The Sciences

Congress passes NASA authorization bill, but I'd rather watch sausages being made

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitSep 30, 2010 11:42 AM


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I just finished watching the members of the U.S. House of Representatives debate the NASA authorization bill. The bill was passed, and I'm glad, but that was a sickening debate. I watched the speeches live on C-SPAN. Many Representatives of both parties didn't like parts of the bill, but felt it was important to pass it. I agree; I have reservations with it as well. However, most of this bill is just fine, and hits the right notes. Not everyone agreed. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) strongly opposed the bill, for example (interestingly, she's Chair of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee and her husband and brother-in-law are astronauts). She apparently is one of the few people still holding onto the idea that we should continue to work on the Constellation rocket system which will be defunded with this bill. I disagree with her on that quite strongly (see below). She did make some good points, things I myself said in my earlier post. For example, the bill is too specific in what kind of rocket should succeed the Shuttle. That's not for Congress to decide; they should make broader goals that align with what NASA wants to do, and then allow NASA engineers to make the system. Of course, there was consulting with NASA on the bill, but the bill itself shouldn't go into details like that. Anyway, despite that, I strongly disagree with Rep. Giffords that this bill should have been voted down. What really galled me, though, was that several Republicans blamed President Obama for NASA's current mess, including Ralph Hall (R-TX, remember him?). This is grossly and demonstrably unfair and untrue. Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) hammered over and again the idea that Obama is trying to kill the manned space program. That is not true, and in fact the current situation (including the five year gap between the Shuttle and any follow-on rocket system) started in the Bush Administration. Constellation has been in trouble for some time, behind schedule and over-budget. I'm of the opinion that Obama's plan to defund Constellation does not kill the manned space program as Culberson said it will. I have written about this repeatedly: far from killing it, this new direction may save NASA from the mess it finds itself in right now. What's weird is how Culberson used the bogeyman of Obama to try to gain sympathy for the bill, saying that a yes vote on the bill would stop Obama's plan to dismantle NASA. I find that odd, as much of the bill aligns with Obama's plan for NASA, including defunding Constellation and promoting a new rocket system*. Moreover, I want to point out that Obama's plan, and this bill, funds private space concerns (like SpaceX, which is preparing to launch its Falcon 9 rocket which will be man-rated and capable of flights to the space station). You'd think Republicans would support this, as they have a mantra of privatizing health care, social security, and so many other government efforts. However, many Republicans don't like private space companies. An exception I must note was Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who spoke up about funding private space efforts and how important it is. On most issues he and I disagree strongly, but on this one we agree.

Watching the speeches on this bill (and others that came after while I waited for the votes to be counted) was certainly a lesson for me. I saw Representatives stand on the Floor and say things that were breathtakingly untrue. Of course I know this happens all the time, but to see it myself, and see it over something that concerns me immensely, made the breadth of the purely political maneuvering visceral. If anything, watching this awful display will make me pay even more attention to what's going on in Congress. It's an election year, and the rhetoric will be dialed up for sure. We all must be on our toes. Again, I'm glad the bill was passed. I just wish it had been done in a more noble way.

^* I'll note that while the new bill appears to me to align with much of what Obama wants, not all of it does. However, reading through it is difficult, as much of the language is in Congress-speak and confusing. Since I'm not an expert, I'm willing to entertain discussion of this in the comments. Where does the bill diverge from Obama's plan? Besides some specifics (like rocket design) how does it modify Obama's proposed NASA plan?

Related posts: - Akin breakin' heart - Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) disses private space - BREAKING: House to vote on Senate NASA bill WEDNESDAY - Followup: Rep. Ralph Hall’s unbelievable statement on science funding bill

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