WHITTINGTON: A New Texas Representative Has A NASA Problem

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Mark Whittington Contributor
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Newly-elected Texas Democrat Lizzie Fletcher is basking in the afterglow of her victory over the soon-to- retire Rep. John Culberson, a Republican who has represented the state’s 7th congressional district since 2001. Fletcher has, by all accounts, promised to legislate in moderation and to find common ground while in Washington.

However, Fletcher also has some fences to mend because of a campaign strategy she pursued that attacked Culberson`s support of science, in particular, a telescope at the southern tip of South America and a mission to explore Jupiter’s moon Europa. Her campaign claimed that Culberson was neglecting the needs of the district in favor of science and space exploration.

However, by winning on this basis, Fletcher has caused a great deal of alarm in the scientific and space communities.

An ad the Fletcher campaign ran comparing Culberson’s support for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope to his alleged lack of support for FEMA funding and dam reconstruction was judged by Politifact to be “mostly false.” Another particularly nasty ad, run on her behalf by Michael Bloomberg’s super PAC, openly mocked the Europa Clipper, a NASA mission to explore an ice-shrouded moon of Jupiter to search for life.

Greg Autry, an associate professor at the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Southern California, took a dim view of the Europa ad in Forbes. Professor Autry compared Fletcher to the late and unlamented Sen. William Proxmire, who waged a relentless war on science and space exploration during his 30 years in office.

The Planetary Society was also alarmed about the ad, calling it anti-science: “The ad, as you can see, dredges up dismissive tropes used to caricature space science and exploration advocates: cartoonish aliens, ‘Jetsons’-style futurism, and false dichotomies of space versus ‘real’ issues.”

Even the Houston Chronicle, which warmly supported Fletcher’s candidacy, opined that her victory might place the return-to-the-moon program in jeopardy. Unlike the Europa Clipper, funding cuts in the lunar effort would grievously affect the Johnson Spaceflight Center.

Clearly, the newly-elected representative-elect has some work to do. Fortunately, that work of trying to establish common ground with the scientific and aerospace communities that her campaign dumped on could be done with a minimum of effort. The task wouldn’t even involve going to Space Camp, which Professor Autry suggested, though that might be a great idea if Fletcher would like to learn more about space education.

Fletcher could, perhaps with a group of other freshmen members of Congress, take a tour of the Johnson Spaceflight Center. She should learn more about the vital importance of NASA programs, especially the return to the moon, not only for her district but for the nation as a whole.

Fletcher could also reach out to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine for more advice. Bridenstine was a member of Congress and therefore knows about the politics of space inside that legislative body.

Fletcher could consult a number of other experts. Curt Niebur, the program scientist for Solar System Exploration, including the Europa Clipper mission, works at NASA headquarters in Washington and would be easy to reach.

Finally, Fletcher should make a public declaration affirming her support for NASA and space exploration in general. The speech could take place during the House special orders or at a specific event either in Washington or Houston.

Fletcher should come to understand that one can support programs such as the Europa Clipper which have worldwide importance and tend to more mundane issues in her district such as flood control and mobility. What she should not want is to be tagged with the label of anti-science warrior akin to Proxmire. The label would cast a shadow over Fletcher’s time in public service, generate attack lines from her opponents, and taint her place in history.

Lizzie Fletcher could, instead, become a leader in the advancement of science, space, and technology. The choice is hers.

Mark Whittington (@MarkWhittington) is the author of Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? and The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He also operates his own blog, Curmudgeons Corner. 

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.