Found in Space: Congressional Collegiality

Congress is ignoring crises at home and abroad, but at least it has a close eye on the thermosphere.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5122) }}

It's a rare occasion when members of Congress let elementary-school students compose their queries for a hearing. It's rarer still when the government officials being questioned are traveling 17,000 mph in a nearly weightless metal box, hundreds of miles overhead.

Such was the case Thursday, when a House committee carved out time from its fast-eroding pre-recess schedule for a video chat with a pair of NASA astronauts.

The tone was decidedly less hostile than the typical congressional hearing.

"I wish I could be you when I grow up," gushed Democrat Donna Edwards. Space Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo, a Republican, expressed hope he could "get a congressional trip to the space station in the near future."

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee has held fierce debates on NASA's budget and long-term missions, but its members put aside such concerns when given a little face time with the genuine article.

Democratic ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson — in the spirit of a team mom — repeatedly addressed NASA duo Reid Wiseman and Steve Swanson as "my astronauts" in her opening remarks. Meanwhile, Republican Chairman Lamar Smith laudingly noted Wiseman's substantial Twitter following.

Other members let their constituents weigh in. Democrat Katherine Clark came prepared with questions from students in her Massachusetts district, including how astronauts pack for space and celebrate birthdays in orbit (they get a very small suitcase, and they share a community meal — with no presents).

Steve Stockman, a Republican whose district includes NASA's Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, displayed his typically cavalier attitude toward the workings of Congress — and a convenient exception to his antispending agenda. "Why, we should vote three times the amount of money we send you right now," he said. "Or four times, I don't care."

Another member focused more on movie stars than the ones that make up the Milky Way. Republican Dana Rohrabacher talked about Sandra Bullock's Oscar-nominated role in Gravity, eventually leading into a question on space debris.

Meanwhile, a particularly piercing question from Democrat Eric Swalwell led Wiseman to confess that his favorite space food is chocolate pudding cake.

Smith seemed to recognize the contrast between being stuck on Earth with Congress and floating through space. He even expressed jealousy at the station's one-way-at-a-time audio communication, a marked difference from the typical House hearing. "It must be nice to be an astronaut and not be interrupted," he lamented.

After about 20 minutes of questions, the astronauts signed off and the representatives returned to the work of bickering over health care and foreign policy. The House members seemed sad to see them go. Swalwell waved a wistful goodbye, while Republican Thomas Massie signed off with an emphatic thumbs-up.