WASHINGTON – Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., wants to go into space, but he acknowledges that there are plenty of problems here on Earth that need his attention first.
That doesn't keep him from dreaming about space travel, though. In May, he became part of a growing list of Capitol Hill lawmaker-scribes when he released Moongate, a sci-fi adventure penned by Weldon and friend William Proctor. His first attempt at a novel, the story more or less reflects Weldon's own desire to go where few men have gone before.
"It's about a doctor who becomes a congressman who leads a mission to the moon," to mine for Helium-3, an element unstable in the earth, but nonetheless a powerful tool for nuclear fusion, the internist-turned-congressman said.
Joining forces with Proctor, who has written over 80 novels, many with a Christian twist, Weldon said the novel has a spiritual component as well.
"There's a lot of intrigue and espionage and terrorism in the book — it's a page-turner, and so far, it's been selling pretty well," Weldon said.
Back in "real life," Weldon, a former Army Medical Corps and private practice physician, has been pushing for restored budgets to NASA and Cape Canaveral's Kennedy Space Center, which he represents, since skyrocketing into office in the 1994 Republican revolution.
"I get very, very involved in issues that affect the space program and NASA," including the shuttle program, satellite launches and keeping the infrastructure of the entire space program up to date as well as keeping a lot of his constituents employed.
The mission has proven difficult since the rest of the country seems resigned to ignore space matters.
Weldon, who co-chairs the Science Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, blames the lack of interest on the end of the Cold War, which originally was responsible for man's journey into space.
"I think as a nation, if we are going to abandon the space program, we should keep in mind that we are a nation of explorers and it has become part of our national character. There are philosophical and spiritual … as well as educational components here," he said.
Those components apply to Weldon's other work in Congress. As a conservative leader, he is mired in the debate over human cloning and has voted for a full ban on it, including cloning embryonic stem cells for research.
"I think it is unethical and unnecessary," he said, pointing to research that shows that adult stem cells are just as valuable and effective in research.
He fears a slippery slope exists and the next step might lead to human cloning for infertile couples. "If you let this proceed, it will just be a matter of time before the fertility specialists make this technology available," he said.
His solid ratings from conservative organizations, combined with an anti-abortion voting record, support for school vouchers, a flat tax rate, and increased defense spending, Weldon's supporters say he represents his 15th District constituents well.
"He's someone who fits his district well," said Carl Forti, a spokesman for the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, who called Weldon "a great congressman."
Not everyone agrees. Weldon, who won his last election by 59 percent in his heavily Republican district, nonetheless has a few opponents who think his head might be too far into the clouds to see the problems of his local constituency.
Gerry Newby, who is running against Weldon in September's Republican primary, said Weldon doesn't spend enough time in the district, and he doesn't take responsibility for issues that need tending to at home.
"Most of the time when people talk to him he says, 'that's a local issue,'" said Newby, a commercial transportation contractor. "He's not in the area. People are upset with him."
Newby said he sees "a lot of empty storefronts" when driving around the district, which includes most of Osceola, Brevard and Indian River counties on the east coast. "I want to raise the standards here," he said.
Opponents on the other side of the political aisle also fault Weldon with breaking a term-limits pledge to quit after four terms.
"It's the whole idea that if you make a pledge, you ought to keep it," said Jim Tso, a Democrat running to best Weldon this November.
Weldon said last July that he will let the "voters decide" whether they want him to step down this November. He said after extensive traveling across the district, "the overwhelming response was a strong encouragement to run again."
His campaign spokesman Brian Chase added that Weldon's opponents are looking for an issue to exploit because "they didn't find anything wrong with Congressman Weldon's legislative record."
While redistricting has done little to cut down on the Republican majority here, Tso and Newby said they believe it is their duty to run against the strong Republican, if only to keep the congressman grounded.
"It's not impossible for a Democrat to run here," said Tso, who escaped Communist China as a child. "I believe I can do better."