March 26, 2015 ... Rep. Brian Babin (left) poses with astronaut Scott Kelly. Image source: House of Representatives.
NASA's fate in Congress is controlled in each house by two commmittees.
The authorization committee tells NASA what it is allowed to do, and how much money it is allowed to budget for what it is allowed to do.
But the real power lies with the appropriations committee, which actually releases the money. Appropriations can provide more, it can provide less, depending on whim.
Uninformed observers often blame the President for the rise or fall of NASA programs, but under the U.S. Constitution the President has no real budget or appropriations authority. That lies with Congress.
For years, President Barack Obama has tried to close the “gap” created by President George W. Bush and Congress in 2004, when they agreed that NASA would rely solely on Russia a minimum of four years for International Space Station access, once the Space Shuttle program ended.
Yet every year, Congress has cut the Obama administration's funding requests for commercial crew. NASA estimates that, if Congress had provided the funding Obama requested each year starting in 2010, commercial crew flights would be operational this year. Due to the cuts, NASA reliance on Russia has extended to late 2017, and NASA has already signed a contract with Roscosmos for 2018 flights should Congress cut funding further.
The House authorization subcommittee this year finally voted to fully fund commercial crew at the $1.2 billion requested for Fiscal Year 2016.
But the appropriations subcommittee whacked $250 million out of that, along with a $250 million cut in earth sciences, to spend it instead on the subcommittee's favorite pork program, the Space Launch System and its Orion crew capsule. Conceived in 2010 by members of the Senate to protect NASA civil servant and contractor jobs, critics labelled it as the “Senate Launch System”. When its design was revealed in September 2011, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was relegated to a minor role while members of both Houses lined up at the microphone to take credit for protecting NASA jobs in their states and districts.
No one said much about what it would be used for.
Here we are in mid-2015, and Congress still hasn't given SLS an official use.
For the last two sessions of Congress, the House space subcommittee was chaired by Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-LA), whose district includes the NASA Stennis Space Center. Stennis has hardened stands for testing rocket engines, including the Space Shuttle Main Engines originally designed in the 1970s. The 2010 legislation ordering SLS required NASA to use existing Shuttle technology where possible, so SLS will launch with SSMEs removed from Shuttle orbiters before they were sent to museums. Those SSMEs are being test-fired once again at Stennis.
Rep. Palazzo recently resigned as chair of the authorization committee to take a seat on the appropriations subcommittee that disburses NASA money, but he also remains on the authorization committee.
The Republican majority running the House announced June 5 that the new authorization chair will be Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), a first-term member of Congress whose district happens to include ... wait for it ... Johnson Space Center in Houston.
A dentist by profession, Babin told a prayer breakfast meeting on April 2 that human space flight should be NASA's top priority.
My focus as member of the House Science Committee is to return human space flight as NASA’s top priority. NASA’s attention has been diverted toward a host of other competing priorities over the last several years. I think it is long past due that we return NASA’s focus to what their mission was originally and that was human space flight and exploration.
Which NASA space center is in charge of human space flight? Johnson, of course.
For the record, Babin was dead wrong when he claimed NASA's original mission was “human space flight and exploration.” Nothing in the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 requires NASA to launch people into space or to explore other worlds, much less own its rockets. The Act does list a number of activities for which NASA may “contribute materially,” but none of them are human space flight just to go sightseeing.
That mythology arose in the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy's morphing NASA into a propaganda organ, proposing the human lunar spaceflight program for “prestige” to prove that U.S. rocket technology was superior to the Soviet Union. His 1962 Rice University speech is best remembered for the line, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” But in private he made it clear that prestige was his motivation, amply documented by Dr. John Logsdon's 2010 book, John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon.
The mythology persists to this day, particularly among Houstonians who were employed by the Apollo or Space Shuttle programs. Their standing army must be eternally protected for the day that the nation decides to do Apollo again. Never mind that the political climate in which Kennedy proposed Apollo will never return, just as King Arthur never returned to Camelot.
During his 2014 election campaign, Babin was endorsed by legendary JSC Mission Control Flight Director Gene Kranz. Kranz stated:
It is long past time for Houston industry leaders and elected officials to step up and proactively protect the Johnson Space Center’s irreplaceable assets, most notably, the capable and highly experienced workforce that has made our Center a leader in human space flight for decades.
Once again, the top priority is protecting the jobs, even if unneeded or obsolete.
Babin accused his Tea Party challenger of encouraging SpaceX to locate in Houston and plotting to privatize Johnson Space Center, as if that's bad.
But in May, Babin co-sponsored H.R. 2262, the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act, which is “intended to facilitate a pro-growth environment for the developing commercial space industry by encouraging private sector investment,” according to the House Republicans web site.His web site press release included this statement he made on the House floor:
Let’s face it, in any field, no American entrepreneur is going to invest billions of dollars of their own money where there is regulatory uncertainty. The SPACE Act of 2015 creates a regulatory framework and provides certainty for these privately financed endeavors to take the next steps.
This legislation will bolster thousands of high-tech American jobs — building a stronger economy, advancing technological leadership, and strengthening our nation’s industrial base. America has always prospered because we have not stood in the way of visionaries but rather found a way to enable them to take a chance and succeed on their own.
A vote for this bill is a vote to ignite the flame of commercial space and propel the American entrepreneurial spirit beyond our world and into the final frontier. Passing this bill tells the world that America is the home for commercial space.”
Just not in Houston, I suspect.