Space, the election, and choosing between the Ford or the Buick

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Published on: October 6, 2012

With the election now exactly one month away, it seems we are stuck with the plans for our space program that both candidates for president have promised they will pursue if elected.

Based on their campaign rhetoric and official position papers, both candidates say they support our space program for all the good reasons we all know are why this nation needs to be in space: The pursuit of knowledge, developing technology, ensuring national security, stimulating the economy, inspiring students in education and because exploration is part of the human spirit and our national character.

Each of these have been held up in one form or another by the candidates, and I’m glad that they have at least a passing notion as to why a robust space program is something they must pursue as president during the next four years.

So while I’m happy about what they’re saying as to why we need a space program, I’m at the same time quite grumpy about how each presidential candidate says they will go about actually doing it.

President Obama’s plan is to stay the course we are on now.

That involves continuing to operate the International Space Station until at least 2020, relying on the Russians to carry our astronauts into space until private industry here can do the job, and developing the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System booster to enable human exploration of an asteroid by 2025 and a journey to Mars during the 2030’s – among other things.

My problem with President Obama’s plan is that although it is specific in what we’re doing right now, it is still too vague for my tastes as to the specifics of what we’ll really be doing during those years after he has left office following a second term – should he win.

Enabling this capability to send humans as far as Mars is great, but I have yet to hear anyone from this administration clearly articulate our plans for exactly what we’re going to do when we get there, let alone when the additional money is coming to develop the specific mission hardware we’ll need beyond what we’re building with Orion and SLS. Piloted Mars lander anyone?

In any case – despite how great new spacecraft, big boosters and going to Mars sounds – try as I might with these plans, I’m still having a tough time getting the same sense of wonder and thrill about our future in space that I did when I was a kid growing up during Apollo, or even as a young adult when the Space Shuttle started flying.

Oh sure, I’m still the most enthusiastic space cadet on the planet, but there’s just something… missing. Maybe it would help if we gave the SLS a more inspiring, mythological name to complement Orion. I suppose Ares and Constellation are banned names, discontinued from the list like a disastrous hurricane, but I digress.

All that said, at least with President Obama, we have a picture of what the future of NASA might look like – what one might consider a sort of better than nothing mindset.

Speaking of nothing: Governor Romney’s plan if elected is to gather together a bunch of experts to study what we should be doing in space and determine the best way to make it happen.

That’s the last thing we need. As we have said time and again, our bookshelves are filled with the same kind of studies, all of which say essentially the same thing. We have known long since before the space age began – 55 years ago this past Thursday with the launch of Sputnik 1, I might add – what steps we would take in expanding human civilization toward the stars

First Earth orbit, then the Moon, then on to Mars, the moons of Jupiter and so on until the next thing you know we really do have a United Federation of Planets some day in the far future.

Of course, even if we do agree on the destinations, the best way to get there draws just as much debate – and maybe the way we’re doing things now is worth additional consideration. Put another way, closer to home, my wife and I may agree that we want to visit the grandparents in Tallahassee but she may want to take the Buick and go up I-95 and over, while I might prefer the Ford and head up using the Turnpike and I-75.

So it may not be completely stupid for a President Romney to want to have that kind of discussion about our space program. Mars may be the destination, and we certainly need a heavy lift booster and a new human-rated spacecraft to get us there, but does Orion truly have what it takes? Is the Space Launch System the right design for a heavy lift rocket? Should more of the job of exploration be given to private industry? I’m not personally suggesting any of these are good ideas, but there are folks in the space community asking these questions.

A good manager, as our president must be, whoever it turns out to be, should always be evaluating his options and plans moving forward. But the danger in doing that with our space program – and the thing that worries me about what Governor Romney is saying in his campaign – is that in taking time to re-evaluate our space policy we will once again cancel programs already well along in their development, waste billions of dollars in starting over, heighten the risk we will give up our place as the world’s leader in space, and unmercifully further delay the dreams of so many of us who want to explore, work and live on the final frontier as quickly as possible.

So with one month to go before Election Day, if you’re going to decide who you will vote for based on the single issue of space, “this” registered Republican has no endorsement to offer. My advice (obviously) is that you are going to have to make up your mind based on your own views of all the other issues facing our nation and how you think our nation best should be governed.

It’s on that basis that I will make my vote.

Yet no matter who wins, I hope that you, like me, will be willing to continue to do everything we can to support our next president, ensure our space program remains second to none and that we stay on course for going back to the Moon, Mars and beyond…whether we take the Ford or the Buick.

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