Sean O’Keefe, Bush’s pick for NASA Administrator, was grilled by the Senate in a confirmation hearing on Friday. It’s nice to see that they moved so quickly to confirm him–I was afraid that it might take months. Fortunately, particularly in the current climate, NASA isn’t important enough to play political football with. (This is a thought to keep in mind in the future if O’Keefe comes up with some proposals that would have been politically unthinkable in the past…)
Little new here, just the usual suspects lobbying to maintain jobs in their states while pretending that they actually give a damn about our future in space. Trent Lott was worried about Stennis, Kay Bailey Hutchison was worried about JSC. I didn’t hear from Richard Shelby, but presumably he will go to bat for Marshall.
Nelson, who was the only senator left at the end of the three-hour plus hearing, used much of his allotted time to lecture O’Keefe on the importance of the space shuttle. He advised O’Keefe against following through on the task force recommendation to limit shuttle flights to a rate of four per year. Such a cut would result in major layoffs, he said, and jeopardize NASA’s ability to fly the shuttle safely.
Bill Nelson (D-FL) should be called the “Senator from Shuttle.” He flew in it on a junket as a congressman (the flight before the Challenger disaster), and he’s obviously trying to maintain the jobs base in Cocoa Beach and Titusville. However, in this case, I agree with him. Cutting Shuttle flight rate to save money is a false economy. They need to either fly it at capacity, or shut it down (we know which option Bill Nelson prefers). But going from six flights to four per year would only save about ten percent of the budget, while reducing the number of flights by a third. Hopefully Mr. O’Keefe will understand the basic concepts of average and marginal costs, and act accordingly.
Mr. Nelson has also criticized the Space Launch Initiative, which he says comes at the cost of Shuttle improvements. Here he is totally off base. I’m not a big fan of SLI (a Marshall program to develop new launch technologies, ostensibly to reduce the cost of launch), but Shuttle improvements are an even bigger waste of money–throwing good money after extremely bad. Shuttle is so far away from routine and affordable space transportation that any money spent in “improving” it would be far better spent on something completely new, not that I advocate that NASA do either.
What I’d like to see is for NASA to put up the billions of dollars a year proposed for these programs and simply offer to purchase flights with them from the private sector. This would create a market, the lack of which is what is really keeping costs high–not the lack of technology.
But that won’t produce jobs in Houston, Huntsville and Florida…