By Cat Hofacker|April 2021
U.S. Rep. Don Beyer
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U.S. Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., begins his tenure as chair of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics with a core belief that aviation and space research should be a “sustained, increased priority” for the United States. In his subcommittee’s work of authorizing programs and recommending funds for NASA, he hopes to boost funding for research on new aircraft designs and propulsion technologies that could help reduce the levels of carbon dioxide emitted by today’s aircraft. At the same time, Beyer also supports NASA’s multibillion-dollar goal of returning astronauts to the moon under the Artemis program. He knows there are difficult choices ahead, and he is fond of paraphrasing John F. Kennedy’s maxim about choosing. I called Beyer at his Washington, D.C., office in February to gauge how the competing aeronautics and space goals might be balanced.
NASA’s biggest role
We have lots of competing demands — all you have to do is read our arguments for the big covid relief bill the House passed on Feb. 27 at 2 a.m. — but we also have to take the middle-term and the long-term view. Even if it takes us another year or so to catch up with where we were before, the economic outlook for the next 10 years, 20 years is pretty darn good. One of the reasons why I say that is because of America’s commitment to science, and probably nothing excites our scientific imagination as much as NASA’s missions. If we want our young people to be studying math, physics, engineering, there needs to be some stimulation of the spirit that drives that. Just imagine what the Perseverance rover landing did to people who are thinking about what they want to study in college or graduate school. And when we get the James Webb Space Telescope up and learn much more about the early universe, that should attract a lot of people to physics and philosophy. And then when the Mars Sample Return comes back with signs of life on Mars, just think what that’s going to do for biology and philosophy and religion. As humanity, we always have to be thinking about the future in big, bold ways.
I’d love to see us reauthorize NASA at higher funding levels. I certainly would love to see the budget increasing at least as quickly as our economy increases. And then within the NASA budget, we’re probably two or three months away from NASA’s completing the review on the timeline for returning humans to the moon. When we hear about that, whether it’s 2024 or 2026 or 2028, there will probably be accompanying budget numbers with it, requirements to make that happen. I’m also very excited about getting the James Webb Space Telescope up in the air. I think that will be just fascinating, the explosion of data compared to Hubble. All the aeronautics research is really important too, including the supersonic flights.
I would love to do it in 2024 if we still can, but we also have to look at what the cost-benefit analysis is. It’s the old John Kennedy line that “to govern is to choose.” If NASA comes back and says, “we can still do it, but we need a 50% increase in our budget,” probably not going to happen. So what can they do with a 10% increase, for instance? I’m sure they’re going to come back and present the costs for different dates, and then the policymakers starting with the president will make that decision.
I don’t think it’s plausible or probably historically accurate to expect the commercial aviation industry to develop all the technologies needed to reduce its carbon footprint without government help, because that’s typically not the way we’ve done it. Some funds come through the defense budget, some through NASA, some through NOAA. It’s going to be a mix of taxpayer dollars and private funds, but I don’t know what the percentage will be. Now that the House has sent the big covid relief package over to the Senate, our next big project is going to be the infrastructure bill. Everyone on the Democratic side expects that the leading objectives in the infrastructure bill are going to be climate related, which will include everything from electric vehicle tax credits for trucks, buses, cars, but then also looking at ways to stimulate the private sector and aeronautics industry to be really committed to low carbon, zero carbon.
One of the challenges, not just for me but for all of us on the subcommittee, is balancing the different missions that NASA has: deep space, moon to Mars, Mars Sample Return, aeronautics and planetary science. The biggest thing is to start at the top line. If we keep the NASA budget the same or decreased, we make it much harder to find that balance. Instead, if we can increase it by 3% or by 5% or by 6%, then all of a sudden there’s a lot more latitude. It’s easier to find a balance that everybody’s happy with. I would say we need to boost the budget for NASA’s aeronautics division. It is critically important, especially when you consider the percentage of overall greenhouse gas emissions that are tied to aviation. Also, the climate parts of the planetary science at NASA should definitely be emphasized. I don’t want to make a commitment on the dollars because I don’t know what they need, what the proposals will be.
Legacy of the Webb telescope
One of the most painful science hearings that I’ve been a part of was in 2018 when the House Science Committee brought in Northrop Grumman CEO Wes Bush and hammered him for two hours about the Webb telescope, how it’s orders of magnitude more expensive and dozens of years past due.
If the telescope launches in October as planned, it’ll arrive in space 14 years behind
the originally scheduled date. — CH
The two basic defenses were No. 1, we’re asking to do way, way more than we were when we first imagined Webb. And then No. 2, we’ve never built a telescope like this before. We were just guessing, and we guessed really wrong. But if I’m my conservative, fiscally careful Republican pal, when we go to do the next telescope, they’re going to have to be asking questions based on the James Webb experience. It’s going to be a hurdle to overcome, and the best way to overcome it is by being as honest, accurate, authentic as we can on how much it’s going to cost, how long it’s going to take and what it’s going to do. Let’s try to learn from the mistakes we’ve made in the past, but those mistakes are definitely not a reason not to build those future telescopes, including the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope.
Softening support for Space Launch System
I do foresee the day NASA might not own its own rocket. I’m not arguing that we abandon the Space Launch System right now, but I think we need to keep an open mind on whether the NASA investment through the defense industrial base is always going to be the right way to develop our deep space rockets. If the private sector can do it as well and is less expensive, I think we need to be open to that. What’s been the downside of having Northrop Grumman and SpaceX deliver supplies or now human beings to the space station? I don’t think there’s any. But we’d have to be able to say, “Can the private sector yet deliver a rocket that can do what we’ve asked SLS to do?” That has to be an ongoing question. I want SLS to be successful — we’ve invested so much in it — but we always need to be sensitive of the trade-offs, the choices that can be made.
Hurdles to working with China
NASA is moving from the only game in town to a partner, a facilitator, and sometimes even a strategic competitor with the U.S. private sector, which is good. We generally all get better when we compete a little bit and we partner where we can and compete where we can. It’s not all that different from how I think the U.S. has to be looking at space competitors around the world: the Indias and United Arab Emirates and Chinas and Russias. I would love to find a way to move in the direction of working with China in space, but not at the expense of ignoring their human rights violations. Unfortunately, international affairs — Uyghur concentration camps, Hong Kong, China cheating on trade deals — makes it harder, but we need to stay at it. We have to find ways to do our very best to hold them accountable for the human rights abuses, for not playing fair in international trading, but at the same time, cooperate with them, partner with them when we can.
National Space Council
I have no objection to the space council. Putting more éminence grise, wise, seasoned people of good intention across the political spectrum in a room to help guide the decisions, means we’re going to make better decisions. The better-run companies have good boards of directors that are independent and thoughtful and will challenge the leader. To the extent that the space council contributes to that kind of wisdom, we should preserve it and make sure it’s strong and functional. On the other hand, we got by for the previous many decades without them, so we certainly can survive, but I do think we would potentially miss that extra layer of reflection, challenge, wisdom. If I were the chief technology officer, chief science adviser to the president or the head of NASA, I would want to welcome an independent group of people who were giving me the very best advice on how to proceed. How do you find that right balance of aeronautics and Earth science and deep space and moon to Mars? — that’s someplace where a space council could be very helpful.