he pledge by U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. BarackObama of Illinois to increase education funding in part by delaying NASA’s space shuttle replacement program could thrust space exploration to the issues forefront as the race for the party’s nomination heats up.

This is a good thing.

Until this year, the U.S. civil space program has been

largely absent from the

presidential campaigns and debates of

both Democrats

and Republicans. What better way to get the candidates – and the American public – thinking about issues that will be critical to

NASA’s future?

During a Nov. 20 stump speech in Manchester, N.H., Sen. Obama said that as president, he would launch an initiative that would increase the number of U.S. teachers per student and lengthen the school year. In a paper handed out after the speech, his campaign said the initiative would be paid for in part by delaying NASA’s

Constellation Program

by five years.

This follows statements by the Democratic front-runner, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York that have been supportive of current U.S. President George W. Bush’s plan to replace the space shuttle fleet with new rockets and vehicle capable of going to the Moon. Clinton

also said she would make Earth science and aeronautics bigger priorities in the agency’s budget. The juxtaposition should make for lively discussion during the next Democratic presidential debate. With a little luck, the other candidates will chime in with their own views and the issue will get picked up by the Republican candidates

as well.


always have made major decisions affecting NASA and the civil space program, but since these matters are an afterthought during campaigns there are rarely any promises to keep – or break. It would be nice to get some sense of a candidate’s views on human space exploration, for example – and the public’s reaction to those views – before he or she takes office.

As for Sen. Obama’s proposal to delay

Constellation for five years, such a move would of course be disastrous. One must wonder whether the

senator’s advisors have thought through the implications: a minimum 10-year U.S. hiatus -probably longer – in human spaceflight; or continued dependence on the space shuttle, now slated for retirement in 2010, during that period.

The latter scenario would not save money given the multibillion-dollar annual cost of flying and updating the shuttle fleet. It also would invite another tragic accident given the advancing age and known safety flaws with the orbiter fleet. As for the former, it would be interesting to see how American voters, particularly in key swing states such as Florida, react to the prospect of abandoning U.S. leadership in space exploration.

A spirited televised debate, or at least the prospect thereof, might force Sen. Obama to acknowledge his willingness to accept either outcome or change his position.

Given the nature of campaign politics it certainly is possible that Sen. Obama’s proposal was not a serious one. It might have been floated to stir things up and force the front-runner in the position of siding with the current president or appearing to choose space exploration over education.

Presidential races generate all kinds of proposals that are forgotten as the campaign drags on and other issues take center stage. Here’s hoping it doesn’t happen in this case, at least not before it forces all of the candidates to stake out positions on space exploration and defend them before the voters.