The assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), apparently had nothing to do with her work in the space arena, but it nonetheless sidelines – hopefully only for a speedy recovery from her injuries – an energetic and thoughtful advocate for the U.S. space program.
As chair of the House Science subcommittee that oversaw NASA in the most recent Congress, Giffords conducted probing and suitably skeptical hearings into the space-policy shift advocated by the Obama administration. She helped draft the NASA authorization legislation that emerged last year, which backed away from the dramatic shifts proposed by the White House in favor of a more traditional role for government in replacing the space shuttle fleet.
Although her husband, Mark Kelly, is a senior astronaut currently slated to command STS-134 – the last funded shuttle mission – she conducted her own work in the space-policy trenches without apparent bias – except as an advocate for human spaceflight. That was the position of most of the other members of the science panel as well.
In the new Republican-controlled house, Giffords was expected to be a frequent ally of incoming science panel chair Ralph Hall of Texas, who shared many of her views on U.S. space policy when the Democrats were in charge. Her injuries may keep her from playing as large a role as she would have liked in the coming battles over funding NASA after the temporary spending funding measure in force today expires in March.
The science panel – and the U.S. space program in general – has traditionally been a bipartisan endeavor in public. Although that veneer slipped a bit under the administration of former President George W. Bush and didn’t recover under President Barack Obama, Giffords has been notable in her partisan restraint on space issues.
In the wake of the tragic shooting at a constituent event in Tucson, which claimed five lives – including a nine-year-old girl and a federal judge — and left a dozen more wounded in addition to Giffords, public expressions of sympathy crossed party lines. House Speaker John Boehner, who swore Giffords in last week, termed the assassination attempt “an attack on all who serve.”
The new Republican speaker has that right. Giffords reportedly resisted appointment to the chair of the NASA oversight panel because of the appearance of a conflict that her marriage to an astronaut would present. CDR Kelly signed up to risk his life in the line of duty. Sadly, these days so do diligent public servants like Rep. Giffords.