Space and the election: Not impressed so far

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Published on: July 8, 2012

With the Independence Day holiday behind us, and this being a presidential election year, we can expect to hear an increasing amount of campaign rhetoric from both Democrats and Republicans as we get closer to the big day in November.

To what extent our space program will be a topic in the national debate remains to be seen, of course. So far I haven’t been much impressed with what either side has been saying, which hasn’t been much.

I think we should remember that four years ago candidate Barack Obama originally wanted to put the space program on hold for five years and give the money to education, then he came to the Space Coast and promised a robust space program that would keep every Space Shuttle worker employed — and we’ve all seen how that turned out.

(The White House often points out that they extended the shuttle program to save jobs, adding two flights. Thanks. Two flights were great. How about we get two more years, or even more, while we build a replacement capability?)

More recently in this election cycle we’ve seen candidate Mitt Romney — and more than a few late night comedians — ridicule fellow Republican Newt Gingrich for suggesting this nation try doing something bold and innovative by establishing a permanent base on the Moon.

Romney famously said he would fire anyone who came to him with such a plan that would cost billions of dollars, and then he said his plan for NASA as president would be to gather experts to conduct a study of what NASA should be doing — as if that’s what we need, yet another study to tell us what so many previous panels have told us before.

So as the campaign continues, we in the space community need to look for every opportunity via campaign stops, town hall meetings, call-in programs and social media to question our candidates about their plans for NASA and our space program in general.

And I’m not just talking about the run for the White House. Our elected leaders in the U.S. House and Senate have as much to do with how we’re spending our tax dollars, and where, as does the President.

Unfortunately, I don’t hold out much hope it will make a difference. I’m afraid the candidates won’t really pay attention or be willing to alter their currently held views. And I’m also afraid we in the space community won’t speak in large enough numbers or agree on what it is we really want in the first place.

A recent example of this can be seen on the White House web page that provides an opportunity for citizens to petition the President on any issue. If a threshold of 25,000 signers is reached then the White House promises a response.

This happened recently when a petition was offered requesting that NASA’s budget be doubled so that one penny of every tax dollar goes to the space agency. Of the supposedly millions of space fans that are out there, only 27,334 people signed it. I would’ve hoped for more, but if you didn’t know about it, what can you do?

In any case, the official White House response was illuminating to say the least.

Their response essentially boiled down to this: Thanks for writing us, we think you’re really neat people and we love NASA too, but we’re not going to give you what you asked for. And, oh yeah, Republicans are mean.

The response gives the President all sort of credit for what NASA is doing now, some of which he deserve and some of which was begun by his predecessor. The President takes credit for a space policy that a lot of people question for its lack of clear goals, timelines and an appropriate budget to get it all done.

And in what is admittedly a clever sleight of hand, the White House says that while they can’t double NASA’s budget… well, listen to this. This is from the response:

“NASA and space are so important to our future that we do need to be doubling and tripling what we can accomplish in this domain. That’s why the President’s plan for NASA more than doubles the number of U.S. rockets capable of going to the ISS.”

Ignoring the insulting leap from double the budget to double the rockets, let’s do a quick fact check: We have three rockets right now that are capable of flying to the ISS: Delta 4, Atlas 5 and Falcon 9 – but only the Falcon 9 has gone. With Orbital Sciences Antares hopefully coming online this year, that will make a fourth rocket. So depending on how you count you can say we went from 2 to 4, or maybe 3 to 4, or maybe 0 to 2 – but none of those numbers is “more than double.”

Back to the petition response:

“And the James Webb Space Telescope, which the President’s Budget keeps on track for launch later this decade, won’t just double Hubble’s capabilities, but will be 100 times more powerful.

This summer, Americans in a control room in California will be monitoring as an automobile-sized rover is lowered onto the Martian surface from a sky-crane hovering in the rusty atmosphere. The “Curiosity” Mars rover isn’t just double the size of any previous rover — but is also carrying 10 times the mass of scientific instruments as America’s Opportunity rover currently operating on the surface.”

So two comments here: First, we apparently don’t need to double the budget because we have a telescope that is 100 times more powerful and a rover 10 times more capable. Cool, I’m all for more bang for our buck, but this still doesn’t get at the heart of the original petition request. And second, by the way, how can an atmosphere be rusty? I thought it was the Martian soil that is rusty?

And speaking of the budget itself, the White House goes out of its way to take what I think is an unnecessary and misleading shot at the Republican’s, apparently because this White House can’t pass up a chance to turn this response into a campaign document.

“Unfortunately, not everyone is supportive of this ambitious effort. Rather than making bold, targeted investments in our space future and embarking on new partnerships with the private sector to ensure every taxpayer dollar is spent wisely, the proposed Republican House budget plan, if spread evenly, would significantly cut NASA’s budget, forcing the deepest cuts to the space program since just after we landed on the Moon. ”

This is the kind of rhetoric that just drives me crazy – and yes, both sides are guilty of this. My problem right now is with this particular example. Those three words “if spread evenly” is a BIG assumption, and it’s an even greater reach, and insult, to accuse someone of not supporting our space program because they don’t agree with every aspect of your plan or how to best fund it.

I don’t agree with every piece of the current national space policy, but does that make me not supportive of this ambitious effort? If that’s the White House’s intent, to call me out on this, then they’re picking on the wrong guy.

Please understand, I’m picking on this particular example, not to say any one candidate for president is better than the other. Frankly I’m not happy with either one, for reasons that go way beyond just what they have to say – or don’t have to say – about our national space policy.

What I am trying to say is that during the remaining months between now and Election Day we have got to let these folks know what we’re thinking, and be active in the telling.

We’ve got a pretty great space program now, with lots of potential for some incredible things in the future. But we can do better. And so can the next occupants of the White House and Capitol Hill, whoever they might be.

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