Freewheeling Science Committee Fixture Rohrabacher Loses Reelection Bid

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s (D-Calif.) dead-on Ronald Reagan impersonation will ring no more in the halls of the Rayburn Office building in Washington. The 15-term Congressman — a cold warrior, russophile, Science Committee stalwart, and skeptic of NASA’s planned Space Launch System — lost his reelection bid Tuesday night.

The 71 year-old Rohrabacher lost California’s 48th District to Republican-turned-Democrat Harley Rouda, a businessman who netted roughly 51 percent of the district’s vote to Rohrabacher’s roughly 49 percent. Rohrbacher lost his seat amid concern he was too friendly to Moscow, and amid some outcry in the 48th District over his controversial endorsement of a Huntington Beach, Calif., school board candidate who allegedly espoused racist ideology.

Rohrabacher didn’t see it coming.

The pro-canabis, Freedom-Caucusing ally of President Trump was again teeing up to run for Chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in January. Had the GOP kept its majority in the House — which it did not — Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) would have had to step down as chair of the Science Committee because of a three-term limit the House Republican caucus imposes on its members.

Rohrabacher, whose district hugs the Orange County Coast, did an eight-year stint as chairman of the House Science space subcommittee from 1997 to 2005. The panel sets policy for the civilian space agencies NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. More than a decade after relinquishing the gavel, Rohrabacher remains a member of the subcommittee.

When the influential panel would meet to discuss NASA, Rohrabacher was prone to winding speeches from the dais. His favorite topics included the dangers of Earth-wrecking asteroids, and the soaring promise of commercial space companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin — the latter of which has yet to make a commercial flight.

But perhaps Rohrabacher’s favorite whipping dog in this decade was NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket: a political hydra frankensteined together from spare Space Shuttle parts, and Bush-43-era designs for the Ares rocket discarded by the Obama administration.

When a group of mostly Republican, mostly NASA-adjacent lawmakers pulled Ares, and its companion crew capsule, Orion, off the scrap heap in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, Rohrabacher raised a ruckus that he never set down, blasting the rocket as a multi-billion-dollar boondoggle on a mission to nowhere at taxpayer expense.

But while Rohrabacher heads home, perhaps for some surfing, SLS marches on.

The rocket had about a $2-billion development budget for fiscal year 2018: a level of spending that continues under a stopgap budget bill funding NASA through Dec. 7. Before the election ground appropriations work to a halt late this summer, the House and Senate had both already agreed to give the rocket another $2 billion next year. Boeing [BA] is the main contractor for the launcher, with Northrop Grumman [NOC] — through its Orbital ATK business — and Aerojet Rocketdyne [AJRD] providing major propulsion systems. 

SLS has yet to fly; the rocket's first mission, a uncrewed loop around the moon known as EM-1, has slipped into the 2020s. Earlier this decade, NASA thought the rocket would fly its inaugural moon loop this year.

Rohrabacher’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

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