July 18, 2008
Culberson v. NASA

This ought to be fun to watch.

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 jobs in the Houston area.

Culberson, a blunt-spoken conservative from a heavily Republican westside district, said his proposal would slash NASA headquarters' 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.


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," said Lampson. "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 spaceflight," Logsdon said.

I don't have a whole lot of time to analyze this right now. NASA certainly isn't above criticism, but I'll bet Culberson winds up walking back on what he said. He's going to get a lot of pushback on it, and I don't think this is going to be a winning campaign issue for him. He may dig his heels in, which will make this even more fun, but I think he'll be making some clarifications, if nothing else. Enjoy the spectacle in any event.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 18, 2008 to National news

** I don't have a whole lot of time to analyze this right now. **

Hey, five sentences after a lengthy blockquote is pretty good given the demands on your time right now!

Posted by: Kevin Whited on July 18, 2008 7:53 PM

But at least there were no typos. We all know that's what you really care about in a blog post.

By the way, are you gonna answer the question from your last comment, or is this once again just another drive-by?

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on July 18, 2008 10:46 PM

I think he's being lambasted unfairly. He said that it had become too bureaucratic. He wants NASA to be structured more like the National Science Foundation-- where there's a simple hierarchy of appointed positions, but other than that, the scientists and engineers are allowed free reign. Ask any NASA engineer, and 90% will agree with this approach. Check the Chronicle's article in Friday's paper-- I enjoyed Lampson's quote... what a dufus.

Posted by: kevin on July 19, 2008 1:10 AM

Did NASA become such a mess under Culberson's watch in Congress? Or has he just now decided to make his indignation public? Yawn.

Posted by: john thornton on July 19, 2008 5:57 AM

Boys, boys. Stop this or I'll make you stay late after class to clean the blackboards.

Posted by: Dennis on July 19, 2008 8:48 AM

Culberson is right. NASA is incompetent and determined to remain so. Obvious examples:

  • One third of the shuttle fleet destroyed because high management discouraged and suppressed bad news moving upward
  • Parts for Hubble Space Telescope made to two measuring systems, metric and English (what were English measurements doing there anyway?)
The willingness to ask hard questions and demand truthful answers is ruthlessly rooted out and expelled at NASA. It's not often that I find myself in complete agreement with an ultra-conservative repub, but this is the time. If you've ever done business with those people as I have, it is IOTTMCO that you're dealing with people who know first how to get along and not make waves.

Culberson's suggestion that a remodel along NSF lines sounds good at first glance.

Posted by: Curtis on July 19, 2008 4:14 PM
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