservative Republicans who ended the Democrats 40-year hold on the House of Representatives.

His House victory was his first run for office, but not his first foray into politics. In 1989, Weldon helped form the Space Coast Family Forum, a conservative social policy group he likens to the Christian Coalition, to rate local, state and national office seekers on their stance on issues such as abortion, school prayer and taxes.

As a social conservative, Weldon is well versed on the religious arguments against stem cell research and in favor of teaching intelligent design as a counterpoint to evolution.

But Weldon says religious arguments don’t hold much sway in the halls of Congress, so he finds other ways to get his points across on such hot-button issues. “I don’t usually employ those arguments principally because in the course of public discourse they’re considered to be invalid,” Weldon said. “Now yeah, if there are a bunch of Christians who got together, some of whom were pro-stem cell, [it is] worthwhile employing religious arguments. But on the floor of the House or the halls of any university, those arguments are just considered non-applicable. So I don’t usually employ them.”

Weldon was one of 35 House lawmakers, including sidelined House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Texas ), who recently signed a letter sent to U.S. President George W. Bush urging him to fully fund the space shuttle program and NASA’s exploration initiative when he sends his annual budget request to Congress in February. Weldon said he is ready and willing to fight for a $1 billion increase for NASA if that is what it takes for the space agency to fulfill its commitments on the international space station program and then press on to the Moon and beyond.

Weldon met recently in his Capitol Hill office with Space News editor Lon Rains and staff writer Brian Berger to talk about, among other topics, NASA, space and the road ahead.

Can NASA keep its exploration agenda on track given the space shuttle program’s $5 billion-plus budget shortfall?

That’s a good question. The president of the United States has to step up to the plate and weigh in with his budget. If the NASA administrator is saying to him “we can’t keep all these balls in the air at the same time,” then he has to make that call. I think NASA deserves a bigger budget and I am ready to fight to give NASA the resources it needs to fulfill the vision as laid out by the president. If that calls for a billion dollars more per year, I am ready to fight that fight.

If NASA cannot get a billion-dollar increase, what are your spending priorities?

Naturally, I would want to preserve human spaceflight spending — space station, shuttle and the CEV [Crew Exploration Vehicle]. I am also a strong supporter of aeronautics research. We are falling behind the Europeans and my preference would be to see NASA’s aeronautics spending increase.

NASA saw its budget decline during most of the 1990s, so this is an agency that has been somewhat starved in recent years and now needs to be given the resources it really needs. We’re not talking about giving some bloated agency even more money and we are not talking about taking money and putting it on the tip of a rocket and shooting off into space either. All of the money we spend on NASA goes back into our economy.

How will the current deficit problem and the hurricane cleanup costs, for example, impact the NASA budget picture?

Unquestionably programs like NASA are going to come under greater scrutiny, but I’m more worried about the political health of Tom DeLay than I am about those other issues. He has been just an incredible space supporter and to lose him could be a pretty significant setback for NASA and for the manned spaceflight program.

Given the current budget environment, should Congress cut back on the level of earmarks they’ve added to spending bills these last couple of years?

Yes, I think we should reduce earmarks across the board. I specifically said last year I don’t want any earmarks in the NASA budget. I made a personal initiative to try to resist that.

Did you have a hand in adding the money for Kennedy Space Center storm damage repairs?

I don’t really consider than an earmark, considering we had to put a false ceiling in the Vehicle Assembly Building there to keep stuff from falling on the workers. If you want to call that an earmark, I’ll defend that. But that was a NASA request, a NASA priority. The earmarks that people generally criticize are, for example, $3 million for the University of Whatever to study vessel functions in cabbage plants or something like that. That’s the kind of earmark we need to cut back on.

Do you favor international participation in the U.S. exploration vision?

NASA and our State Department and Commerce Department need to get more engaged with bringing international partners into the exploration initiative. And there has to be more legitimate sharing than what we had with space station, where the United States was disproportionately shouldering a large amount of it.

The Europeans and the Japanese need to bring more resources to the table if we’re going to do these things like return to the Moon and head on to Mars. And it’s certainly very exciting to consider the Chinese as possible partners in the future. India also is very interested in space. So it may be possible to bring some of these emerging economies into the game.

What do you see as the major issues confronting NASA today?

Number one, NASA really has got to get the space station back under assembly soon, which means they’ve got to start flying the shuttle safely. Obviously down-selecting to a single prime contractor to build the CEV is a very big deal, one that is going to have implications for the next 20-30 years.

We’re still living today with the decisions NASA made back in the 1970s relating to the shuttle, so the decisions they make now are going to be affecting a whole new generation of NASA employees and policy makers in Washington. So it’s very big. But the stakes are always big for NASA.

Do you support the mandatory retirement of the shuttle in 2010?

I do, but I think retirement should have been tied to completing the station, not an arbitrary date. I know budget issues drove the 2010 date, but in an agency like NASA, you can try to make budget drive policy but it doesn’t always work, as we all know.

Wasn’t 2010 also driven by a Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommendation on the need to recertify the shuttles for use beyond that date?

The recertification recommendation also was arbitrary. Just because they’ve called for recertifying at a certain date does not necessarily mean that you cannot go six months or a year beyond that if necessary to conduct a few additional missions. But certainly we need to make every effort to make sure that we’re flying safely.