Palazzo, Edwards Join in Letter to Obama Championing Human Spaceflight

Palazzo, Edwards Join in Letter to Obama Championing Human Spaceflight

The top Republican and top Democrat on the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee sent a joint letter to President Obama on Friday championing human spaceflight as NASA’s chief priority.   They were joined by 30 other members of both parties in arguing in favor of human deep space exploration “on an American rocket launched from American soil.”

Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS) and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), subcommittee chairman and ranking Democrat, respectively, sponsored very different versions of a new NASA authorization bill last year.  Palazzo’s was approved by the committee on a party-line vote, breaking a tradition of bipartisanship on NASA issues.  This joint letter to the President may signal a new, unified approach.   The committee’s Senate counterpart also approved a NASA authorization bill last year on a party-line vote.  Neither bill proceeded any further.

Edwards said at a Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR) luncheon last week that she and House committee Republicans are trying to find common ground so a bill can pass the House, at least, this year.

The subcommittee will hold a hearing on NASA’s FY2015 budget request on Thursday.

The Palazzo-Edwards letter says “We must prioritize U.S. leadership in space exploration, especially in light of the expansion of human spaceflight programs in countries such as China and Russia over the past decade.”  Later it adds “In addition to the threat to our civilian preeminence in space, the increasing efforts of other countries to develop human spaceflight capabilities may also threaten U.S. national security.”

Grouping China and Russia together in this context is surprising.   Russia is not only a partner in the U.S. human spaceflight program today, but an enabler of it.   As will be evidenced once again tomorrow night, the only way American astronauts can travel to and from the International Space Station (ISS) is on Russian spacecraft, and the ISS itself is an integrated facility of Russian and American (and European, Japanese and Canadian) hardware.  Russia’s human spaceflight program pre-dates the U.S. program (Yuri Gagarin was the first man to orbit the Earth on April 12, 1961) and had a long series of successful space stations from 1971-2001, including the world’s first space station (Salyut 1 in 1971) and the first multi-modular space station (Mir, 1986-2001).  The letter’s reference to an “expansion” of Russia’s human spaceflight program over the past decade is curious — it was and is a partner in the ISS and, under contract to NASA, is providing crew transportation services for non-Russian astronauts. 

China, by contrast, is still on the human spaceflight learning curve, with just five crewed missions over the past 11 years.  It plans a 60-ton space station by 2023, but that is modest in comparison to ISS.   Some Chinese space officials have been quoted in Chinese media about sending people to the Moon, but China’s most recent official 5-year space plan calls only for studies on a “preliminary plan for a human lunar landing.”

The letter, and Thursday’s hearing, are set against a backdrop of tense relationships between the United States and Russia over Russian’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.  So far, those geopolitical tensions do not seem to have affected ISS cooperation, but the letter’s juxtaposition of Russia and China and national security interests may signal a desire by the subcommittee, at least, for increased scrutiny of U.S. reliance on Russia.

In any case, the letter appears to represent agreement between the two parties on their top NASA priority — human exploration beyond low Earth orbit.   That may not be good news for NASA’s space science, space technology and aeronautics programs, but politically it is a step forward in resolving NASA’s future in a budget-constrained environment.

The letter noticeably does not state what should be the next step in human space exploration.  That issue has separated Congress and the Obama Administration since 2010 when the President cancelled the Constellation program to return astronauts to the Moon and replaced it with the concept of sending humans to an asteroid.  The Obama Administration continues to try and win people over to its asteroid plan and will hold a public forum on Wednesday afternoon towards that end.  

Edwards has not been a supporter of the asteroid mission in the past, but said at the MSBR luncheon that she happened to see NASA Administrator Bolden explaining the Asteroid Redirect Mission to students recently and finally understood why it is important.  The hearing on Thursday may be an opportunity to see if she is willing to fight for it.


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