— Will the election of a new president in November mark the beginning of the end for NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration, or merely the end of the beginning? That core question was put to a panel of space policy experts at the opening session of the Space Frontier Foundation’s New Space 2008 conference held here July 17-20.

None of the experts – all former U.S. government officials who worked closely on NASA issues at the White House, in Congress or at the agency itself – pretended to know the answer.

“It’s fun to look at the question [but] you can’t answer it,” said Eric Sterner, a former House staffer who held a senior policy position at NASA until 2007. “Neither candidate really knows what their future is in space. I don’t think they’ve thought about it. I don’t think they’ve made a decision. If history is a guide they probably won’t look at it or think about it for a year into the administration, in which case were already dealing with a budget cycle that’s two years out.”

Republican presidential candidate John McCain and his Democratic opponent, BarackObama, have spoken very little about NASA during the campaign beyond voicing support for the space agency and keeping at the forefront of space endeavors.

For example, McCain told group of newspaper editors in June that he was “intrigued” by human Mars exploration, would support continuing space shuttle missions beyond 2010, and would be a champion for NASA. But McCain also has pledged to freeze domestic spending during his first year in his office, a prospect that leaves managers of NASA’s cash-strapped programs cold.

Obama, meanwhile, told a , , audience in May that he was “absolutely committed to making sure that we’ve got a space program that was second to none in the world.” Toward that end, he said he would review with NASA “what we are doing in terms of manned flights to the Moon or to Mars, versus are we better off using, for example, things like Hubble, that gives us, yields us, more information and a better bang for the buck.”

During the Democratic primary season, Obama put forward an education plan that his campaign said would be funded in part by delaying NASA’s Moon-bound Constellation program by five years, a proposal it later dropped.

Panelists said voters should not hold their breath waiting for the candidates to clarify their positions on NASA and space policy the way they will be forced during the campaign to stake out their differences on , energy, and the economy, for instance.

“There are so many other issues on the front burner right now that I think it’s unrealistic to expect space to become a front burner issue with candidates. It simply won’t,” said Paul Carliner, a former longtime aide to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee responsible for drafting the annual NASA spending bill.

Brett Alexander, a former White House staffer who did much of the legwork on President George W. Bush’s 2004 space exploration policy, agreed that space is not a first- tier issue for the candidates and probably will not rank in the second tier except perhaps in Florida, Ohio, and Virginia – battleground states that have a major NASA presence.

Carliner said if NASA and the broader space community hope to sustain political support in the years ahead for replacing the space shuttle with spacecraft and rockets capable of sending astronaut to the Moon and other destinations beyond low Earth orbit, it is time for a change of vocabulary. “We need to stop calling it the Vision for Space Exploration,” he said. “A vision is a word that connotes a plan for the future. This is not a plan for the future. This is a program that is current, it is a program that has been authorized by Congress … it’s a program that’s not only a matter of federal law, it’s a program for which billions have been appropriated and contracts have already been signed.”

Congress endorsed NASA’s space exploration plans in 2005 and lawmakers are poised to do so again through a new authorization bill already adopted by the House and introduced July 16 in the Senate. The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), is expected to reach the floor July 26 for a rare Saturday session to vote on a bundle of authorization bills ahead of the month-long August recess.

Alexander cautioned that a wholesale re-examination of NASA’s human space exploration goals carries the risk restricting the space shuttle replacement vehicles – the Orion crew capsule and its Ares 1 launcher – to servicing the international space station and condemning NASA to another 15 to 20 years stuck in low Earth orbit.

“I fear that if we mess with the vision or the implementation too much, that’s a situation we will be in again,” Alexander said.

Sterner listed such an exercise as one of three possible scenarios awaiting NASA in the next administration. “The first one is sort of status quo [and] indifference. Things keep chugging along. NASA continues to be under funded,” he said.

“The second scenario is more chaotic. I think that would come from a fundamental requestioning of the assumptions that went into the vision or at minimum another debate over what our future should be,” Sterner said.

Under a third scenario, the one Sterner said he would personally like to see, the new president has “a sort of epiphany” that “science and technology are the key to the future” and that “the American people need a shot in the arm – they’ve had enough chaos, bad news and so on for the past few years, and that Constellation, the vision, whatever you want to call it can do for the country what Apollo did for the country in the 1960s.”

Sterner said the time it takes for the new president to appoint senior science and technology officials will be an early indication of which scenario awaits NASA.

“If it takes a year to get to NASA, then I think you are looking at a scenario of basic indifference and probably steady state or declining budgets,” Sterner said.

Roger Launius, NASA’s former in-house historian and now a curator at the National Air and , said he expects climate change to be a major focus of either an Obama or a McCain administration and that that has implications for NASA which spends over $1.3 billion annually on environmental satellites.

“I’d be very surprised if there’s not a major boost in funding associated with that,” Launius said.

Alexander also identified climate change as “the kind of issue that can galvanize a president to restructure things in a significant way and make money available.”

He contrasted an issue as big as climate change with the 2003 loss of NASA’s Space Shuttle Columbia. While the accident led to a change in space policy direction, it did not fundamentally reorder NASA’s priorities or dramatically increase the amount the nation spends on exploration. “And I don’t think any of our industry support or space grass roots efforts will fundamentally change that political calculus either, unfortunately,” Alexander said.

Carliner was more hopeful that a tighter embrace of NASA science programs in the next administration could bolster the agency’s chances for bigger overall budgets since the public loves Mars rovers and telescopes like Hubble, and more readily understands the value of monitoring the Earth than sending astronauts into space.

“Science can be used to sustain the agency,” he said. “Global climate change and climate monitoring is going to be a huge part of this agency’s future.”