By Cat Hofacker|January 2020
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran grew up two hours from Wichita, Kansas, the self-styled “Air Capital of the World” and home of manufacturing giants Textron and Spirit AeroSystems. As a Senate appropriator, he is now one of the legislators who decide how to spend U.S. taxpayer dollars on aerospace, including those that go to the FAA and also, via the subcommittee he leads, to NASA and NOAA. With power comes hard decisions, including whether Congress should fund NASA’s Artemis lunar landing program and require an overhaul of the FAA aircraft certification process after the Boeing 737 MAX crashes. I discussed these priorities and more with Moran by phone from his office in Washington, D.C.
IN HIS WORDS
Balancing (and passing) budgets
A continuing resolution is damaging to everybody, all the federal agencies and investments that are made. A continuing resolution whereby Congress cannot get its act together to reach a conclusion about next year’s funding is especially damaging to science, to exploration of space, to things that are long-term projects. So one of the things that is always important in the appropriations process is there has to be give and take between various members of our committee, members of the United States Senate, the House and the White House. There has to be working together to get a result because in the absence of a result, we fall back to either a government shutdown or we fall back to a continuing resolution that freezes spending from one year to the next. The people who are on the Appropriations Committee are generally very interested in cooperation, looking for an end result — not just a statement. We’ve tried to put ourselves in positions that are advantageous to working with others in the Senate, in the Congress, to reach a result.
2024: “A great goal for this country”
My experience is with the Apollo Program and what it meant to me at a much younger age than today: a fascination not just with space, but with science. I’ve seen time and time again with people who were young and are now involved in science or space or aeronautics. The lunar landing had a consequence on their lives; it captured their attention. That is part of the reason that I’m interested in space exploration, accelerating the date for a lunar landing. At a time in which our country is so divided, it’s hard to find consensus on things; we have tremendous challenges with other countries in the world in regard to technology and our national security. A lunar landing in this time frame would help bring the country together. It would advance science for our national security purposes and demonstrate to the world that, again, the United States is a leader in space exploration. I would never attribute motives to others, but this is something that I hope does not become partisan. It’s not about the fact that the president, the vice president are promoting it. This is either a good idea or not. And while I applaud the administration for championing an early arrival on the moon, I wouldn’t want anybody to take away from that that this is a political statement. Certainly not a political statement by me; don’t think it’s necessarily a political statement by the administration. It’s trying to urge us to go places that we need to go, and we need to get there sooner because we have such competition and the challenges are so great. So part of it is science and moving forward in the world of technology, and part of it to me is an opportunity to bring the country together.
Wanted: cost estimate for Artemis lunar program
I’ve encouraged the administration, I’ve asked NASA Administrator Bridenstine, I’ve asked the Office of Management and Budget, have visited with others at the White House, saying, “We need to see those numbers.” I wish we had a five-year plan now; I think it would be valuable to us as appropriators. I’m not interested in investing in something that I don’t have a sense for what the next amount of money, what the next investment requirement is. I wish we had something that we don’t have, which is numbers today. As we negotiate with the House over this issue, it’s fair to all of us — Republicans, Democrats, House and Senate — to have an idea of what the administration’s cost estimates are for Artemis. There’s a lot of uncertainty. I mean, there’s a reason that they’re hard to come by, but it would be useful to have, both as a practical matter of how we look at what’s next, but also just provide some certainty to someone like me that’s a supporter of Artemis to know what it is that’s expected in the future. I am continuing to encourage those numbers to be made available as quickly as possible, and it is a matter of educating not just myself, but all of my colleagues and then analyze those numbers and see if they make sense.
Standing by Artemis
I would not withdraw my support for the concept of a lunar landing [should the estimated cost be higher than hoped]. The question is at what time frame does that lunar landing occur? If we aren’t allocated sufficient resources within our appropriations subcommittee, or if the costs are significantly more than what was expected or what’s been talked about, then that creates a problem with the time frame in which that landing could occur. Every appropriations process involves establishing priorities. I think it’s important for me and my colleagues to hear from a wide array of those involved in space, in aeronautics, in STEM education. There’s a significant number of components, of money, that is spent within the NASA budget. The Senate Appropriations Committee knows it’s a priority to have funding for STEM education, for example, or aeronautics. Those are components that we don’t want to walk away from, and we will have to work hard to find the right balance. That will take information, testimony, hearings from Administrator Bridenstine, but also from others outside NASA and within NASA.
Partnering with industry
So many of the things that the private sector will learn and accomplish in aeronautics are things that translate well into NASA. The transfer of information, the understanding of the science involved is valuable to both the public and private sector. We know that we can do more, we can better protect taxpayer dollars and we could advance science and technology in the United States by that public-private partnership. This is a concept that makes sense today, particularly as the expense of aspects of aeronautics just continue to increase. We face a world in which other countries are much more robust in their support for science and technology, and we do so at a risk to our innovation economy, and we do so at a risk to our national security.
Our global competitors are advancing rapidly in their development of these technologies. It is important not only for the speed, but for the application of what we learned in the process of getting that speed, what that means elsewhere to development of innovative ideas and modes of transportation in this country. My impression is that we face significant challenges in the amount of resources that China and others are putting into this arena, and it is important for us, as best we can, to keep up. We also have a robust private sector that is advantageous, so you cannot compare one country to another because our private sector is fully engaged, and together we can accomplish these things. But we are challenged to stay at the forefront, due to the resources that other countries are putting into their programs.
737 MAX fallout
I think it’s premature for me to reach a conclusion of what went wrong. I’m still looking for more answers. I recognize that the ODA [Organization Designation Authorization] process is critical to the industry remaining competitive. It is a question of how do we move forward rapidly but never jeopardizing safety. I’m anxious for this MAX issue to be resolved, for us to know what all of the experts have concluded so that we can find that correct balance in safety and advancing technology. Depending upon what the result of this investigation shows, the private sector has a role to play. The private sector has a lot of stake. In determining what role the FAA and the private sector play, I think it takes both of them: strong oversight but a continued presence by the private sector in the process.
The return of the MAX
When it’s certified, its safety has improved, I don’t think I have any qualms about flying in a 737 MAX. My expectation is that the traveling public, the consumer, will be generally satisfied once the FAA and other international regulators reach the conclusion that the fix, whatever that is, has occurred and the problem has been solved. There is still a significant amount of credibility from consumers in that regulatory process. All eyes are on the FAA. If there was disagreement between regulators, the FAA and others internationally, I don’t think that solves the problem, the consumer issue, the sense of security and safety. There can’t be a debate. This issue has to be resolved in a way in which there is no longer debate about “Has it been fixed correctly? Is the plane now safe?”