Editorial | Either Way NASA Struggles

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U.S. presidential elections don’t hinge on space policy, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the current campaign has offered little in the way of substantive debate on the topic. Even with the all-important swing state of Florida, which was hard hit by the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle, hanging in the balance, the candidates — to their credit — have resisted making dubious promises to sway voters there.

Not that there hasn’t been some shameless pandering on both sides. U.S. President Barack Obama’s campaign, for example, in September issued a list of NASA’s accomplishments under his watch that included a heavy-lift rocket development program that was forced upon the agency and the White House by Congress. The president’s Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, stressed goals of “rebuilding NASA” and “restoring U.S. leadership” in space without specifying how he might go about what he characterized as the difficult task of accomplishing those goals. He also effectively blamed his opponent for NASA’s dependence on Russia for crew access to the international space station even though that dependency was built into former President George W. Bush’s space shuttle retirement and replacement plan — a fact Gov. Romney’s advisers know full well.

President Obama’s priorities in space are no mystery, having been firmly established and reinforced through four U.S. federal budget cycles. Gov. Romney’s priorities are less clear: His advisers include former NASA officials who backed the now-defunct Constellation program, which would have relied in part on shuttle-derived vehicles and infrastructure to return U.S. astronauts to the Moon. President Obama scrapped Constellation in favor of a strategy to outsource crew and cargo transport to and from the international space station and in doing so incurred the wrath of lawmakers, who forced NASA to fund the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion deep-space capsule.

Gov. Romney correctly points out that NASA lacks a coherent direction — the SLS-Orion and commercial spaceflight initiatives at best coexist — but the blame for that, at least with respect to the human spaceflight program, lies as much with Congress as with the president.

To be sure, President Obama has given his space policy critics plenty of ammunition. Canceling Constellation may well have been justified on affordability grounds, but the execution — so to speak — was botched: The president badly miscalculated Congress’ reaction; overlooked the implications for the space industrial base and its other stakeholders, including the Department of Defense; and above all failed to articulate a credible alternative plan for getting U.S. astronauts out of low Earth orbit for the first time since the Apollo program. More recently, the president damaged NASA’s credibility as an international partner by unilaterally withdrawing from a European-led robotic Mars exploration program.

Gov. Romney has nonetheless given himself a very tall order, especially since he has signaled that as president he would not seek an increase to NASA’s annual budget.

Those entertaining hopes that a Romney presidency would mean a restoration of Constellation or something similar are kidding themselves. Unless the challenger didn’t really mean it when he said NASA doesn’t need more funding — not exactly what space-focused voters want to hear — he’s all but ruled out a robust deep-space exploration program, which in a flat budget environment would leave next to nothing left over for other civil space programs.

Gov. Romney’s campaign has voiced support for outsourcing crew and cargo transport to and from low Earth orbit, the centerpiece of his opponent’s civil space policy. That’s probably a good thing, inasmuch as the commercialization strategy offers the best near-term hope of restoring independent U.S. crew access to the space station, but it hardly signals a bold new direction for the U.S. space program.

Space policy veterans tend to agree that for all the rhetoric from the Romney camp, his civil space program wouldn’t look a whole lot different from the current one. He has pledged to conduct a space policy review involving all the stakeholders — civil, military and commercial — and have the results inform his strategy. That’s reasonable enough, but not exactly inspired — absent a major funding increase that doesn’t appear to be in the cards, Gov. Romney will find that his options are severely limited. He could try and curtail NASA’s climate change research activities, an Obama administration priority, but that would be ill-advised from a scientific point of view and almost certainly would spark a bloody fight with that program’s congressional stakeholders.

One thing neither candidate has mentioned in the context of civil space policy is sequestration, the budgetary time bomb set to explode in January barring a post-election agreement between Congress and the White House on a deficit-reduction plan. For NASA and its sister space agency, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sequestration would impose an immediate cut of 8.2 percent to their already-strained budgets.

Even if he wins in November, Gov. Romney won’t move into the White House before the bomb is set to go off, but he would be in position to influence negotiations to defuse the trigger. The best thing either candidate can do on behalf of civil space is to avert sequestration, the consequences of which would have a far greater impact on the program — not to mention the rest of the federal government — than any realistic presidential policy initiatives.