Rep. Adam Schiff on NASA and Innovation

Congressman Adam Schiff

On 28 February Burbank N Beyond’s John Savageau had the opportunity to interview Representative Adam Schiff from the 29th District, encompassing Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena, and surrounding areas, in his Washington D.C. office.  This is the third article in a series highlighting activities and topics of interest to Burbank.

BurbankNBeyond:  If we are cutting our budget for NASA, and the innovation not just to go to Mars and beyond, but the innovation and technology that’s generated through that type of research and development, what’s next?  Do we privatize NASA?  Do we make it a commercial company, do we continue to try and fund it (NASA) as a government entity…  How do we continue as the United States to be as innovative as NASA has allowed us to be over the last several decades?

Rep. Schiff:  I think we have to continue to have a strong NASA.  As a very large public component it has a role for the private sector as well, which it (private sector) has always had a role.

My chief concern right now is not with the overall NASA budget, which is pretty good considering the times, but with how we’ve balanced the portfolio within the NASA  budget. And the enormous cuts to planetary science.

This is one of the most exciting areas of NASA’s work.  Exploring the solar system, and beyond the solar system, looking for signs of life elsewhere.  We’ve found solid evidence of water on Mars, large bodies of water in the past, and we’re tantalizingly close to finding the building blocks of life elsewhere, and answering some of the most profound questions we have about the universe and our place in it.

And it would be catastrophic to step back from that and to decide that this was beyond our capability, or beyond our will.  We are the unparalleled leader in planetary science, we are the only country to land an object on Mars that survived, and those are the people who are our neighbors working at the Jet Propulsion Lab.

So we’re fighting to restore funding for those efforts that pay so many dividends.  Not just in our understanding of the universe, but also here on the ground.

I met with a planetary scientist just today (28 Feb 2012)  who was telling me that thanks to NASA he is able to function, whereas 15 or 20 years ago, as result of having multiple seizures every day he was incapable of functioning.  But because of technologies developed through NASA,  laser technology,micro-surgical capacities, that he was able to have essentially brain surgery that cured his seizures and made him a fully functional contributor to society.

This is just one very graphic example of the dividends that we’ve had from the space program.  These incredible developments in lasers, in GPS technology,  and that has meant enormous economic dividends to the country.

So this is I think, not only an economic imperative, but also an area where we enjoy the respect of the entire world.  They watch what we do, they marvel at what we do, and that is not something we should walk away from lightly.

BurbankNBeyond:  With (legislation) like the INVEST Act, where we try to retain foreign students from CalTech, or Stanford, or from wherever it may be, do they (immigrants and foreign students) supplement our ability to accomplish those objectives that you’re talking about with NASA?  Do we have a shortfall or deficit in that intellectual capacity within our own country that we have to supplement with foreign students who are hungry?

Rep. Schiff:  It’s not that we have a deficit in the sense that our universities are producing brilliant scientists and engineers .  We just don’t have enough of them.  And in the kind of skill-based economy that we need, we need, we need to graduate more people in the sciences, mathematics, and engineering .

So just from a pure numbers point of view, China is graduating more than we are .  And eventually that catches up to you.

But more than that, we have been fortunate that some of the best and the brightest from other countries come here, and we’re able to add their talents to our own.

One of the things that’s so fascinating to see at the Jet Propulsion Lab where they have a glass booth where you can watch some of the pivotal events , like when one of the rovers lands on the surface and  you get to see the excitement and the tension as this multi-year, often very expensive project  either lands and succeeds, or crashes and burns.

You look down at that Mission Control, and what you see is the head of the lab itself, who is an American of Lebanese origin, you see the head of the Mars program who is an American of Iranian origin, you see people controlling the Rover – you know who are of Chinese descent , or people from all over the United States , and it’s like the Olympics of intellect , and we want to keep that collaboration going.

One of the concerns I have about JPL, if we lose the talent over there, and we decide that these flagship missions we’re poised to do, to go to Mars , collect a sample and bring it back.  If we decide we’re not going to do them now it may be decades before we can reassemble the talent to go back.

When you look at how we’re going to have to start all over again… Who could have imagined in the 70s that it would be decades before we’d even be in a position to go back to the moon?  And I’m concerned if we leave Mars now we may not go back for a long, long time.