We’re all familiar with single-issue voters – those citizens who cast their votes for, or against, a candidate based solely on that candidate’s stand on one issue. Guns and abortion are the best known, but they are not alone. Single-issue voters can be very powerful in any close election and candidates ignore them at their peril.
Even a cursory glance at the blogs, magazines, conferences, editorials and speeches of the space community reveals a nagging desire for that kind of influence. We make various annual treks to Capitol Hill; establish Political Action Committees; form grass-roots group after grass-roots group; show up at campaign stops to prod candidates for office; occasionally buy advertising time or space; hold conferences and seminars; give speeches to local community groups; build alliances across party lines with elected officials; and conduct letter writing campaigns. The space community employs just about every political tool available to get its message across and impress upon the nation’s political leaders the importance of science, technology and space exploration to the country, if not the world.
And yet, at some level, the community finds itself scrambling to receive more than an encouraging word from the
presidential campaigns. Space advocates appear relegated to the status of one more interest group, pleading either for more federal dollars for a preferred government activity or fewer regulations and policies that stand in the way of growing commercial activities. It is inexplicable that an issue we believe is critical to the long-term health of the country, if not the planet, does not resonate (at least not as loudly as we believe it should) with the nation’s voters and governing elites. In other words, space advocates find themselves on the outside, looking in. U.S. aerospace capabilities, which created, define
and maintain America as a military, economic, scientific
and political superpower, often become a political afterthought.
The natural response to this state of affairs is to work harder, which has an impact. Can anyone realistically imagine enacted commercial space legislation without the efforts of the space community? How easy would it have been after the Space Shuttle Columbia accident for the president to return the space program to the status quo ante without the cadre of space leaders and a community that already had established that the pre-Columbia status quo was unworthy of a great nation? General advocacy makes a difference. Arguably, the space community has successfully raised its profile higher and reached out to policymakers more effectively than other, larger grass-roots groups or high-technology organizations.
Undoubtedly, we can, and must, continue to make substantive, merit-based arguments that expanding U.S. aerospace capabilities – civil, military and commercial – is in the national interest and that overcoming fiscal, bureaucratic, regulatory and legal hurdles is urgent, particularly when those obstacles result from short-sightedness, inertia or complacency. Such arguments are non-partisan and resonate easily with both parties and the legislative and executive branches. Despite the so easily acquired cynicism many have for Washington, it is full of government officials and policymakers focused on the national interest.
Nevertheless, those same arguments are probably not enough if space is to return to the national agenda as a high priority. While it is comforting to believe that if we could only convince a greater number of more powerful national leaders of the importance of aerospace, then they would view the space program (civil, commercial, military
or otherwise) as critical to the nation’s future, it is cold comfort to remember that few – if any – federal elected officials outside of a NASA center or Air Force installation have won or lost an election based on their support for space activity. In fact, more than a few elected officials have made or burnished a national reputation by opposing the civil space program as wasteful or the military space program as destabilizing. In other words, goodwill and good arguments are not enough to overcome the institutional constraints of representative government when it comes to space.
Fortunately, the government still responds to the people, particularly when they choose their leaders. While space is unlikely to compete with Iraq, energy prices, guns or abortion in a national election, it does matter considerably among key constituencies. Those constituencies just happen to be in several swing states, and this just happens to be an election year.
It takes 270 electoral votes to become President of the United States. Recent polling in battleground states suggests that as many as 187 electoral votes may be in the mix in 2008. These battleground states, which will likely decide the presidential election’s outcome, include Colorado, New Mexico and Ohio, and, possibly Florida and Virginia – totaling 74 electoral votes.
Aerospace is critical in each of these states, particularly in focused areas where a candidate’s stand on the nation’s aerospace capabilities will affect the state’s future. For instance, closing the pending gap in America’s human spaceflight capabilities and a renewed support for the U.S. launch industry could have a huge impact on Florida’s space coast, Denver, Cleveland
and Tidewater Virginia
– all of which are playing critical roles in building a replacement for the space shuttle. Lengthening the gap or delaying follow-on programs can only threaten these areas.
Increased support for commercial space launch and space tourism will contribute to the growing space economy in New Mexico, where voters actually approved tax increases to improve their aerospace competitiveness. (It is also worth remembering that Albuquerque’s Kirtland Air Force Base leads in many areas of aerospace innovation.) The Air Force space presence in Colorado is legendary. Additionally, contractors for both military and civil space activities are prevalent throughout the Denver suburbs, and meteorological research in Boulder is critically dependent on space capabilities.
Finally, the path to ballistic or aerodynamic flight through any atmosphere, for military, civil, commercial or extraterrestrial purposes, runs through facilities and personnel in Tidewater Virginia and Northern Ohio. If leaders in these states avoid parochial arguments for a bigger slice of a small aerospace pie and focus on the national benefits of making aerospace a higher national priority, they will combine merit-based arguments with real political influence.
In other words, five swing states that will play a critical role in determining this year’s presidential election already have critical constituencies that understand, depend upon and contribute to America’s civil, military and commercial space capabilities. Collectively, they represent a huge opportunity to educate the candidates – and the nation – about the importance of space to this country in a manner that the campaigns cannot ignore. The aerospace community will never have a better opportunity to make its case to a more receptive audience.
Eric R. Sterner held senior staff positions on the House Armed Services and Science committees, served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and as associate deputy administrator for policy and planning at NASA.