Four months have elapsed since NASA’s new vision for manned space exploration dropped like a spent rocket stage on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers continue to question the agency’s broad-brush proposal to scrap a $10 billion investment in the government-led Constellation program in favor of taking a more hands-off approach to replacing the soon-to-retire space shuttle with commercial crew taxis.
While the loudest outcry has come from lawmakers representing states that stand to lose thousands of jobs under the new plan, it came as a surprise when Republican Rep. Frank Wolf issued a scathing rebuke of the NASA proposal a month after its Feb. 1 release.
Wolf, who counts NASA contractor Orbital Sciences Corp. among his many high-tech corporate constituents, says the concern with NASA’s new direction has nothing to do with jobs: Orbital, for example, says it is pleased with President Barack Obama’s plan for NASA. Although the Dulles, Va.-based company stopped work in May on Constellation’s Orion Launch Abort System, NASA’s new direction could mean more business for Orbital’s satellite manufacturing line and the Taurus 2 rocket the company is developing under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to carry cargo to the international space station.
As ranking member on the powerful House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA, Wolf says he sees Orbital and its COTS competitor, Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (), playing a role in NASA’s future delivering cargo to the space station. But he says turning crewed flights over to the private sector is tantamount to abdicating U.S. leadership in space.
A staunch human rights advocate, Wolf fears losing America’s edge in science and technology to countries like China and India, which he says are using space programs to drive innovation and promote economic growth. In previous years during his tenure as chairman of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, Wolf helped steer federal dollars toward basic science research and proposed legislation to provide interest-free loans to math, engineering and physical science majors as a way to entice more students to pursue such careers. He says human spaceflight and space exploration are among the last remaining fields in which the United States maintains an undeniable competitive advantage over other nations. In a pointed statement issued in March, he described NASA’s plan to abandon Constellation and back development of a commercial market for crew taxis as “short-sighted and irresponsible.”
Wolf spoke with Space News staff writer Amy Klamper.
What was your reaction to the revised plan President Barack Obama announced at Kennedy Space Center in April to turn the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle into a lifeboat for the international space station?
It was not positive, and I don’t think there was anything new. I think that where the administration is taking this is not a very good place. The thought of turning our space program over to SpaceX, it means we are turning over the American space program and allowing China to catch us. And it matters to me who is No. 1.
I want America to be No. 1 in the sciences. I believe when I was chairman of this committee under the Republican leadership we reversed the decline in math and science and physics and chemistry and biology, because we changed the funding around. People who know a lot about this, from Neil Armstrong to Gene Cernan, all believe this program is a bad idea.
Do you have a better idea?
There is a so-called compromise plan put forward by some in industry, as well as some members of Congress who have a large aerospace industrial base in their districts. But I don’t have that. This is not a jobs issue for me. I’m concerned about the future of our country. And I don’t believe that the NASA administrator supports this program. I just don’t think he does.
So you see a compromise happening?
What I would like to see the administration do is to come in and offer a compromise. I’m not going to be the one to decide. But I see merit in the idea of a compromise, and in hearing from a variety of experts on the matter. NASA has the best minds out there. I went down to the Johnson Space Center, and many of these people down there are demoralized. So I think there is an alternative to what the administration is coming up with, and hopefully that’s the way we’ll go.
Does the administration’s proposal have any support among members of Congress?
I don’t think the administration’s proposal has very much support here on Capitol Hill. So what is best for the country? Are our astronauts going to put their lives on the line? I don’t think you can rely on SpaceX. It’s a company that doesn’t have a particularly great record. I’m not sure [SpaceX founder Elon Musk] is an American citizen or not. [Editor’s note: Musk is a naturalized U.S. citizen.]
One of your corporate constituents, Orbital Sciences, is supportive of the new NASA plan.
Some of what’s in the administration’s proposal could be done by SpaceX and Orbital. I think there’s a role for private companies to bring cargo back and forth and do some things, but you wouldn’t privatize the Coast Guard or the Navy and lease a ship from a company or an aircraft carrier. You don’t privatize the FBI.
What convinces you the United States is losing its technological edge?
I see the numbers. When you look at China, last year they graduated 700,000 engineers. We graduated 70,000. Now that’s not a fair comparison, engineer for engineer, it’s not exactly the same definition for engineers. But overall the numbers are not good. Forty percent of our graduates are foreign students who don’t want to stay here. They’re going back to China or India or whatever the case may be. That’s not good for America.
Were you unhappy with the way the administration rolled out its NASA proposal?
I don’t think they really consulted very many people. It was kind of “my way or the highway.” So I don’t think it was rolled out the very best, and a lot of the people that work at NASA didn’t know about it.
When the president went down to Florida to give his speech at Kennedy, it’s interesting that he walks up with this guy Musk but he doesn’t bother to talk to career people at NASA, people who have given their lives to this program.
Is congressional opposition to the Obama plan going to mean lawmakers dictate space policy to this administration?
I don’t know that Congress is capable of dictating space policy. Congress can’t run NASA. But I don’t see very much support for what the administration is doing, and I think Congress will put its oar in here. This shouldn’t be a Republican or Democratic issue. I think you ought to bring the best minds together and say, “How do we do this to make sure we don’t set this back, and how do we do it within the allocations?” We need to see where we go as a country. I don’t think this back and forth is really a good thing for the country. The administration doesn’t seem very open to these ideas.