COMMENTARY | Sen. Bill Nelson, R-FL is shocked, shocked that there is politics going on at NASA. He is correct that it is causing the latest budget shortfalls and the wrangle over whether to go back to the moon or to an asteroid. He is wrong that it is unprecedented.
“‘What is sad to me is that NASA has always been above politics,’ says Nelson, who flew aboard Shuttle Columbia for six days as a payload specialist in 1986. ‘Now it’s gotten to be a partisan issue and that is a sad day for the country.'”
Actually politics has accompanied NASA throughout its existence and has shaped its fortunes, for good and for ill. NASA was created in the first place because the Eisenhower administration was embarrassed by the Soviet first launch of an Earth satellite, Sputnik. Politics and embarrassment over the Gagarin’s first man in space flight caused President Kennedy to announce the moon landing goal. Politics cause the premature demise of Apollo, the space shuttle and space station projects and the rise and fall of two space exploration programs under two presidents named Bush, and the current muddle that Nelson decries.
The problem is not that there is politics going on at NASA. The problem is that supporters of space exploration are so bad at the pernicious art.
Nelson can be forgiven for not being able to shape the space program to his liking. One cannot run NASA from either the Senate Commerce Committee or the House Science Committee. Space Policy is set by the president of the United States and, for a very long time, it has been lacking in quality or common sense.
It didn’t start with Obama. The second Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration was a brilliant idea, but the former president forgot that such initiatives need constant attention and nourishing. Thus budgets slid, schedules slipped, and then Bush’s successor cancelled the program with barely disguised contempt. Of course Obama’s space program has been a disaster, between the Solyndra-like subsidies for commercial space and the awful and ill-defined mission to an asteroid mandate.
Still, members of Congress should at least articulate what a sound space policy should be. That doesn’t just apply to Nelson, but to his Republican counterparts like Sen. Ted Cruz, the Republican ranking member of the subcommittee that oversees NASA that Nelson chairs.
Indeed, since Cruz is rumored to lust after the presidency, an occasion might arise when he can open his mind in detail to what he thinks a space program should be like. It would at least further the debate better than whining about politics.
Mark R, Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo, The Last Moonwalker and Other Stories, Dreams of Barry’s Stepfather, and The Man from Mars: The Asteroid Mining Caper