Congressmen show support for O'Keefe, NASA budget

Posted: February 6, 2002

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert speaks to conference. Photo: Jeff Foust
One day after NASA's proposed 2003 budget was released by the Bush Administration, two key members of Congress said they supported the budget proposal in general and gave new administrator Sean O'Keefe a vote of confidence.

In separate speeches Monday at the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Forecast Conference in Arlington, Virginia, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), chair of the House Science Committee, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), chair of the science committee's space subcommittee, gave their support to the new NASA administrator and his efforts to bring change to the space agency.

Speaking at a breakfast sponsored by the Space Transportation Association that immediately preceded the conference, Rohrabacher said the change in leadership at the agency was a chance to take a new approach to the agency's problems. "Look at this situation as an opportunity that comes once a decade," he said.

Rohrabacher did not believe that O'Keefe's background -- he came to the space agency from the Office of Management and Budget, where he was deputy director -- was a major problem. While joking calling O'Keefe a "beancounter", Rohrabacher noted that "there's something to be said about being a beancounter."

While he said that he had not had the time yet to review the details of the proposed 2003 NASA budget published Monday, Rohrabacher said he was in general agreement about the proposal. Many of the specific projects Rohrabacher mentioned he supported, such as full funding for the Space Launch Initiative (SLI) program and closer cooperation between NASA and the military about reusable launch vehicle technology development, are included in the budget proposal.

Rohrabacher warned, though, that he would fight any effort to eliminate flight demonstrations of advanced technology from the SLI program. "I will withdraw my support for SLI if flight demonstrators are not vigorously pursued," he said.

Rohrabacher also said that NASA has little choice but to complete the International Space Station, despite its budget and management problems. "We have got to make the station successful; we can't walk away now," he said. "If there's only three astronauts [on the station] it's a failure." He suggested bringing in more international partners, from Ireland to the Middle East, and utilizing Russia's strengths more.

This year will be the final year Rohrabacher will serve as chairman of the space subcommittee because of term limit rules for committee chairs. Rohrabacher plans to use his final year in part to push through legislation he plans to introduce in the near future to establish an award named after the late astronaut Pete Conrad. The award would go each year to the astronomer who discovers the largest near-Earth object, an incentive for more people to look for objects that could pose a hazard to the Earth. "If we got 10,000 young people looking into the sky," he said, "even if they don't find anything it is still a good thing."

In a speech to conference attendees later in the day Boehlert also expressed his support for NASA administrator O'Keefe. While acknowledging that the selection made some people "a little jittery", Boehlert said that O'Keefe brings to the job an open mind and tough questions that are needed for the agency at this time.

Boehlert said that his committee will take up work on an authorization bill for NASA spending, a companion to the appropriations bill that actually gives the agency money, later this month. A full committee hearing on the authorization bill is planned for February 27 before handing it off to Rohrabacher's space subcommittee. The authorization bill should be ready for consideration by the full House of Representatives as soon as the end of April, and no later than Memorial Day.

Boehlert also said he plans to take up the condition of U.S. launch ranges, which he believes have deteriorated severely. "Without question we need to do something to rehabilitate Cape Canaveral," he said. "Its present condition is a source of embarrassment." He didn't give any specifics about his plans, but did mention he plans to urge O'Keefe and the Bush Administration to make launch range improvements a national priority.