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Several key elected officials who have generally been hostile to commercial space have commented positively to the successful launch of the Dragon capsule last night.
First, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) released this short statement:
I was pleased to see the successful launch of the Falcon 9 and the Dragon spacecraft this morning. This launch has been a long time coming, and I am happy to see this very challenging mission begin. There are many crucial milestones to be reached and capabilities to be demonstrated during this flight, all of which we hope leads to a demonstrated ability to provide cargo service to the International Space Station. Reliable cargo delivery is critical to fully utilizing this magnificent National Laboratory capability, in which we have invested so much as a nation and as a partnership.
Hutchison has consistently tried to trim the commercial space program in favor of the Congressionally mandated heavy-lift and very expensive Space Launch System (SLS). That her comments focus so much on cargo supply to ISS fits with her general hostility to using competitive independent companies to ferry humans to and from space instead of a pork-laden NASA-built rocket/capsule like SLS. However, she can’t ignore SpaceX’s success, though she can hope to limit its political impact against the programs she loves.
Second, Congressman Ralph Hall (R-Texas) issued this statement:
I would like to congratulate SpaceX on its successful launch. This was a momentous launch, and I am hopeful that the Dragon spacecraft will successfully complete its mission to supply cargo to the International Space Station and safely return to Earth. The unmanned launch, which took place early this morning out of Cape Canaveral, Florida, is the first of its kind. This is a complex mission, and if successful, will be a giant step forward in commercial cargo capability to the International Space Station.
I have long supported the development of commercial cargo spaceflight, and while we still have a long way to go before American astronauts can fly aboard a commercial spacecraft, I hope SpaceX can build upon this success.”
I will continue to support those who can access the International Space Station, and want to keep the door open for our future successes.
Hall was one of the key figures behind the House budget that insists that NASA make a quick decision on which company will provide ferrying services to ISS. He has also shown a great deal of skepticism about commercial space during House hearings. It is obvious from his statement that SpaceX’s success has placed him under political pressure to adjust his position. He might not like it, but if commercial space gets the job done, he will have little choice but to give commercial space its due.
None of this is surprising. The political winds favor commercial space. The federal debt places great pressure on Congress to find programs that can be trimmed or cut, and SLS is definitely a cash burner with little payoff. Moreover, the opposition to commercial space has generally come from Republicans, who are under even more pressure to find ways to cut spending, coming from a party heavily influenced by tea party advocates.
If SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are both successful this year in their test flights to ISS, it will become increasingly obvious to these elected officials that commercial space is a more cost effective choice. I expect the funding for SLS to die, either next year or the year after that.