Sign Of The Times

Colorado’s two Democratic senators probably have a pretty good idea that President Barack Obama won’t be heeding their call to “keep NASA a priority so we do not cede our leadership in position in space.”

Sens. Mark Udall and Michael F. Bennet were in the chamber during the president’s State of the Union address, and it was pretty clear where NASA stands in the priority list at the White House.

Obama skipped a chance to credit NASA with helping produce the happy outcome in the rescue of the miners trapped deep in a Chilean mine. Instead, he gave a shout-out to Brandon Fisher, the young head of a small Pennsylvania-based drilling company called Center Rock.

“One day last summer, he saw the news that halfway across the world, 33 men were trapped in a Chilean mine, and no one knew how to save them,” Obama said as he wrapped up his hour-long speech. “But Brandon thought his company could help. And so he designed a rescue that would come to be known as Plan B … Plan B succeeded, and the miners were rescued. But because he didn’t want all of the attention, Brandon wasn’t there when the miners emerged. He’d already gone back home, back to work on his next project.”

Certainly the miners couldn’t have been rescued without the expertise and hardware supplied by Center Rock.

Center Rock Inc.

But NASA had a big hand in it too. The Chilean government drew on the agency’s expertise at sustaining space crews to keep the trapped miners nourished and relatively comfortable during their ordeal, and the NASA team on the scene also helped with the design of the rescue cage the miners rode to the surface once the Center Rock drill opened a shaft.

Hugo Infante/Chilean Government

Obama didn’t mention that part of the story, even though NASA’s public relations operatives repeatedly trumpeted the agency’s role as it was happening. Instead, the president drew his summation from something a Center Rock employ reportedly said after the rescue – “We proved that Center Rock is a little company, but we do big things.”

“We do big things,” Obama repeated into the applause. “From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream. That’s how we win the future.”

Writing to Obama a couple of days later, the Colorado lawmakers encouraged the commercial spaceflight approach that is the hallmark of the administration’s new space policy. Hand over low-Earth orbit to commercial providers, they wrote, but keep NASA at work on “the truly groundbreaking and inspiring exploration that has become its hallmark.

“This represents a mutually beneficial partnership between NASA and industry that will help retain United States capability and leadership in human spaceflight,” they continued.

Of course, Sens. Udall and Bennet have a dog in the hunt. Lockheed Martin is building the Orion crew capsule that Congress, in its NASA authorization act, says should be the backup in case the commercial guys don’t come through. “Thousands of Colorado jobs” are at stake, they reminded the president.

That argument may help, although to date the Obama administration hasn’t been at all concerned about jobs in the space sector (to put it mildly). The Colorado senators have good reason to be worried.


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