Op-ed | Space Has Its Place in U.S. Presidential Race

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U.S. presidential election cycles are typified by issues such as economics, taxes and national security. Candidates, particularly during the primary cycle, attempt to distinguish themselves from their competitors by focusing disproportionately on a few issues to the detriment of others, which means some issues become overshadowed, unless the media specifically focus on them. One issue that gets little fanfare from the candidates during the primary cycle is space policy.

The issue of space policy is atypical during the presidential primary cycle, and rightly so.

The issue of space policy is atypical during the presidential primary cycle, and rightly so. Much to the chagrin of space advocates, space policy as an important election issue is relevant to a small percentage of potential voters with the notable exception of states that are home to government and commercial space facilities and industry. This reality is not popular to space advocates, but the primary season is such that candidates must expend their resources and time on issues that resonate with the voting demographics of the primary states they seek to win. This means candidates’ stances on issues such as taxes, the economy and national security will often resound more with voters than space policy.

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2012 Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich. Credit: Gage Skidmore

Still, every once in a while the issue of space policy is either brought up by the media or by the candidates themselves. For instance, four days before the 2012 Florida Republican primary, the former speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, made a splash with the space advocacy community when he pledged to establish a lunar base before the end of his second term as president. The former speaker’s comment, which was directed at space workers facing uncertainty after the last flight of the space shuttle program less than a year before, backfired with criticism leveled from his primary competitors. “The idea that corporate America wants to go off to the moon and build a colony there, it may be a big idea, but it’s not a good idea,” former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said. “And we have seen in politics — we’ve seen politicians — and Newt, you’ve been part of this — go from state to state and promise exactly what that state wants to hear.”

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush. Credit: CPAC
2016 Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush. Credit: CPAC

On the other hand, the issue of space policy sometimes crops up as a result of a line of questioning by the media, which was the case recently during a July 8 interview of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush by The Union Leader newspaper of Manchester, New Hampshire, that was broadcast by C-SPAN. As reported by Marcia Smith at SpacePolicyOnline.com, during a lightning round Bush was asked what he would do about NASA funding, to which he replied: “Up! Up! I’m a space guy. I think we need to be aspirational as a country.” He supplemented his comment by stating he supported investment in research and development in general as the proper role of the government, saying, “We should spend less on the here and now, and more on these long-term things because no one else will do it.”

Unfortunately, The Union Leader did not extrapolate on this comment in its print article; however, as this author can attest, space policy is not a hot topic in New Hampshire, and it makes sense the newspaper would not allocate space in its publication to the former governor’s response.

Regardless of the importance given to Bush’s remarks, the fact that he articulated a reasonable position from a media inquiry gave credibility to his candidacy’s position on the topic. However, the integrity of his position on space policy may take a hit with his team’s decision to capitalize on his position as a “space guy” to explore the final frontier of fundraising by offering donors the distinction of levels of Voyager, for those who raise $250,000; Endeavor, for those who raise $150,000; and Apollo, for those who raise $75,000. This political faux pas, labeled “The Mission Jeb 2016,” will likely transform a convincing response to a legitimate space policy question into fodder for his political competitors and could potentially damage his credibility with space policy advocates.

Despite such political missteps, space policy remains a germane issue for candidates to consider. It is doubtful space policy will generally be a hot-button issue during debates or speeches, especially in states that have little or no space industry or infrastructure. However, with the proliferation of commercial space activities, funding cuts to government space programs, government subsidies to the commercial space sector and general concerns about the direction of U.S. presence and leadership in outer space, the candidates’ positions on issues surrounding space policy will be a potential area they will be questioned on.

More so, when the nominees for both parties are selected going into the general election, each will undoubtedly form an advisory committee to formulate his or her respective views on space policy. The positions formulated by the candidates will not only serve to address questions and form positions going into the general election but also benefit the administration-elect as it considers what posture it will take when it creates its own National Space Policy.

To that end, primary candidates would be well advised to consider their views on space policy issues and not wait for a gotcha moment to play catch-up.

Michael J. Listner is an attorney in New Hampshire and the founder and principal of Space Law & Policy Solutions, a legal and policy think tank/consultation firm that identifies issues and offers practical solutions for matters relating to outer space security and development.