Transparency and fiscal discipline must be part of final Shuttle decision

Rep. Pete Olson Contributor
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Earlier this month, the space shuttle Discovery completed its final mission. America now awaits the final two shuttle missions, the flights of Endeavour and Atlantis. The end of the shuttle program should be the dawn of the next vehicle system to carry Americans into space. However, in two successive budgets, the administration has attempted to kill NASA’s human space flight program, citing cost as the primary reason. However, it has no problem using taxpayer dollars to retire one of the orbiters to a museum in a politically important state.

Tucked away in the president’s 2012 budget proposal is an earmark for $14 million in taxpayer funds to prepare shuttle Atlantis for display in the Air Force’s Wright-Patterson Flight Museum in Dayton, Ohio. This might seem like a drop in the water in the context of the massive federal budget, but it is further evidence that this administration is comfortable wasting the taxpayer’s dime. There is no need for tax dollars to fund this when guaranteed private funding exists — though perhaps not where the president wants the orbiter to go. Private entities in Houston, the home of the Johnson Space Center and the human space flight function of NASA, have already offered to fund the preparation and permanent housing of one of the retired orbiters should it be selected to receive one. Under specific, NASA-established criteria for determining the best location for exhibiting the retired orbiters, competing communities must complete a thorough proposal that includes a plan to pay for, or raise through private funding, the costs associated with hosting the shuttle.

NASA has repeatedly delayed the announcement of where the final orbiters will be housed. The decision was expected last year and was postponed again into 2011. While NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is expected to make the “official” announcement of the decisions on April 12, the administration’s handling of this process is disappointing at best and political at worst. The space community and those interested in hosting an orbiter have been thrown for a loop with the president’s Air Force earmark. If the decision has already been made internally, without a final and formal announcement, it is inappropriate and unfair to the communities that have a relevant history and interest in housing a shuttle. The administration’s budget maneuver is a disappointing move that rightfully fuels speculation of political intent. More importantly, the unnecessary allocation of taxpayer funds in this process is simply wrong.

Our nation faces record deficits, and we are fighting two wars. To use the Air Force budget in this way is indefensible, especially when private funding is available. Taxpayers should be troubled by the threat of their hard-earned tax dollars being wasted in this way. As Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis roll off the flight line and into the museums, the American people should be confident that fiscal prudence and history determined their final homes — not wasteful political considerations.

Rep. Pete Olson represents Texas’s 22nd Congressional District.