Sen. LeMieux is a cold warrior until the end

Mike Riggs Contributor
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In his weekly email update, Sen. George LeMieux writes:

President Obama’s visit to Florida last Thursday was a missed opportunity to restore NASA’s vision for manned space flight and exploration. I had hoped the president would articulate what our human space flight program will be going forward. Instead, the message is that the U.S. will still rely on the Russians for access to space, our crew capsule will become a lifeboat, and there is no definitive timetable or destination for future missions.

We cannot have half efforts that create the perception of advancement. Promises to make decisions in the future will only hurt the space program. A rocket without a destination will be a giant leap backward for America’s space leadership.

We need a complete change of course to advance manned space flight and space exploration. Congress will weigh in on this question in the coming weeks. I have authored a bill, S.3180, to preserve the Constellation program which is comprised of the Ares I rocket, the Orion crew vehicle, the Ares V heavy-lift rocket and the Altair lunar lander. Supporters of my legislation include Senators Thad Cochran (R-MS), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Richard Shelby (R-AL), Roger Wicker (R-MS), and Bob Bennett (R-UT). We need the Constellation program, or a Constellation-like program to keep America’s leadership in space.

Now, I can’t help but wonder why America “needs” the Constellation program. Does it feel good to send things into space? Yes! Always! And as with any program cutback there are thousands of government jobs at stake. But is the specter of gloating cosmonauts doing all our science a worthwhile concern? Here’s what the astronauts aboard the Columbia were doing before their shuttle exploded thanks to NASA’s incompetence:

This mission was a yawn—a low-priority “science” flight forced onto NASA by Congress and postponed for two years because of a more pressing schedule of construction deliveries to the International Space Station. The truth is, it had finally been launched as much to clear the books as to add to human knowledge, and it had gone nowhere except into low Earth orbit, around the globe every ninety minutes for sixteen days, carrying the first Israeli astronaut, and performing a string of experiments, many of which, like the shuttle program itself, seemed to suffer from something of a make-work character—the examination of dust in the Middle East (by the Israeli, of course); the ever popular ozone study; experiments designed by schoolchildren in six countries to observe the effect of weightlessness on spiders, silkworms, and other creatures; an exercise in “astroculture” involving the extraction of essential oils from rose and rice flowers, which was said to hold promise for new perfumes; and so forth. No doubt some good science was done too—particularly pertaining to space flight itself—though none of it was so urgent that it could not have been performed later, under better circumstances, in the under-booked International Space Station. The astronauts aboard the shuttle were smart and accomplished people, and they were deeply committed to human space flight and exploration. They were also team players, by intense selection, and nothing if not wise to the game. From orbit one of them had radioed, “The science we’re doing here is great, and it’s fantastic. It’s leading-edge.” Others had dutifully reported that the planet seems beautiful, fragile, and borderless when seen from such altitudes, and they had expressed their hopes in English and Hebrew for world peace. It was Miracle Whip on Wonder Bread, standard NASA fare.

At $18 billion, NASA’s 2010 budget is only 1/2 of 1 percent of the entire federal budget; but noting that an agency has a proportionately modest budget has never stopped fiscal hawks from calling for an end to, say, the NEH or the NEA. It definitely shouldn’t stop them from insisting that Pres. Obama stay true to his promise to encourage private space flight.