Found in Space: Congressional Collegiality

Congress is ignoring crises at home and abroad, but at least it has a close eye on the thermosphere.

Astronauts phoned home Thursday.
National Journal
Alex Brown
July 24, 2014, 9:30 a.m.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5122) }}

It’s a rare oc­ca­sion when mem­bers of Con­gress let ele­ment­ary-school stu­dents com­pose their quer­ies for a hear­ing. It’s rarer still when the gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials be­ing ques­tioned are trav­el­ing 17,000 mph in a nearly weight­less met­al box, hun­dreds of miles over­head.

Such was the case Thursday, when a House com­mit­tee carved out time from its fast-erod­ing pre-re­cess sched­ule for a video chat with a pair of NASA as­tro­nauts.

The tone was de­cidedly less hos­tile than the typ­ic­al con­gres­sion­al hear­ing.

“I wish I could be you when I grow up,” gushed Demo­crat Donna Ed­wards. Space Sub­com­mit­tee Chair­man Steven Palazzo, a Re­pub­lic­an, ex­pressed hope he could “get a con­gres­sion­al trip to the space sta­tion in the near fu­ture.”

The House Sci­ence, Space, and Tech­no­logy Com­mit­tee has held fierce de­bates on NASA’s budget and long-term mis­sions, but its mem­bers put aside such con­cerns when giv­en a little face time with the genu­ine art­icle.

Demo­crat­ic rank­ing mem­ber Ed­die Ber­nice John­son — in the spir­it of a team mom — re­peatedly ad­dressed NASA duo Re­id Wise­man and Steve Swan­son as “my as­tro­nauts” in her open­ing re­marks. Mean­while, Re­pub­lic­an Chair­man Lamar Smith laud­ingly noted Wise­man’s sub­stan­tial Twit­ter fol­low­ing.

Oth­er mem­bers let their con­stitu­ents weigh in. Demo­crat Kath­er­ine Clark came pre­pared with ques­tions from stu­dents in her Mas­sachu­setts dis­trict, in­clud­ing how as­tro­nauts pack for space and cel­eb­rate birth­days in or­bit (they get a very small suit­case, and they share a com­munity meal — with no presents).

Steve Stock­man, a Re­pub­lic­an whose dis­trict in­cludes NASA’s Mis­sion Con­trol at the John­son Space Cen­ter in Hou­s­ton, dis­played his typ­ic­ally cava­lier at­ti­tude to­ward the work­ings of Con­gress — and a con­veni­ent ex­cep­tion to his an­ti­s­pend­ing agenda. “Why, we should vote three times the amount of money we send you right now,” he said. “Or four times, I don’t care.”

An­oth­er mem­ber fo­cused more on movie stars than the ones that make up the Milky Way. Re­pub­lic­an Dana Rohra­bach­er talked about Sandra Bul­lock’s Oscar-nom­in­ated role in Grav­ity, even­tu­ally lead­ing in­to a ques­tion on space debris.

Mean­while, a par­tic­u­larly pier­cing ques­tion from Demo­crat Eric Swal­well led Wise­man to con­fess that his fa­vor­ite space food is chocol­ate pud­ding cake.

Smith seemed to re­cog­nize the con­trast between be­ing stuck on Earth with Con­gress and float­ing through space. He even ex­pressed jeal­ousy at the sta­tion’s one-way-at-a-time au­dio com­mu­nic­a­tion, a marked dif­fer­ence from the typ­ic­al House hear­ing. “It must be nice to be an as­tro­naut and not be in­ter­rup­ted,” he lamen­ted.

After about 20 minutes of ques­tions, the as­tro­nauts signed off and the rep­res­ent­at­ives re­turned to the work of bick­er­ing over health care and for­eign policy. The House mem­bers seemed sad to see them go. Swal­well waved a wist­ful good­bye, while Re­pub­lic­an Thomas Massie signed off with an em­phat­ic thumbs-up.

What We're Following See More »
What the Current Crop of Candidates Could Learn from JFK
12 hours ago

Much has been made of David Brooks’s recent New York Times column, in which confesses to missing already the civility and humanity of Barack Obama, compared to who might take his place. In, Jeffrey Frank reminds us how critical such attributes are to foreign policy. “It’s hard to imagine Kennedy so casually referring to the leader of Russia as a gangster or a thug. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine any president comparing the Russian leader to Hitler [as] Hillary Clinton did at a private fund-raiser. … Kennedy, who always worried that miscalculation could lead to war, paid close attention to the language of diplomacy.”

Maher Weighs in on Bernie, Trump and Palin
13 hours ago

“We haven’t seen a true leftist since FDR, so many millions are coming out of the woodwork to vote for Bernie Sanders; he is the Occupy movement now come to life in the political arena.” So says Bill Maher in his Hollywood Reporter cover story (more a stream-of-consciousness riff than an essay, actually). Conservative states may never vote for a socialist in the general election, but “this stuff has never been on the table, and these voters have never been activated.” Maher saves most of his bile for Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, writing that by nominating Palin as vice president “John McCain is the one who opened the Book of the Dead and let the monsters out.” And Trump is picking up where Palin left off.