NASA's pork feeds hometown projects

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T. Keith Glennan considered his options.

The year was 1959, and a powerful Houston congressman had just offered NASA's first leader 1,000 acres of prime Texas real estate to construct a new space center.

On the one hand, Albert Thomas controlled space spending in the U.S. House. On the other hand, Houston was much farther from NASA's headquarters than the existing Goddard Space Flight Center in nearby Maryland. It was just a year after NASA's creation, and Glennan wanted Congress to fund improvements to Goddard, allowing the space program to grow up just miles from Washington.

Thomas offered a simple choice: Build the Houston center or get nothing for Goddard. Glennan chose Houston.

It was a political lesson well learned.

In the years since, NASA has spread its centers and dollars across the country, primarily to build a broad political support base for its vision of space exploration. By design, hundreds of lawmakers now represent states or districts whose economies are driven at least in part by the space program.

The downside of that arrangement is that it created legions of parochial lawmakers with economic-preservation interests.

Some of those lawmakers have forced the agency to spend hundreds of millions of dollars maintaining unwanted technologies in order to preserve jobs back home. And NASA has backed off efforts to modernize and streamline after lawmakers complained that local workers or businesses would be affected.

"NASA is truly a creature of Congress," said Howard McCurdy, co-editor of Spaceflight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership, which describes the exchange between Glennan and Thomas, who are no longer living.

Hometown porkTexas aerospace workers are still benefiting from the legacy of Thomas and another powerful Lone Star state booster for whom NASA's largest facility is named -- senator turned President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Today, Houston's Johnson Space Center houses Mission Control and the astronaut corps.

Besides Texas and its headquarters in Washington, D.C., NASA's nine other major centers are spread across seven other states -- Florida, California, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, Alabama and Mississippi. But the agency's reach does not stop there. In fiscal year 2001, NASA doled out $11.2 billion in contracts to companies in 48 states and the District of Columbia.

An Orlando Sentinel analysis of federal-contract data shows that although more than half of those funds went to the four states with NASA's most-important centers -- in order, Texas, California, Maryland and Florida -- even states without major centers did very well.

For 2001, that included Utah, home to the Thiokol Propulsion division of Alliant Techsystems Inc. that makes motors for the shuttle's solid rocket boosters, and Louisiana. The Michoud Assembly Facility in east New Orleans builds the massive external fuel tanks for the space shuttle.

The widespread funding gives NASA a broad coalition with an urge for preservation of the space program, something NASA lobbyists have worked to the agency's advantage.

For example, in 1993, lobbyists heavily touted the local economic benefits of the international space station to help stave off a move in Congress to kill the orbiting science lab. The station survived by one vote.

Of the 155 members of Congress from the eight states with NASA's largest centers -- Texas, Florida, California, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, Alabama and Mississippi -- only 37 voted against it. In Florida and Texas, the two with the highest space profile, only three of 53 lawmakers voted to end funding for the space station.

"It was hard to find anyone who wasn't receiving some kind of NASA funding in their district," said former Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., who led a charge to abandon the station because of continual cost overruns. Roemer said lawmakers from big NASA states would tell him, " 'Tim I can't vote for you; I've got too many jobs in my district.' Then they'd whisper, 'But if you had a secret ballot on this, you'd probably win.' "

A decade after that historic vote, as the agency faces tighter and tighter budgets, NASA continues to tout local economic benefits in lobbying congressional lawmakers. But the increasing reliance on those arguments has sometimes limited NASA's ability to act independently. For example:

