Friday, December 21, 2012

"Don't Assume Anything" from Congress

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on Capitol Hill last March. Image source: NASA.

On December 14, I wrote a column titled, “The More They Stay the Same.” It was about how Congress keeps ordering studies to explain NASA's supposed lack of direction, but when told by these studies that Congress fails to provide the funding for NASA's programs, Congress just blames the White House and does nothing.

The latest study, NASA's Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus, was issued on December 5 by the National Academies.

Appendix C of that report listed seventeen prior reports by various entities delivered to Congress on the subject matter.

The Academies' National Research Council began hearings this week to review their publication. Among the speakers were NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver.

Media reports were scarce. I queried Google, trying to find any media reports. Most of what I found were false stories that Bolden had supposedly recorded an emergency message to be broadcast today as the end of the world began. And we wonder why our nation is in a mess. But I digress.

The only “mainstream media” story I found was by the Los Angeles Times, titled, “NASA Will Remain a Leader in Human Spaceflight, Top Official Says.”

Bolden acknowledged the long-lived enthusiasm for the moon, but called it a "generational" gap — many of his colleagues from the days of the Apollo program have expressed their dissatisfaction with the current direction, he said.

When it comes to revisiting our next-door neighbor, other countries may have to step in and take up the challenge, he added.

"We can't do everything," Bolden said. "We can lead through inspiration."

Bolden also said the report writers may have missed certain things because the study was conducted during the generally quieter times just before the presidential election.

But the best reporting came from the space blogger ranks, by Marcia S. Smith at Marcia was a member of the committee that produced the NRC report.

On December 19, she posted an article titled, “Bolden: Don't Have to Travel Far to Asteroid to Meet President's Goal.” Marcia interpreted Bolden's remarks as suggesting that NASA may be giving more serious thought to a proposal by retired astronaut Tom Jones to harvest Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) for platinum-based mineral groups. Dr. Jones addressed the Air Force Space & Missile Museum docents on the subject here in September; click here for my report.

I found particularly interesting this passage in Marcia's report:

An NRC report released earlier this month concluded that sending people to an asteroid has not won wide support in NASA or the nation. Bolden did not criticize that report directly, but said that NRC committee had only a short time to complete its study and it was done at a time of "relative silence" from NASA because of the election and did not have the benefit of the information he was presenting this morning. The only new material he presented this morning was this information about the asteroid mission and the news that NASA will soon stand up a Space Technology Mission Directorate.

This might lend a bit more credence to a September 23 Orlando Sentinel report that NASA had sent to the White House a proposal to station a deep-space outpost 23,000 miles beyond the Moon, at a Legrangian Point known as L-2. Space advocate web sites have buzzed with rumors that this announcement was being withheld until after the election, because if Mitt Romney won then the new administration would determine the future course of NASA.

Marcia's next report was posted on December 20. Titled, “NRC Human Spaceflight Committee Kicks Off Deliberations,” it was a more thorough analysis of the discussions, and included remarks delivered from Congressional staff representatives in the House and Senate.

I've written here many times that the President does not determine space policy or funding. Congress does. That was the message delivered by these staffers, both Democratic and Republican.

Marcia wrote:

The National Research Council's (NRC's) Committee on Human Spaceflight held its first public meeting yesterday. In addition to hearing from NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, the committee listened to other top NASA officials, congressional staff, and other experts on the past and present of the space program and what NASA and Congress are hoping to get from the report.

Congress requested the report in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, a bill written by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Senate committee staff members Ann Zulkosky (D) and Jeff Bingham (R) and House Science, Space and Technology Commitee staffer Dick Obermann (D) briefed the committee both on what Congress had in mind back in 2010 when the law was written and what they would find most useful today.

The key message from the staffers was that the NRC committee should not assume that Congress will remain as supportive of space exploration in the future as it has been in the past. Zulkosky said "don't assume anything" and explaining the value of the space program to taxpayers is an "important part of the conversation." Bingham agreed, adding that simply because the President's 2010 National Space Policy lays out principles and goals for a strong space program that does not mean Congress is in agreement. "The National Space Policy is an Executive Branch statement of policy and I say 'thanks for sharing,'" but Congress has "a separate and equal responsibility to make policy — we call it law."

Another witness was space historian Roger Launius, who debunked the notion of widespread public support for a government human-based spaceflight exploration program.

Launius presented data showing that contrary to the memories and assumptions of most Americans, the Apollo program was not particularly popular with the public in the 1960s. He traced the factors that led to the Apollo program's approval by President John F. Kennedy and Congress — essentially Cold War politics — and concluded that Apollo was "unique to its time and won't be repeated in our lifetimes." He believes that exploration can be sustained only when it leads to something of value. In the Apollo program "we didn't find anything of value. We sustain exploration only when we do." He showed data from the 2010 General Social Survey of where the public preferred to make cuts in federal spending. Space exploration was second on the list, just behind defense. He pointed out that it is one of only three on the list of 18 types of federal spending where more than 50 percent of Democrats and more than 50 percent of Republicans want to cut (the other two are foreign aid and welfare).

Further illustrating the disconnect between Congress and reality was this morning's Associated Press report about the House passing a pork-laden defense bill that was increased beyond what the President requested, ignoring public sentiment to cut defense spending.

In a speech this week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta criticized the pressure on the Pentagon to keep weapons that it doesn't want. "Aircraft, ships, tanks, bases, even those that have outlived their usefulness, have a natural political constituency. Readiness does not," Panetta said.

"What's more, readiness is too often sacrificed in favor of a larger and less effective force. I am determined to avoid that outcome," he said.

Panetta said members of the House and Senate "diverted about $74 billion of what we asked for in savings in our proposed budget to the Congress, and they diverted them to other areas that, frankly, we don't need."

In my opinion, the ultimate blame — and responsibility — for this mess lies with those who put these people in office. That's you and me.

I did not vote for my House of Representatives incumbent. He has falsely claimed that China plans to build a lunar fortress and proposed that Congress seize management of NASA away from the White House. I voted for his challenger. She didn't win. I did my part.

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