Spaceflight Now: Breaking News

New Congress' space policy: supportive but cautious

Posted: February 7, 2001

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert. Photo: Jeff Foust
While the new Congress and the new President are both strong supporters of NASA and space exploration, don't except any major new initiatives from either in the immediate future, a key Congressman cautioned Tuesday.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, the new chairman of the House Science Committee, told attendees of an FAA commercial space transportation conference in Arlington, Virginia that the delayed transition of administrations and other, more pressing priorities will mean that space issues in the near future will receive less attention, but will not be ignored.

"When we start out in early March we're going to start out with three general, rather broad-based, hearings: energy, education and the environment. That will send a very strong signal to one and all in this town that we intend in our committee to be players," Boehlert, a Republican from upstate New York, said.

"That does not mean we're downplaying space in any way, shape, or manner," he quickly added. "We are not and we will not. You will have in me a friend at the helm of the Science Committee."

Part of the reason why space will not initially be emphasized by the committee is that the new Bush administration is still working through the final stages of a transition that did not start in earnest until mid-December, more than a month later than normal. As a result, some of the key personnel that would deal with space policy have yet to be appointed by President Bush.

"He has not sent yet a strong message on what he intends to do with respect to the space program overall," Boehlert said of the president. "But you will have a friend of space program in the White House and many friends on Capitol Hill."

Unlike his predecessor as chair of the Science Committee, James Sensenbrenner, Boehlert has not played a major role in shaping space-related legislation during his ten terms in the House of Representatives, focusing instead on other areas such as the environment. "I've been identified in some other areas of the committee's portfolio and thus have not placed the emphasis you might have wanted on the overall space program," he said. He promised, though, that in a year's time the space community would see a productive committee responsive to their needs.

Congressman Weldon. Photo: Jeff Foust
When Congress does get to space policy issues, it will likely look at a wide range of topics. Rep. Dave Weldon, a Florida Republican and House Science Committee member whose district includes NASA's Kennedy Space Center, outlined some of the key areas of interest in a separate talk earlier in the day.

One of the most important topics will be a reform of export control policies that make it difficult for American satellite manufacturers and other firms to compete with foreign companies. "It can be improved, and it must be improved," Weldon said. He said the committee may consider ways to streamline the export licensing process within the State Department or move it back to the Commerce Department, where it was prior to a couple years ago.

Other topics of interest to the committee will be improvements to the nation's launch ranges and passage of the Spaceport Investment Act, a bill that would allow states to issue tax-free bonds for the construction of new commercial spaceports.

Weldon also said that the Congress might take a critical look at some NASA programs, including the Space Launch Initiative, a multibillion dollar effort to lay the groundwork for a next-generation launch vehicle that would eventually replace the shuttle. Some in the space industry have criticized SLI as an anticompetitive project that favors existing large aerospace companies, a criticism Weldon acknowledged. "We should thoroughly review SLI so that it does not discourage commercial development," he said.

Experimental programs like the long-delayed X-33 and X-34 may also be scrutinized by Congress. "Someone should tell NASA that X stands for experimental, and that means low cost and high risk," Weldon said. Changes in the X-34 that focus on redundancy and safety, he suggested, "is in some ways prudent, but is also in some ways handicapping R&D."

Weldon also said that it's also unlikely that the President or Congress will immediately look at future manned spaceflight programs beyond ISS, such as planning for a mission to Mars, despite calls for doing so by some space activists. Calling such planning "a little premature", Weldon suggested that by the end of Bush's first term it may be time to start a discussion on either a Mars mission or a lunar base project.