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Lawmaker wants to end politics at NASA

| Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, 9:17 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Rep. Frank Wolf is a bit of a romantic when it comes to the space program.

He can still recall that the New England town where he worked as a lifeguard in his youth buzzed with excitement when Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard visited one day. After moving to Washington in the 1960s, Wolf impressed his parents by driving them past astronaut John Glenn's house. This spring, he marveled at the sight of the space shuttle Discovery flying over the nation's Capitol to retirement at the Smithsonian.

But now that U.S. astronauts ride Russian rockets to the International Space Station, a plan to return to the moon has been scrapped and a manned trip to Mars is at least 20 years away, Wolf, 73, believes NASA has lost its way.

“It's become very, very political, which it never used to be,” he said. “You really have the White House running this operation, and there are a lot of good people in NASA. And you know, many of them feel the same way that I do, although they can't really say anything.”

As the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA's budget, the 16-term congressman from northern Virginia plays a key role determining the space program's trajectory. And lately, he hasn't been happy.

Wolf has pushed the Obama administration to move faster in choosing an aerospace firm to build a replacement for the shuttle. He's sparred with the White House over his demand that the administration limit cooperation with China on joint space ventures.

Last year, he authored legislation creating a panel of independent experts to review NASA's strategic direction. The panel must report its findings by the end of the year.

In September, Wolf co-sponsored a bill that would restructure NASA's leadership by creating a 10-year term for the agency's administrator rather than let the White House decide when to name someone new. The proposal is designed to insulate the space program from administration turnover that critics say drains money and delays progress.

Administration officials say the space-program cupboard isn't bare, thanks to passage of the bipartisan 2010 NASA Authorization Act. The legislation briefly extended the space shuttle program. It also establishes a “robust” commercial space initiative and calls for a manned mission to Mars.

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