This morning The Planetary Society hosted a small press conference to talk about their “Visions of Mars” DVD that is on the Mars Phoenix spacecraft, set to land later today. It was a rather straightforward press conference until a surprise guest showed up: Congressman John Culberson (R-TX), who was in town to observe the landing. “I am here today to express my support, and the support of our subcommittee on appropriations [Culberson is a member of appropriations subcommittee whose jurisdiction includes NASA], for the United States to maintain its leadership position in the exploration of outer space, and our preeminent position when it comes to the scientific research that is the inevitable spinoff of the space program,” Culberson, wearing a blue polo shirt with the Phoenix mission logo on it, said in a brief statement during the press conference.
Culberson didn’t delve too deeply into policy issues during his statement, instead discussing the importance of space exploration as “an insurance policy” for national prosperity and security, and heaping praise on the space program and, in particular, JPL. “The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is, in my opinion, the gold standard that has been set for all of NASA,” he said. Then, perhaps remembering that he represents a district in the Houston area, he slightly amended his remarks. “The Johnson Space Center, on the manned side, does a magnificent job and they set the gold standard—well, the Johnson Space Center sets the gold standard for the manned program. I believe JPL sets the gold standard for the unmanned program.”
I talked with Culberson briefly on his way out the door after his statement. I asked him what the odds of actually getting an appropriations bill done for FY 2009 versus another year-long continuing resolution. “We’ll get a bill out, but it will be after the election,” he said. He said that he’s optimistic about getting additional money for NASA, noting the $200 million the Senate added to the war supplemental. The House version doesn’t include that money, but Culberson said he will be on the conference committee that will reconcile the two versions and that he will be “aggressively working to preserve it.” “I’m optimistic,” he concluded. “I think we’ve got a really decent shot at it.” On the authorization bill, he said he hadn’t not looked at it in detail yet but planned to “go through it this week with a fine-toothed comb”.
Both Culberson and Planetary Society executive director Lou Friedman, who introduced Culberson, noted that the Congressman came out here on his own out of his own personal interest in the landing. This is not unusual for Culberson: a few years ago he attended an outer planets session of an AAAS conference in Washington on a Saturday morning, sitting through most of the session and speaking only briefly during a Q&A session. And to further cement his space geek credentials, at the end of his statement he held up his smartphone and announced that he would using it to stream the landing event live from the control room, through a service called Qik. (As you can see from the link he has already been there, testing it out.) “So I think I’ll be the first congressman to be broadcasting live from the control room,” he said.