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Culberson Weighing Legislation for NASA Overhaul

July 18, 2008

By Stewart M. Powell, Houston Chronicle

Jul. 17–WASHINGTON — Two days after telling an online town hall meeting that NASA had “failed us miserably” and “wastes a vast amount of money,” Houston Rep. John Culberson said Thursday he was weighing legislation to overhaul the structure of the space agency responsible for about 20,000 Houston-area jobs.

Culberson, a blunt-spoken conservative from a heavily Republican westside district, said his proposal would slash NASA headquarter’s bureaucracy and enable scientists and engineers to rekindle visionary space exploration.

“We need revolutionary change, a complete restructuring,” Culberson told the Houston Chronicle. “NASA needs complete freedom to hire and fire based on performance, it needs to be driven by the scientists and the engineers, and it needs to be free of politics as much as possible.”

The fourth-term lawmaker said he was “kicking around” a proposal designed to make NASA more like the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency led by a director and a 24-member board appointed by the president.

Culberson, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said that despite spending $156.5 billion over the past decade, NASA had surrendered “a 40-year advantage” in space exploration. He said the agency continues to rely on liquid-fueled rockets with technology dating back to “Robert Goddard-era rockets” in the 1920s.

“I have always been a zealous advocate for the space program,” said Culberson, who dates his interest in the subject to a childhood telescope. “But the setbacks are inexcusable and maddening — all because the magnificent men and women scientists and engineers have been frustrated by the bureaucracy, waste and duplication at headquarters.”

Culberson’s remarks came two days after criticizing NASA in remarks during a call-in town hall meeting with constituents.

“We’ve spent a fortune on NASA and we don’t have a whole lot to show for it,” Culberson said in response to a question from a caller who harshly criticized NASA. “It’s deeply disappointing and it’s because it’s a government-run agency.”

Citing an essay by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich recently published in Aviation Week, the congressman said Gingrich is “quite right that NASA has failed us miserably.”

“There’s a lot of wonderful people working there,” said Culberson, “but NASA wastes a vast amount of money.”

Culberson’s criticisms of NASA provoked angry responses both from Houston-area Democrats and NASA defenders.

“It’s outrageous to suggest that the agency that put a man on the moon has somehow failed us,” said Culberson’s Democratic challenger, Michael Skelly. “I will always be a strong supporter of NASA.”

Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Stafford, whose congressional district includes NASA’s Johnson Space Center, declared that “now is not the time to take away the tools NASA will use to continue to carry out their mission.”

“Johnson Space Center is a jewel of Texas,” Lampson said. “It’s times like these when I’m relieved — and I know my constituents are relieved — that I’m the representative of JSC.”

Jeffrey E. Carr, spokesman for United Space Alliance, a Houston-based aerospace firm, said that NASA’s technology advances “have created countless industries including a growing commercial space industry, spawned millions of jobs and generated billions of dollars into the economy an immeasurable return on America’s investment.”

John M. Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, challenged Culberson’s claim that the nation had little to show for NASA’s efforts over the past 50 years, adding that NASA had fulfilled what the White House and Congress requested and financed for decades.

“It’s easy to beat up on them because they’re at the end of the shuttle program and they’ve been given inadequate funding by the administration and Congress to move forward with the new program for manned space flight,” Logsdon said.

NASA spokesman Michael Cabbage defended his agency but did not directly address Culberson’s criticisms.

“Congress recently passed a resolution honoring NASA’s rich history of discovery during the past 50 years,” Cabbage said. “NASA fully supports a robust U.S. commercial space industry and NASA funding directly contributes to developing and sustaining this industry.”

In a telephone interview with the Chronicle, Culberson confirmed his town hall meeting comments but said they were not aimed at NASA staff.

“It was never my intention to demean the fine people of NASA who are working their hearts out to do their best with the constraints of a crippling bureaucracy that wastes money inexcusably,” Culberson said.

He said his criticisms were “out of love” for an agency that has long inspired the nation with space exploration such as the moon landings and should be freed to pursue that vision again.

Culberson emphasized that his proposal to revamp NASA’s structure had not been drafted into legislation and that he had not yet solicited co-sponsors.

But prospects for passage of such a measure would difficult, given wide bipartisan support in Congress for NASA and a jam-packed election year congressional calendar.

stewart.powell@chron.com

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