Ever since President George W. Bush’s decision to retire the space shuttles in the aftermath 2003’s Columbia disaster, NASA’s human spaceflight program has been adrift. Bush told NASA to go back to the Moon. Obama canceled most of those plans, directing the agency instead to a nearby asteroid—a proposal that has proved very controversial among scientists and policymakers. Both administrations held NASA to the unrealistic long-term goal of sending people to Mars with grossly inadequate funding. As the new Republican majority gets settled in Congress and the nation gears up for presidential elections in 2016, it seems increasingly unlikely that a coherent and sustainable plan for the space agency will emerge anytime soon. That reality was evident in Tuesday’s meeting of the Senate Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee.
The meeting was chaired by Senator Ted Cruz, the Republican from Texas, Tea-Party firebrand and presidential hopeful. Despite his limited-government, cost-conscious reputation, Cruz came across as a booster of an expansive federal program of human spaceflight—or at least an expensive one. He referred to President John F. Kennedy’s boldness in calling for the 1960s NASA moonshots, and went out of his way to express his strong support for the agency’s ongoing development of the Space Launch System (SLS), a hugely expensive heavy-lift rocket that many have criticized as outdated, inefficient and a prime example of pork-barrel spending. Cruz also praised NASA’s burgeoning efforts to outsource launching crew and cargo to the International Space Station using commercial suppliers such as SpaceX and Boeing. SpaceX is also pursuing its own heavy-lift rocket program, which, if successful, could deliver many of the same capabilities as SLS, but at only a fraction of the cost.
“The national space program is a nonpartisan issue, ” said Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida and staunch champion of the SLS, responding to Cruz. “Blossoms are breaking out all over Washington, because what you just said, you and I completely agree on.”