On September 22, just over six weeks before the election, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan surprised the attendees of a town hall meeting in Orlando, Fla., by beginning his speech with a topic previously ignored by the Romney campaign: space exploration. Appealing to voters on the “Space Coast” of this electorally valuable state, Ryan promised a new path forward for NASA, one ensuring jobs, technological advances, and prestige.
The Politics of Silence
Romney, while campaigning in Cape Canaveral, Fla., in January, commented on the politics of space policy. “In the politics of the past, to get your vote on the Space Coast, I’d promise hundreds of billions of dollars, or I’d lay out what my mission is,” he said. “I’m not going to do that. I know that’s something very attractive, very popular, but it’s simply the wrong thing to do.”
In 2008, both John McCain and Barack Obama took detailed stances on space policy. Both candidates proposed budget increases for NASA and specified goals for the development and deployment of certain capabilities, focusing on access to space, research and development, and cooperation with the private sector. In the 2012 Republican primary, other candidates presented specific proposals for space policy. Newt Gingrich promised to establish the first permanent base on the moon by 2020 and a $10 billion prize to spur innovation.
Romney’s lack of a specific space policy can be attributed to divisions within the space advisory group for his campaign. Mike Griffin, a vocal supporter of the since-cancelled Constellation program, is a policy advisor for the campaign. As NASA administrator under President George W. Bush, he promoted government involvement in space exploration. This approach runs contrary to the fiscally conservative ideology present elsewhere in the campaign.
Philosophically, such fiscal conservatism would drive Romney to support private sector transportation capabilities. Endorsing such a strategy would be complicated for the campaign, since it is a plan the Obama administration has embraced. The successes in the private sector, namely SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft lifting off on the Falcon launch vehicle this past May, were made possible through cooperation with the Obama administration.
The campaign had been criticized for silence on space exploration while its opponents have dominated the issue, and the Obama campaign has released statements calling attention to Romney’s lack of a space policy. These releases also highlight achievements of the past four years and objectives for the next four, reiterating the objectives identified in the official space policy of the United States, released in June 2010.
Releasing a plan has not quelled criticism of the campaign. Newt Gingrich criticized Romney for failing to release a “robust” enough strategy. The Obama campaign in Florida released a statement criticizing Ryan’s track record of voting against NASA funding in Congress.
The Romney Plan
Moments before Ryan’s speech began, the campaign released a policy statement outlining NASA’s objectives under a Romney administration. The white paper begins with a critique of Obama’s failure to articulate a clear path for the United States in space, especially regarding transportation capabilities. The coherent direction a Romney administration would provide would focus on four objectives: clarifying NASA’s priorities, partnering internationally, protecting national security, and revitalizing industry. The private sector would eventually gain control over “commercially viable activities,” selling services to the government.
The singular plan is one that has been Romney’s space policy throughout the campaign. If elected, he will convene a commission of experts on space policy from the Department of Defense, academia, industry, and NASA itself. These panelists will collectively identify specific missions to affirm the objectives of the space program.
“It’s clear that a Romney administration would take NASA in a different direction than it currently is under the Obama administration,” commented Dr. Jeff Foust, editor and publisher of The Space Review, in an interview with the HPR. “The problem is that the Romney administration isn’t necessarily clear on what that specific direction would be other than how it would do it: by focusing NASA and engaging stakeholders to come up with new missions.”
The Obama Precedent
What Romney is proposing has been seen before. “Mitt Romney saying, ‘I’m going to set up a commission to look at NASA,’ is basically what Barack Obama did when he came in,” noted Kenneth Chang, a science reporter for The New York Times. “He had a commission led by Norm Augustine that spent the better part of a year crafting opinions, . . . looking at the budget, looking at what was possible.”
On the campaign trail in 2008, then-candidate Obama proposed altering the vision for NASA from the objectives championed by President Bush. He laid out a plan proposing broad policies: developing the next generation of launch vehicles, cooperating internationally, supporting scientific research, and maintaining national security. As for specificity in programs, an Obama administration would follow the recommendations of a panel of experts in the field.
The Human Space Flight Plans Committee, known informally as the Augustine Commission after its chairman, commenced its evaluation of space policy in June 2009, six months after President Obama took office. The panel was comprised of two former astronauts, three academics, four industry veterans, and a retired Air Force general. By October, the committee released a report providing the contours of overall objectives in space and tangible policy goals NASA could meet before 2020 to realize these aspirations.
One decisive recommendation of the report was to cancel the Constellation program. This redeveloped system of crew and launch vehicles and a lunar lander would allow astronauts to explore further into space, using the International Space Station as a jumping-off point to eventually land on asteroids and Mars. The Augustine Commission found that the program was “behind schedule, over budget, and unachievable” and recommended its termination.
The cancellation of Constellation proved to be political poison. The aerospace community was divided by the decision to do so, effectively complicating collaboration. Though support for private sector initiatives has returned resources to the Kennedy Space Center area, many residents still blame Obama for the loss of jobs that followed the end of Constellation. The program was cancelled without input from Congress, which exacerbated tension between the two branches of government.
President Obama ultimately released the National Space Policy of the United States of America, a comprehensive set of objectives and programs the country will pursue beyond the Earth’s surface. Acting on the counsel of the Augustine Commission, the Obama administration followed through on the campaign promise to shift the focus of NASA with the release of this document in June 2010. With a budget increased by $6 billion over five years, NASA will enhance robotic exploration and observation of the Earth while extending the life of the International Space Station. Most importantly, President Obama pledged $3 billion for the development of a heavy lift rocket, which would perform the function Constellation would have served.
With urgent issues both at home and abroad, it is unlikely either candidate will prioritize what happens beyond the Earth’s surface. However, as the election draws close, both candidates are making their pleas for votes. Florida is the battleground state with the largest number of electoral college votes. It is the heart of the space industry. Nestled in a state with a history of playing a decisive role in presidential elections, the Space Coast, and thus space policy, may receive more attention as the campaigns race toward their conclusions.
Photo Credit: Johnny Shaw