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Houston Chronicle: Stabilizing NASA

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Houston, Texas, June 6, 2017 | comments
The space agency could benefit from security through presidential transitions.
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America's newest class of astronauts gets a special welcome today from a distinguished guest stopping by the Johnson Space Center.

Vice President Mike Pence is visiting Houston to greet the newest group of space travelers selected to carry the nation's torch into the final frontier. Unfortunately, if history repeats itself, there's really no telling what or where these new astronauts will end up flying with their newly earned wings. And while NASA certainly would've welcomed the vice president arriving in Air Force Two with bales of money to bankroll space exploration, what the agency needs more than anything else is a long-term commitment to achieving a clearly defined set of goals for the country's space program.

After saying almost nothing about NASA during his campaign, President Donald Trump last March signed a space policy bill that imposed comparatively minor cuts in budget just north of $19 billion. Given the cutbacks suffered by other federal agencies in the president's proposed budget, space policy experts said NASA could've fared a whole lot worse. But this fiscal plan is not good for the agency's long-term goals of exploring Mars and developing its next generation of human spaceflight projects.

Still, that's nothing new for NASA. Each time a new president takes the oath of office our space agency gets yanked in a different direction. On the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, President George H.W. Bush proposed sending humans back to the moon and landing astronauts on Mars, but both of those expensive ideas quickly went by the wayside. A decade later, President George W. Bush ordered NASA to retire the space shuttle fleet and prepare for a return to the moon and a mission to Mars. So the space agency started developing the Constellation program, including a new spacecraft called Orion and a lunar lander called Altair. But President Barack Obama killed Constellation, ordered continued development of Orion as a possible space station escape craft, then directed NASA to focus on sending a robot to an asteroid. Now Trump wants to dump the asteroid travel and spend more money on robotic missions to other planets.

What's happening under Trump follows a dishearteningly familiar flight plan for NASA. With every administration, new projects are proposed, old projects are killed and a whole lot of money is wasted on ideas that never get off the ground.

NASA deserves better, and so do taxpayers funding the nation's space program. That's how an idea that's been kicked around the halls of Congress would help. The House Science Committee last year debated restructuring NASA's management, creating a board of directors that would pick nominees for a space agency administrator who would serve a fixed 10-year term, much like the FBI director. Houston congressman John Culberson, an enthusiastic NASA supporter, proposed this legislation as a way to stabilize the space agency through presidential transitions.

Apollo established NASA's legacy as an agency capable of accomplishing the seemingly impossible, but it required a bipartisan commitment lasting almost a decade.

The president has put Pence in charge of the newly revived National Space Council, a White House-level space policy committee that has been inactive for more than 25 years. NASA not only needs White House guidance and a national consensus on the direction of our space program, it also needs long-term leadership with the job security to make its goals a reality. Appointing NASA's administrator for a decade-long term would give badly needed stability to our nation's space program.

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