In a post here last week, I noted that after NASA announced which sites will get shuttle orbiters when the fleet is retired this year, some would be disappointed—or worse—when they walk away empty-handed: “They—and their advocates in Congress—will want to know how NASA could have possibly overlooked the merits of their offer. All that could cause complications for NASA.” After NASA decided to award orbiters to the Smithsonian, KSC, the California Science Center in LA, and the Intrepid museum in New York, rejecting bids from Houston and Dayton, among other potential sites, that prediction is coming true.
Houston and its Congressional delegation, for example, is not taking this decision with equanimity. Instead, “disappointment” is the theme of the day: Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) “expressed deep disappointment” over the decision, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) was also “deeply disappointed”, Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX) was “extremely disappointed”, and Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) said that “Disappointment doesn’t begin to describe my reaction” to the news. Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), while not using the “d” word, called it “truly tragic” and likened a Houston without a shuttle to “Detroit without a Model-T, or Florence without a da Vinci.”
They, and other Republicans (Democratic members of the state’s delegation kept a low profile when the news came out) blamed politics for the decision. “With this White House I always expect the worst and am rarely disappointed,” said Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX). “It is blatantly political,” declared Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), noting the four states that received orbiters all voted for Barack Obama for president in 2008. Most, though, gave no indication they would try to overturn NASA’s decision, even while some raised the question of whether NASA followed the letter of the language in the NASA authorization act. “This ought not to be. But, that’s just the way it is,” Poe said in his statement. The exception was Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), who said in a statement that he would ask for a hearing of the House Science Committee to investigate the process that led to the decision.
The mood was somewhat different in Ohio, where people also felt that they didn’t get a fair shake in the decisionmaking process. Rep. Steve Austria (R-OH) said he was “extremely disappointed” but, unlike his Texas colleagues, didn’t put a partisan spin on the decision in his statement. Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH) indicated to the Dayton Daily News that he saw this as more of a geographical snub rather than a political one. “No one in the Midwest is going to have a shuttle,” he said. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) also complained about the lack of “regional diversity” in the selections: “Unfortunately, it looks like regional diversity amounts to which coast you are on, or which exit you use on I-95.” He added that it was “insulting to taxpayers” that some of the selected museums charge admission fees (the Air Force museum in Dayton does not.)
While most of the aggrieved Texas members showed no indication of fighting the decision, Ohio members including Sen. Brown and Reps. Austria and Turner, along with Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) and Steven C. LaTourette (R-OH), are taking action. The five signed a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), asking it to review NASA’s process to award the shuttle orbiters. “Specifically, we ask that GAO review how the disposition of the shuttle program related property carried out, and if NASA and the Smithsonian did so in accordance with all statutory and regulatory guidelines,” they state in the letter.
That review, and the heated Texas rhetoric, may do little or nothing to change the decisions made Tuesday. But it could make, at least in the near term, relations between the space agency and some members of Congress a little strained.