TCS Daily

The Lame Duck that Soared

By Charles Matthew Rousseaux - November 30, 2004 12:00 AM

"I'm learning to fly."
-- Tom Petty

When the history of this lame duck Congress is written, historians may make little notes about the dustup over intelligence reform. However, their long memories are likely to record that, by funding the President's space initiative, this was a lame duck that soared.

The $16.2 billion that Congress authorized for NASA, a five percent increase in its budget, made it official that mankind is headed outwards again -- to the moon, to Mars, and beyond. The House also passed a revised commercial space bill, which just a short time ago, was pronounced deader than Tom Daschle's political career.

The funding was unexpected (seeing a couple of turkey drumsticks rise and do a hoedown on a platter of leftovers, with the dressing doing the calling, would also be "unexpected"). Budgets are tight this year; deficits are high. Many agencies took budget cuts, and overall discretionary spending increased by about one percent.

NASA is a relatively easy target for budget cutters (in fact, the House version of the budget cut the agency's funding by a billion dollars). The agency has had its share of boondoggles and accidents, to say nothing of a mercifully few high-profile tragedies. NASA foes are fond of focusing on the many needs that funds spent on space could serve on earth -- especially with a war on. NASA friends sometimes come across as space cadets -- because some of them actually are.

How the administration rose to the challenge of raising funds for the rise into space is instructive. President Bush did not try to win his case in the court of public opinion. His silence on the space vision subsequent to his January speech was taken as a token that he lacked the will; his vision lacked the votes, or both.

Yet the strength of will was not in the number of words, but rather the expected results. Mr. Bush simply insisted that the vision would be funded or a veto would fall, while Vice President Dick Cheney and NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe cajoled members of Congress.

The decision still came down to the final debate. "The Hammer," Tom DeLay, would probably deserve the nickname "The Rocket" if that wasn't already been taken by someone else in Houston, since the Majority Leader made what Florida Rep. Dr. Dave Weldon called a "goal line stand," on the bill. When Congressional negotiators came up with a NASA budget that fell far short of what the President requested, Mr. DeLay threatened to make his name a verb, and declared that the omnibus would not leave the station. When the gavel finally banged down on the omnibus bill, the President had what he wanted, and NASA's manned program had wings.

Admittedly, the omnibus is in most ways a turkey, stuffed with pork and garnished with ill-conceived projects. While those add-ons and leftovers have given fiscal conservatives heartburn, the bill has sent pulses in the space community racing palpably.

NASA's real work has just begun. It will be years before the first manned mission heads beyond earth orbit, and many more challenges must be overcome. Yet one of the most difficult steps -- the first one -- has been taken. As Mr. O'Keefe said shortly after the budget was agreed to, "This is a great day. It's a good start." Once a few successes are landed, program funding may become largely self-sustaining.

Another previously grounded measure is also achingly close to lifting off. The Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, which is designed to establish predictable, practicable guidelines for sub-orbital flights of the X-Prize type, had been pronounced deader than week-old leftovers shortly before Thanksgiving. Sponsored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, the bill sailed through the House earlier this year, but then stalled in the Senate. But the legislation made a sudden came back in the lame duck, survived a series of bipartisan compromises, and is now awaiting final Senate passage.

Policymakers should continue to do all that they can to involve the innovators from the private sector. Burt Rutan demonstrated the possibilities with his X-Prize winning SpaceShipOne, and there's a great deal more potential on that free market frontier.

Meanwhile, the manned program is being driven upwards by a group better known for its button-downs: A major league team owner (President Bush) and a small businessman (Tom DeLay), a budget analyst (Administrator O'Keefe), and a speechwriter (Mr. Rohrabacher). That these would be the individuals to put new lift into the space program is "unexpected."

Lifting it is. Earlier this month, NASA selected seventy proposals, worth more than $1 billion, to create and develop new technologies and capabilities needed to begin fulfilling the space vision ranging from high-thrust systems to lunar construction equipment. On Nov. 30, it will hold a public workshop to receive ideas for missions and technologies needed to fulfill the first steps of the vision. NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts recently requested ideas for revolutionary systems that will be needed decades from now.

Years from now, when private flights are lifting with grinning regularity, and mankind is on the verge of putting footprints on Mars, the space decisions made by this Congress might be the most remembered.

NASA is now headed in a new direction. Outwards. By poising America to take the next steps into the final frontier, this session has become the lame duck that soared.

Charles Rousseaux is the speechwriter for Interior Secretary Gale Norton. The far-out views expressed are his own.


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