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.

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