Who’s in charge of the US space program? There’s the administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, for one, and of course the President–and also Tom DeLay.
The scandal-scented Republican House majority leader has invaded NASA, grabbing its biggest outpost and taking a rather personal interest in the agency’s budget. He has established himself as the go-to guy on Capitol Hill regarding NASA. And given the way Washington works, this means he can influence how the agency carves up its $16 billion pie and how it resolves critical policy debates–matters of keen interest to aerospace and military contractors, who often look to make contributions to friendly or feared legislators. Fans of NASA might cheer DeLay’s involvement. “It’s always to the benefit of the agency to have someone in the leadership interested in the agency’s budget,” says Wesley Huntress Jr., an associate administrator of NASA in the 1990s. “And Tom DeLay is very interested in NASA.” But anyone concerned about good government and effective and appropriate budgeting decisions ought to fret about The Hammer’s sway over NASA. “With NASA changing its spending priorities to support President Bush’s vision for space exploration that will return humans to the moon and take them to Mars, there will be plenty of money going to start-up companies with no record of producing hardware, and there will be no way to measure results,” says John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org. “DeLay, if he wants, will be in charge of a free-for-all, with money flowing everywhere–mainly flying in the direction he directs.” NASA, then, is another potential source of money and power for DeLay–if he survives his ethics troubles.
For years, DeLay has expressed an interest in the space program. But last year he hit the boost phase. First, without making much noise about it, he seized the Johnson Space Center. Located outside Houston, the JSC hosts the mission control center that manages space shuttle missions and space station activity, and it oversees development and production of spacecraft for human space exploration. One of the largest employers in Texas, the center boasts about 15,000 workers. Until last year the JSC was miles outside DeLay’s Congressional district. When he and other Texas Republicans orchestrated a controversial redrawing of district lines in 2003, they wiped out the district next to DeLay’s, a Democratic stronghold that included the JSC. At the same time, an elbow-shaped piece of territory was added to the east side of DeLay’s district. This patch stretched far enough to wrap around the Johnson Space Center.
The JSC brass noticed the change. Last August, in the midst of the election, JSC deputy chief counsel Daniel Remington sent a memo to JSC employees noting that nearby University of Houston had scheduled a reception honoring DeLay. “People from NASA, the aerospace community, and other community businesses have been invited to attend this event,” Remington wrote. “The event is of direct interest to NASA…. It is my determination that it is in the Agency’s interest for NASA attendees and their guests to attend this event.” (A day earlier, the JSC general counsel had warned employees against engaging in political activity while on duty.) One long-term JSC employee told the Houston Press that the memo “just didn’t pass the smell test.”