While the ultimate goal of President Obama’s speech yesterday was to secure support for his new space exploration plan, the short-term reaction from members of Congress is little different than it was prior to speech. Those who opposed the plan continue to oppose it, while those who supported it still do, perhaps with fewer reservations than before.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said the revised plan addressed some of his concerns and that “the president is moving in the right direction.” However, he said “we’ll change some things” to what the president proposed, perhaps by accelerating a decision on a heavy-lift launcher. “We’re going to keep testing the monster rockets at Kennedy Space Center.”
Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-FL) also said the changes to the original plan “are steps in the right direction” but added that “there is still room for improvement.” Her released noted the House bill she co-sponsored that would permit an extension of the shuttle (something not mentioned in the president’s speech) and that she wanted “to make sure these ideas are fully explored.”
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who has backed the plan in congressional hearings, reiterated his support in a release after the president’s speech. “President Obama reiterated the nation’s long-term space goal – America, and American astronauts, exploring the solar system. This remains the right goal,” said Rohrabacher, a long-time advocate for space commercialization. “Getting the private sector more involved in space efforts will free up NASA to explore the solar system and the universe beyond.”
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, gave the revised plan a modest endorsement. “I commend President Obama for strengthening and clarifying his vision for NASA,” he said in a statement. “I am pleased the president’s plan retains its focus on innovation, research and technology development – the drivers of our economy.”s
Those who didn’t like the original plan aren’t fond of the revision. “He has not budged on his plan to retire the shuttle eight months from now and that is deeply disappointing to me but I will continue to press for Shuttle extension,” said Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL). He was skeptical of the jobs numbers touted in the speech. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking those job numbers to the bank.”
Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX), the ranking member of the space subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee, was also not impressed with the speech. “His announcement today does nothing to solidify that leadership over the long term and continues a flawed hope in what might be instead of what we already have,” he said. Plans to turn Orion into a CRV “downgraded” it, and a decision in 2015 on a heavy-lift vehicle design was too late: “Stating that you may select a heavy lift design in five years is not a bold commitment to exploration.” Olson also complained about the “the Administration’s blatant focus on Florida”, in particular the workforce initiative announced in the speech.
Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), ranking member of the full science committee, was concerned about a loss of national prestige. “The President’s announcement today, unfortunately, still will do nothing to ensure America’s superiority in human space exploration or to decrease our reliance on Russia in the interim. America needs to have a bold presence in space and a proven plan for access to low Earth orbit and beyond. This is essential to our national security, and global predominance.”
Another Texas Republican, Rep. John Culberson, dismissed the president’s speech as “heavy on rhetoric but woefully light on substance”. His statement gave him the opportunity to use another analogy for commercialization of human spaceflight: “This would be akin to privatizing the Navy and simply renting out the U.S.S. Harry S. Truman any time we needed to defend ourselves.”
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, reiterated her concerns about a long gap in human access to LEO. “There are alternatives and a bipartisan group of members of Congress ready to work with the President to preserve our place in space, but his current proposals remain well short of a space policy worthy of a great nation.”
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) dismissed the plan as being built on a “quicksand foundation”. “As a result of the alternative offered by the President today, there is now no hope for a bright future in human space exploration. The President’s new plan continues the destruction of forty years of U.S. space supremacy by pinning our hopes for success on unproven commercial companies.” His colleague, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said he was “encouraged” that the president felt the need to modify his original plans but that the new version “fails to preserve the United States’ role as the established international leader in space exploration.”
Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT) said the president “is still missing the mark” with the revised plan because it fails to grasp the link Bennett sees between Constellation and missile systems. “Eliminating the Constellation program, and especially the Ares I rocket, will decimate an industrial base that is not only key to maintaining our supremacy in space exploration, but also crucial to maintaining and strengthening our national security efforts.” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) called the revised plan “misguided”. “This is getting silly. The President’s plan wastes billions of dollars and years of valuable time,” said Hatch. “I would say the administration’s plan is laughable, but I can’t find much humor in it when the consequences to space exploration and American workers during tough economic times are so dire.”
In the midst of all this rhetoric, what’s more interesting is who didn’t say anything about the speech, including Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), chair of the House Science Committee; Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), chair of the science committee’s space subcommittee; and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chair of the appropriations subcommittee whose jurisdiction includes NASA. In the last case we’ll know soon enough: her subcommittee is holding a hearing on the NASA budget proposal on Thursday the 22nd, a hearing rescheduled from last month.