Space Policy and the Big Picture

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The universe has a way of putting things into perspective. Your morning commute may seem long, but it pales in comparison with the distance scales of the solar system, which, in turn, are nothing compared with the distances between stars in our galaxy and between galaxies in the universe. Your commute may be a big deal to you, but in that bigger picture it’s nothing.

The same is true for politics. For the last few years there’s been a vigorous debate in the U.S. space community about the direction of the nation’s civil space program. That debate has ranged from the destinations for human space exploration to the types of vehicles to be used to carry out those missions, and from the level of investment in technology development to the roles of the public and private sectors to carry out those missions. Yet in the ongoing race for the White House, there’s been hardly a word from the major candidates about space.

The last few weeks, as the Democratic and Republican parties held their national conventions, offered an opportunity to learn a little more about where the candidates stand on space, but they also acted as a reminder of the relative importance — or lack thereof — of space in the overall campaign.

The Republican Party platform included two paragraphs on space. The first, though, was simply a description of the benefits of space, from science and technology to national security and the economy.

Only the second paragraph offered any sort of policy details, and even that was limited. “To preserve our national security interests and foster innovation and competitiveness, we must sustain our preeminence in space, launching more science missions, guaranteeing unfettered access, and maintaining a source of high-value American jobs,” it states. The platform is silent, though, on any specifics, such as how many additional science missions, and of what type.

That passage, however brief, is still far more than what the Democratic platform says about space. Its discussion of space policy is confined to a single sentence: “President [Barack] Obama has charted a new mission for NASA to lead us to a future that builds on America’s legacy of innovation and exploration.” And, as Obama himself put it in an online chat on the website Reddit.com on Aug. 29, “Making sure we stay at the forefront of space exploration is a big priority for my administration.”

The death of Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong on Aug. 25 provided the candidates with an opportunity to mention space, but their comments tended to look back rather than ahead. “The passing of Neil Armstrong this week is a reminder of the inspiration and wonder that our space program has provided in the past,” Obama wrote in his Reddit chat. And in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, Mitt Romney mentioned Armstrong, but primarily as evidence of the great things America can do: “The soles of Neil Armstrong’s boots on the Moon made permanent impressions on our souls and in our national psyche.”

If there’s one thing the candidates have made clear, though, it’s that neither is seeking to boost NASA’s budget significantly in the next four years. Obama’s comments on Reddit were in response to a question posed by a user: “Are you considering increasing funds to the space program?” Obama, though, never provided a straightforward answer to that question, instead pointing out his support for “cutting edge research” and a mission to an asteroid as a step toward an eventual human mission to Mars.

Romney, in a response provided to the organizers of Science Debate 2012 on Sept. 4, made it clear he’s not seeking to increase the space agency’s budget. “A strong and successful NASA does not require more funding, it needs clearer priorities,” he stated. Instead, he said he would bring together “stakeholders” from government, academia and industry “to set goals, identify missions, and define the pathway forward.” That’s similar to what Romney said in a speech in Florida in January, as he sought to set himself apart from the visions of lunar bases promulgated by Newt Gingrich.

This limited attention to space is a far cry from just four years ago. At this point in the 2008 presidential election, the campaigns of both Obama and Republican candidate John McCain had issued detailed white papers outlining their proposed space policies, in some cases going into considerable detail, while proxies of both campaigns debated each other on space issues. Today we’re reduced to divining meaning from the occasional sound bite or passage in a party platform.

However, unlike 2008, when neither candidate had much of a track record in space policy, we have a good idea today of what President Obama thinks about space, thanks to his actions during his first term. He doesn’t necessarily need to say much about space because he has built up a record on space, and shows no indications of deviating from it if elected to a second term.

Romney, though, is in a different situation: He doesn’t have a track record on space policy from his four years as governor of Massachusetts, so his statements don’t provide much to go on. If you don’t like NASA’s current direction, his comments about refocusing the space agency may be promising, but without knowing in what way he would change it, the outcome isn’t necessarily more desirable.

This is all a reminder of the relative standing of space in the bigger policy picture. Even in places like Florida, where space has a higher profile, the election will be decided on far more fundamental topics like the economy, foreign policy and social issues that matter to far more people than space. The question the campaigns will be posing to voters is not, “Who will do a better job with NASA?” but instead the classic, and far more basic, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Sometimes, even politics can put the universe in perspective.

 

Jeff Foust is editor and publisher of The Space Review, an online publication devoted to in-depth articles, commentary and reviews regarding all aspects of space exploration.