On Wednesday evening, the American Astronomical Society (AAS) hosted a “Space Science and Public Policy” event as part of its conference this week in Long Beach, California. The featured speakers were two members of Congress: Reps. Judy Chu (D-CA) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). Their comments on policy issues for space science and related issues were markedly different and, in Rohrabacher’s case, generated some controversy.
Chu, whose new district now includes the city of Pasadena, spoke primarily in general terms about supporting NASA and science research. “I do not believe that research and development in science or space exploration is a luxury. It should never be an afterthought” even in current austere fiscal times, she said. “That’s why I’m deeply committed to protecting the funding for NASA this year and many years to come.”
One space topic she spoke specifically about was restoring funding for NASA’s Mars program. “This is one area where there is bipartisanship. It was very, very interesting to see how people from both parties did embrace this particular cause,” she said. The originally proposed cut, she said, “shows we have a public relations job to do about space exploration, about the Mars program, and about NASA as a whole.” Later, she argued that if the public knew more about the technological spinoffs from NASA, “I think that they would definitely be enthusiastic about funding for space exploration.”
Rohrabacher offered a very different message to attendees about funding. The growing national debt “is part of our life, and those who choose to ignore are going to face some serious consequences,” he warned. Scientists, he said, can’t expect to get “a little bit more” each year in the future. “That doesn’t work anymore for the scientific community or any other community that relies on federal funds. What we have to do now is find out how we can do the job that’s necessary more cost effectively, and eliminate things that are not necessary.”
If that message wasn’t clear, he was more blunt a short time later. “Saying ‘NASA deserves more money’ ain’t going to cut it,” he said. “The fact is, NASA does not have a good track record” in managing major programs. He expressed particular opposition to plans for the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket, claiming it will cost at least $30 billion to develop. “This is going to defund every other space and science program that you can imagine. It’s up to you to know the sad details that we can’t afford everything.”
Rohrabacher covered some familiar ground later in his talk, supporting increased commercialization and international partnerships as ways for NASA to be more efficient, and promoting concepts such as orbital debris cleanup, planetary defense, and propellant depots. His comments, through, probably weren’t that familiar to many of the scientists in the audience, who reacting with varying degrees of bewilderment as he went on. He also ruffled some feathers when he said NASA shouldn’t be tasked with “feel-good responsibilities” like education. “NASA’s job is not to educate the children of the United States,” he said. Later, when he claimed that many scientists had doubts about global warning, the audience reacted with groans. (On top of that, the brief question-and-answer session that followed was dominated by a couple of people representing 21st Century Science and Technology, a magazine affiliated with Lyndon LaRouche.)
After the talk, I asked Rohrabacher about one particular issue of interest to those attending the AAS meeting: the James Webb Space Telescope. He indicated he wasn’t confident that the program was back on track after cost and schedule overruns. “We will hold hearings on that early on, and we’ll find out” how well it’s doing, he said, referring to the House Science Committee, of which he is the new vice-chairman.