Congress, White House

Holdren, handmaidens, and the National Space Council

Last week the Senate Commerce Committee held a nomination hearing for John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco, the nominees for director of OSTP and administrator of NOAA, respectively. In his opening statement (in both written and verbal forms) Holdren mentioned space as a critical area of investment in science and engineering:

In today’s time of economic crisis, we have to resist the temptation to reduce our investments in these foundations of our propserity. In this connection I want to give special mention to the importance of R&D in our space program. Maintaining and expanding our capabilities in space is sometimes regarded as a luxury that we should do less of in the face of more pressing earthbound concerns. I think that would be a false economy. Space is crucial to our national defense; it’s crucial to civil as well as military communications and geopositioning; it’s crucial to weather forecasting and storm monitoring; crucial to observation and scientific study of the condition of our home planet’s land, vegetation, oceans, and atmosphere; and it’s crucial to scientific study and exploration looking outward. As with the rest of our fundamental and applied research enterprise, investments in space are a bargain.

Later, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), the ranking member of the full committee, asked Holdren about plans to reestablish the National Space Council to address issues like the Shuttle-Constellation gap and access to the ISS to permit research to continue there. “Will you make NASA and science in space a priority?” she asked. “Do you have any thoughts about the National Space Council being a part of the White House to look at the overall focus of NASA?” Holdren’s response:

The short answer… is yes, it is a priority. We have been looking at what the best way to resurrect the National Space Council in the White House would be. I think that’s going to happen. There’s no question that the gap in our capacity to put people in space is a matter of great concern with the shuttle program coming to an end and its successor program not yet ready. We are looking at that very carefully and I would look forward to working with you and Sen. Nelson and other members of this committee on how we can shrink that gap. It’s going to be a great challenge, of course, particularly in these difficult budget times, but we are committed to figuring that problem out because it is very important.

Holdren was then later asked by Sen. Nelson if he had anything more to add on the subject, noting that, as a candidate, Obama promised to reinstitute the council. Holdren:

Well, I’m certainly happy to reiterate that the president remains committed to that pledge. As I mentioned before, we are in discussion about the best way to do it, but I have no doubt that it’s going to happen.

Nelson was pleased:

That’s great, because one of the failings in the past, and not just with this immediate past administration, but previous ones, is that NASA becomes the handmaiden of the Office of Management and Budget. And that’s not the way to set policy, by having some green eyeshade person over there determining what the policy is, whether we’re talking about NASA or NOAA or whatever it is. But that’s the way it’s been in the past, and therefore another reason at the high councils of high government policymaking to have such a council right within the White House.

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