It’s frequently noted here and elsewhere that space issues do not follow party lines closely, if at all, with differences of opinion more likely to be along regional or other lines than party affiliation. That’s demonstrated in the last few days by a couple of statements on space issues by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), working with two Republican colleagues.
Late Monday Nelson, in his role of chairman of the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, issued a joint statement with the full committee’s ranking member, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), regarding the possibility that the ISS’s crew could be reduced to three or possibly, if temporarily, zero, in the wake of last week’s Soyuz launch failure:
“This is a very serious situation that bears close attention. Obviously, we must satisfy ourselves that the problem with the Russian rocket is identified and corrected as soon as possible. Perhaps the problems can be resolved quickly. But the very fact that NASA must make contingency plans for reducing the size or evacuating the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) if the Russian Soyuz cannot return to flight by November, is a compelling illustration of the urgent need to comply with the law and proceed immediately with the development of alternative and backup launch capabilities. Failure to take this action undermines U.S. leadership in space and jeopardizes our huge investment in the ISS.”
It’s notable that the brief statement does not explicitly mention any specific “alternative and backup launch capabilities”, although the “urgent need to comply with the law” is a subtle reference to the Space Launch System (SLS), which Hutchison explicitly referenced in a statement of her own last week after the launch failure. Backup means can also include commercial crew vehicles, although there’s little stated concern that NASA is not complying with the law regarding their development.
The fact that Hutchison and Nelson issued a joint statement is not surprising, as the two have closely worked together on space issues for years. What is a little more surprising is a joint letter to President Obama by Nelson and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). Rubio, in his first year in the Senate, has so far shown less interest in space than Nelson, although he does serve on the science and space subcommittee; there’s also a considerable general ideological difference between the two senators. However, the two joined forces in the letter to protect funding going to the Kennedy Space Center.
Nelson and Rubio reference a letter earlier this month from five other senators from Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, who expressed concern about a “misallocation of SLS funds” for facility upgrades at KSC. Agreeing with the earlier letter’s call to move forward on the SLS, the Florida senators argue that spending SLS funds on KSC upgrades is within the intent of the law, saying that the funded upgrades are distinct from the more general “21st Century Launch Complex” upgrades planned for KSC and funded separately. “[T]hese projects have been selected because they decrease development and operations costs for the new vehicle,” they write. “Therefore, we strongly support the continued use of SLS funds to develop a complete heavy-lift rocket, including the KSC projects in question.” Or, in this case, geography trumps ideology.