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Fifty Years In Orbit

House Science and Technology Committee Assembles To-Do List

View from a window on the International Space Station SOURCE: NASA A lot has changed in five decades for the venerable committee. (UFOs are no longer on the agenda.) But our 21st-century Representatives still have some Cold War priorities. Above: view from a window on the International Space Station.

The House Committee on Science and Technology held its first hearing of the 111th Congress last week, 50 years to the month after its birth as a permanent committee back in January of 1959. A lot has changed in five decades. But listening to our 21st-century Representatives talk about their priorities for the coming session brought home the fact that a lot remains the same as well. Some orbits, it seems, never decay.

The committee was created in reaction to the Soviet Union’s surprise launch of Sputnik, the first manmade satellite, which threatened U.S. preeminence in science generally and aeronautics in particular. Today, again, there is substantial concern that U.S. science is losing its competitive edge. Not least of those concerns is that Russia and China are cultivating robust space programs at a time when the United States is about to retire its shuttle fleet while being years away from having a next-generation means of getting into space.

Weiss’s Notebook

CAP Senior Fellow Rick Weiss

CAP Senior Fellow Rick Weiss covered science and medicine for The Washington Post for 15 years, and now he brings his investigative eye to science policy. From cloning and stem cells to agricultural biotechnology and nanotechnology, Weiss examines the issues at the intersection of cutting edge research and public policy.

Fifty years ago, the committee also wrung its hands about the state of science education in this country. Indeed, a first order of business in 1959 was the creation of a provision for granting scholarships and graduate fellowships in math, physics and engineering, among other topics in the sciences. Today, the need to better support so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education is still a top issue for legislators, and promises to be high on the science committee’s list of priorities for the new session.

“Science does not have a left or a right. It only knows a right and a wrong.”

Of course, not everything from 50 years ago remains a high profile today. For better or worse (C-SPAN ratings would certainly go up), the 1959 subcommittee assigned to study Unidentified Flying Objects—and specifically to investigate what the Air Force knew about them and was not telling the public—does not exist today (though the related topic of extraterrestrial life has been on the committee’s agenda on and off for decades).

Last week’s initial gathering for 2009 was largely spent on routine business, confirming chairmen and members of subcommittees and so on. It was also a chance for committee members to congratulate themselves on how well they all get along and how bipartisan a gang the science committee is. “Science does not have a left or a right. It only knows a right and a wrong,” intoned Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-CA), in a no-doubt overstated proclamation of committee-wide unity, but one arguably closer to the truth than for many other committees on Capitol Hill.

So what’s on the agenda?

One leading priority is expected to be electronic waste-a topic close to the heart of the committee’s chairman, Bart Gordon (D-TN). Gordon has railed against this nation’s failure to recycle more than a small percentage of the 2 millions pounds of e-waste it produces every year, from which toxins leach liberally into soil and groundwater. And the problem does not stop at our borders. A Government Accountability Office report released in September was highly critical of the Environmental Protection Agency for doing little to curb the export of hazardous waste from discarded electronics, which pose long-term threats to public health and the environment abroad. Current regulations are under-enforced, and the committee is likely to relaunch legislative efforts to restrict current practices.

The committee will also be one of several looking for ways to accelerate the introduction of new energy technologies (with some emphasis on how to get the most promising ones commercialized quickly). Climate change (including a piece of the cap-and-trade debate); water conservation (a growing concern as climate change wreaks increasing havoc with the nation’s limited fresh water reserves); disaster response; STEM education; and transportation (the highway bill, a predictable political pileup, is coming up for reauthorization) will all be on the agenda—along with one of the most difficult of science topics for the coming year: a multi-year reauthorization of NASA, which will raise all kinds of questions about that beleaguered agency’s capacities and priorities.

“NASA is at a very critical stage,” said Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), one of three physicists in Congress. Added Baron Hill (D-IN): “For too long, NASA’s been asked to do too much with too little funds.”

Among the considerations expected to come up is whether to extend the shuttle program to shrink the gap between its planned retirement next year and the launch of the next-generation space vehicles that will be part of the Constellation program, which is not expected to be ready to transport astronauts to the International Space Station until around 2015. Also open for discussion will be how realistic current plans are to revisit the moon by 2020, and to go on from there to Mars in the relatively near future.

Me, I’m all for exploration, and I’ve been thrilled with the footage from our various Mars rovers. But in these days of budget crises and other problems here at home, the idea of sending people off to the chilly deserts of Mars falls squarely in the category of extraordinary rendition—truly, for now, a bridge too far.

Rick Weiss is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Science Progress.

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