Congressman Pete Olson

Representing the 22nd District of Texas

Op-Ed: Doing the Hard Things

February 18, 2009


During the debate on the economic stimulus proposals in the House, many different standards were used by my colleagues to justify policies and proposals eligible for funding. But there are some standards that are universally accepted as ones worthy of government investment: does it advance our national interests, does it create jobs, and does it serve as a worthwhile investment both in time, energy and resources? To me, our nation’s space program meets these criteria. It has throughout its rich history and based on current and future missions it has scheduled, it will in the future.

The debate across our government generally, and frankly within NASA specifically, about funding priorities is a good one. A blank check, especially written by the government, is not a good management incentive for innovation in my opinion.

Contributing to that debate on NASA priorities, a set of recommendations were released out of the James Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University that offered suggestions for NASA’s future. I appreciate the authors’ thoughtful analysis of the issues facing our space program, but have to question their ultimate conclusions.

The release date of January 20th nicely coincided with the inauguration of our new President. On that historic day, the last participant to pass the presidential viewing stand before President and Mrs. Obama was the next-generation lunar rover that astronauts will use for future exploration of the moon. I wonder what the President would have thought had he known that by following the recommendations in this report the rover before him would do more exploring on Pennsylvania Avenue than on the lunar surface.

In the aftermath of the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy, NASA’s mission expanded to include exploration beyond Low Earth Orbit, including a return to the Moon, and eventually on to Mars and beyond.  We aren’t committed to going to the Moon on a whim, or just to rehash old glory. We are returning to stay, and to perform scientific experiments we didn’t even deem possible back in the Apollo era.

The authors challenge NASA to prove "its relevance in the post Cold War world." To me the question about relevance is beyond debate. NASA provides the only means our nation currently has to access space with manned and unmanned missions while also performing cutting edge research. The issue NASA must deal with is one of expectations.

What do we want the American space program to look like? I believe that most Americans support a space program that actually flies humans beyond low earth orbit and supports exploration of the moon, Mars, and beyond.

The current state of NASA cannot become the status quo. We must move forward, expand research and research partnerships, and fully fund exploration as well as aeronautics and science research. The partnerships that the agency already engages in regarding climate change research should continue, and in certain cases be expanded.

Balancing these programs is not an easy task in today’s current budget environment, I understand that. But that doesn’t make it any less worth fighting for.

There is a tremendous amount of scientific research to be performed in monitoring Earth’s atmosphere and climate, but also to explore the Moon or Mars for signs of water and other signs of life. We recently celebrated the 5th Anniversary of the twin rovers on Mars. To me, the achievements of Spirit and Opportunity only further instill the need to send humans to the red planet to perform the research robots cannot do.

There are men and women who are willing to take that journey, and accept that risk. I know because most of them live and work in the 22nd District of Texas, and I’m honored to represent them in Congress. But I’m confident there are those willing to take that risk residing in every district across this country. There are millions of children who have been born post-Apollo, who look at the moon and think of our history, not our future. That is not the vision President Kennedy advocated in his challenge to our nation.

In 1962, President Kennedy spoke at Rice University, my alma mater, and stated that " We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

In addition to going back to the moon, NASA is committed to doing the "other things." The "other things" today are what the authors are calling for: climate change research, a well rounded aeronautics program, and a thriving science program in addition to our manned space program of space shuttle, space station and planning for our journeys to the moon, Mars and beyond. NASA is trying to balance their efforts with a too small budget for all these goals.

Today, the work that NASA does, in each center across this country, by each civil servant and contractor, is not easy, although they have built their reputation over the last 50 years by doing the hard stuff and making it look easy. NASA has served throughout its history as the Agency that heightens our expectations, not diminishes them. Let us work to keep it that way.