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.