  • In 1992, Rep. Jamie Whitten, the powerful chair of the House committee that oversees the federal budget, took $360 million from, among other places, the space-shuttle program. Whitten redirected the money to a booster-rocket facility in his rural Mississippi district that NASA no longer wanted.
  • NASA's repeated attempts to cut an unmanned trip to Pluto for financial and technological reasons have been thwarted by Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski. Just this year, Mikulski, the ranking Democrat on the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA funding, put $95 million back in the budget to finance a probe to the distant planet. Two facilities in Mikulski's state, The Applied Physics Laboratory at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University and the Goddard center, are involved with the Pluto mission.Duplicated effortsThe give and take between NASA and Congress dates to the earliest days of the space program.President John F. Kennedy, whose bold vision for space exploration pushed astronauts to the moon, helped his brother Sen. Ted Kennedy bring home NASA pork to Massachusetts. The Electronics Research Center was built in Cambridge in 1964, bringing more than 1,000 jobs to the area shortly after Ted Kennedy won an election in which he promised to "do more for Massachusetts," according to NASA historical documents.NASA shuttered the research center in 1970, the only major facility the agency ever closed. But it continued to expand in places where key congressional lawmakers stood to benefit.For example, in 1993, NASA established its Independent Verification and Validation Facility to handle software for the space station and shuttles in the hills of West Virginia. Its chief backer was none other than a West Virginia senator famous for bringing federal dollars to his home state, Robert Byrd, then the powerful chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.By the turn of the century, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin looked at the spread of the agency's centers and saw this: two centers duplicating tasks, other centers using outmoded technology to perform unnecessary tasks, and others doing research that could best be performed by other federal agencies.For instance, NASA was operating wind tunnels at Ames Research Center in California and Langley Research Center in Virginia. Glenn Research Center outside of Cleveland and Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama were both performing basic propulsion research.Goldin began a comprehensive review of NASA's resources -- the Strategic Resource Review -- with an expectation by some in Congress of consolidation or even closure of centers. NASA should not be a "guaranteed jobs program," he declared, according to published reports from 2001.By then, though, for many areas it had become exactly that. As of June 2002, NASA employed more than 64,233 civil and private employees at is various centers.Push for status quoHaving complained about NASA's constant budget overruns, many in Congress welcomed the Strategic Resource Review. But some lawmakers worried about the effect elimination of a program -- or worse, a center -- would have on local jobs.For example, NASA considered closing wind tunnels at Virginia's Langley in 2001 and consolidating research between the Glenn center in Ohio and the Marshall center in Alabama in 1999. Both times, lawmakers representing those states demanded assurances from Goldin that their centers would not be targeted. Goldin told them not to worry."Anything that has the possibility of reduction of staffing or closing of facilities makes Congress nervous or unhappy," said John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. "To take a national viewpoint -- what's good for space program as opposed to what's good for Kennedy [Space Center], Marshall or Johnson is asking legislators to behave unnaturally."Rep. Tom Feeney, a freshman Oviedo Republican who represents Kennedy Space Center, said he is not ashamed to put the concerns of Florida space workers first."I think you always have to advocate where you can in good conscience for your constituents," he said. "When we can do it just as well or better in my district, I will say so."No big changesAfter Sean O'Keefe replaced Goldin as NASA chief in late 2001, the Strategic Resource Review was delayed several times. A report produced in August 2002 did not recommend any closures or major consolidations.O'Keefe, who was brought in to clean up the agency's finances, said NASA still is looking at ways to become more fiscally efficient.But some involved with the process on Capitol Hill privately think O'Keefe, a rising star in the Bush administration, ended the resource review to avoid a nasty political fight over closures or consolidation.Bolstering that view was the public dressing-down O'Keefe received from Tom DeLay, then the third-ranking Republican in the U.S. House, four months before the report was released.DeLay, a suburban Houston representative, at a congressional hearing called O'Keefe's vision for spaceflight "timid and anemic" after NASA tried to eliminate a space-station "lifeboat" being developed by engineers at Johnson Space Center, many of whom DeLay represents.Tom Young, a member of a NASA oversight board also looking at ways to cut costs at NASA, said a serious push for consolidation would spark a political backlash on par with what the Pentagon faces when it closes military bases."There are powerful elements of the Congress who can influence that whole process, so it's extraordinarily difficult," he said. "I think it only can come into being if the legislative branch and the administrative branch say together, 'We've got a fundamental problem and we've got to go work.' "After the Columbia disaster that killed seven astronauts on Feb. 1, Congress pledged to conduct a serious review of NASA's mission and structure. For the first time since the 1986 Challenger disaster, lawmakers and the public are paying close attention to the space program."If they're ever going to make it work, this will be the time to do it," said Alex Roland, a former NASA historian who teaches at Duke University. "With the public paying attention, lawmakers will have to say, 'We must do what is best for the space program.' "Liz Gibson and Gwyneth K. Shaw of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Sean Mussenden can be reached at 202-824-8233.
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