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Senator Bill Nelson: "NASA's FY2003 Budget Amendment & A Non-Partisan NASA"

Press Release From: Sen. Bill Nelson
Posted: Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Editor's note: this was delivered on the Senate floor on 20 November 2002 between 2:30 and 3:00 PM

Mr. NELSON of Florida. Mr. President, I have been making a series of speeches about NASA, and I rise again today to speak about this little agency. It is a favorite agency of mine, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Last week, the White House submitted a budget amendment to its 2003 budget request for NASA. The budget amendment, which also retools NASA’s 5-year budget plan, amounts to a watershed point for NASA.

In this budget amendment, the administration has requested a significant change in its 2003 NASA priorities. Instead of funding a program to replace the space shuttle, this amendment seeks to scale back funding for the space launch initiative to a more realistic development time line. This budget amendment, in my opinion, signals a revamping of NASA’s integrated space transportation plan. The new plan incorporates the space shuttle, a new orbital space plane, and technology for future reusable launch vehicles into one comprehensive plan to provide for the advancement of human space flight. It is about time we had such a plan, and I applaud the administration’s efforts to move in this direction.

The new plan includes an increased shuttle launch rate to better meet the research needs of the space station. Under this new budget plan, both the shuttle and the station programs will be funded on a much more sustainable and long-term level, while also seeking to develop a new orbital space plane. This new spacecraft would be used to provide astronauts regular access to the international space station without always needing to rely on the aging space shuttle fleet.

The new budget plan provides for a much-needed infusion of cash to start to provide for space shuttle safety upgrades and infrastructure repairs and modernization. These repairs and improvements will help us fly the shuttle much more safely through the middle of the next decade and possibly even longer.

This funding is a welcome reprieve for the neglected and decaying human space flight infrastructure that is literally falling apart at NASA centers around the country.

The new budget plan also responds to the concerns of a new study. This study, called the ReMAP study, concluded that the space station in its currently planned form would not be able to conduct even a minimum level of science research to call it a science program.

NASA's 2003 budget amendment seeks to fix some of these concerns by providing additional funding to increase the research capabilities onboard the space station. I welcome this decision. I have been into the mockup of the space station at the Johnson Space Center, and the capability for science, for research, is there if we can have the crew members who can be dedicated to the research while in orbit.

With this budget amendment, I am pleased with the administration's restructuring of NASA's budgetary priorities for fiscal year 2003, and I congratulate administrator Sean O'Keefe. In this budget amendment, the administration, with Administrator O'Keefe, and his deputy administrator Fred Gregory, have provided more funding for the shuttle program, including an increased flight rate and more funds dedicated to safety and supportability upgrades, as well as improvements to the ground-based infrastructure.

These areas are in dire need of additional financial support. The space shuttle simply cannot continue to fly safely if NASA does not dedicate additional resources to the orbital fleet. The one missing piece from this plan is the formal cooperation with the departments dealing with the Nation's defense. NASA's new plans to upgrade the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle--everything has an acronym at NASA--or the EELV--to meet the human-rated requirements may also yield great efficiencies and reliabilities for defense launch needs. An orbital space plan could also meet some of our defense needs, and the Air Force has also had on the books for many years plans to develop such a vehicle.

The defense establishment should be part of this effort. DOD, NASA, and other agencies need to pool their resources to develop these high-risk, expensive technology programs. NASA cannot be expected to do this alone. Our country will be better served by jointly developing the technology needed for exploration and use of space.

I congratulate the agency and its leadership on what I think is a budgetary watershed point and one that is a shift in the right direction, and I encourage the defense-related agencies to start cooperating with NASA to develop these new technologies.

Mr. President, there is another area in which I have concern and I want to express it. NASA has a proud history of staying outside the partisan nature of our political arena. As one of the largest independent agencies, NASA has a unique role in the structure of our executive branch. Its leader does not assume a Cabinet-level position, and yet its policies and practices have a significant impact on the strength and future of our Nation's science and technology programs and sector.

No other independent agency has as much influence on our country's innovation capabilities in science and technology, outside of the medical field. Yet unlike the Departments of Commerce or the Department of Education, NASA does not usually get brought into partisan battles or political struggles of Congress. Rather, NASA's nonpartisan approach is more akin to the nonpartisan style of the Department of State and the Department of Defense. There are clearly occasionally disagreements within these Halls about the future of this little agency, but never have the differences come down to simply a question of to which party a Member belongs.

The Nation's space program is not a partisan program. It is an American program, and that is the way the Senators of this body treat it.

In recent weeks, constituents, newspaper columns, editorials, and NASA employees have brought to my attention at least two incidents of partisan political activity on the part of the agency's head, who may have been acting at the direction of the White House itself.

In October, NASA's Administrator made a decision that could stand to challenge this agency's traditional bipartisan and nonpolitical status. Administrator Sean O'Keefe flew to Alabama to campaign for a candidate for Governor, and then he publicly announced his plans to travel to Florida to hold a space town hall meeting for a non-incumbent congressional candidate. He also participated in a fundraiser in Alabama.

Now, in this last announced trip, were it not for a mechanical problem that delayed his flight beyond the candidate's reasonable timeframe, Administrator O'Keefe would have been on the ground in Florida conducting political campaign events.

I am troubled about the implications of this public decision. At present, I have the good fortune of cooperating on space policy issues with dozens of my colleagues in both parties. Senators who share my love and enthusiasm for space exploration include Senators TRENT LOTT, DON NICKLES, ORRIN HATCH, KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON, CONRAD BURNS, GEORGE ALLEN, RICHARD SHELBY, BARBARA MIKULSKI, JOHN BREAUX, MARY LANDRIEU, and BOB GRAHAM.

When it comes to supporting our favorite little agency, we agree wholeheartedly and together happily roll up our sleeves and work on furthering the Nation's space-faring capabilities, despite what other issues might separate us, or despite the partisanship in which we sometimes engage in this body.

In the other Chamber, NASA's supporters come from both sides of the aisle. Representatives TOM DELAY, DANA ROHRABACHER, KEN CALVERT, DAVE WELDON, NICK LAMPSON, RALPH HALL, BART GORDON, and BUD CRAMER are but a few who have repeatedly gone out on a limb for NASA.

By announcing his plans to participate, being perceived as acting in his official capacity as the head of NASA, Administrator O'Keefe diminished the spirit of bipartisanship. Well, thank goodness for an airline mechanical problem on that last occasion.

So I rise to make a public request of our Administrator, which follows the private request I made of him prior to his scheduled trips, and that was a private one before the fact. My request now publicly is do not ruin the spirit of bipartisanship and bipartisan cooperation that NASA and its supporters enjoy.

When it comes to political campaigns, just stay out of them altogether and keep the long-standing tradition that NASA Administrators stay out of partisan politics.

This is a speech in which for the first two-thirds I praised the Administrator of NASA for the change in direction that I think is a good change, and I think shows his good leadership, but it is a speech also with a heavy heart that since he would not take my advice, or that of many others privately, it needs to be stated publicly that there is a great and long-standing tradition that NASA Administrators stay out of partisan politics.

I ask unanimous consent that supporting documentation be printed in the RECORD.

I wish all of the Senate, all of our colleagues in Congress, as well as the American people, Happy Thanksgiving.

I yield the floor.

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