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Clinton and Huckabee
Hillary Clinton and Mike Huckabee are the two candidates who have said the most about space policy so far during the 2008 campaign. (credit: Clinton campaign/Huckabee campaign)

Where the candidates stand on space

Later this week the first official contest of the 2008 presidential campaign will finally take place when the Iowa caucuses are held on Thursday, followed next Tuesday by the New Hampshire primaries. The “finally” sounds a little ironic given that these elections are occurring earlier than ever in modern election history, but many of the candidates have been on the road in those states, among others, since at least the November 2006 Congressional elections, if not earlier. The current political situation—no incumbent or clear heir apparent running for either party—has created a wide-open, high-stakes atmosphere on the campaign trail.

The countless campaign appearances, debates, and ads have given the candidates plenty of opportunities to sound off on a wide range of issues, from the war in Iraq to the health of the economy to illegal immigration. The relatively small community of space professionals and enthusiasts has also been keeping a close eye on the campaign, looking for any pronouncements by the candidates on space issues. Not surprisingly, such statements have been few and far between.

As a guide to prospective voters simply interested in the topic, The Space Review has researched what positions, if any, Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have taken on space policy issues. To aid this effort, we sent out a short list of questions on civil, commercial, and military space policy issues to the major candidates in mid-December; none responded. That lack of response is almost certainly due primarily to the relatively obscure nature of this publication, but even the Washington Post found it difficult to pin down what the candidates thought about human spaceflight back in November. Space is highly unlikely to be a campaign issue of any significance again in 2008, but for those interested in the topic, there are a few insights to be found about what the candidates think.

Democrats: the fight for Constellation

The one candidate whose positions on space have received the most attention—and scrutiny—has been Sen. Hillary Clinton. That attention is based in part on her standing as one of the frontrunners in the Democratic race, but also because she is the one candidate, Democratic or Republican, who has provided any sort of detailed position on what she would do in space policy if elected. Even Dave Weldon, a Republican Congressman from Florida, said earlier this month, “The best person with a space policy—actually, the only candidate with any kind of substantial space policy on their Web site—is Hillary.”

Space is highly unlikely to be a campaign issue of any significance again in 2008, but for those interested in the topic, there are a few insights to be found about what the candidates think.

That space policy is part of a broader science policy that Clinton released during a speech in Washington on October 4, the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik. The space aspects of that policy have long ago been dissected and studied in various forums, including this publication (see “Hillary Clinton’s space policy and the Earth sciences”, November 5, 2007, and “Hillary Clinton’s civil space policy”, November 12, 2007). In essence, the policy supports a “robust” human spaceflight program, including continued development of the Orion spacecraft and Ares launch vehicle (collectively known as Constellation), while shoring up work in the earth sciences and aeronautics, two areas of NASA that some critics believe have gotten short shrift during the Bush Administration.

That policy, as detailed as it was, still left some unanswered questions. One is the level of funding for NASA that Clinton would support. Continuing the exploration program while increasing funding for earth science and aeronautics would seem to require a budget increase, unless she plans more significant cuts elsewhere, but nowhere in the policy does she state specific funding targets for NASA. At one point in her October 4 speech she states that she “will increase support for basic and applied research by increasing the research budgets at the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the Department of Defense,” although it’s not clear if the omission of NASA from that statement was deliberate or simply an oversight. The same day as Clinton unveiled her policy, though, the Senate approved an amendment to an appropriations bill to add an additional $1 billion to NASA’s budget in fiscal year 2008; Clinton was one of the co-sponsors of the measure. (That additional money, however, did not survive in the conference committee that reconciled the Senate bill with the House version that lacked the amendment.)

Another question about Clinton’s policy is her support for the Vision for Space Exploration. Her policy does mention support for “later human missions” beyond the completion of the International Space Station, but does not explicitly endorse the goals laid out nearly four years ago by President Bush to return humans to the Moon by 2020 and, later, send humans to Mars. In a New York Times article the day after her speech, Clinton indicated that such goals would be set aside in favor of restoring funding for aeronautics and space policy. Such exploration, she told the Times, “excites people,” but “I am more focused on nearer-term goals I think are achievable.”

In early November, the Clinton campaign revised its position somewhat in a statement provided to Space News, stating that Clinton supported a swift transition from the space shuttle to Constellation, calling the latter “a next-generation space transportation system that can take us back to the Moon and beyond.” Her goals of increased funding for other programs within the agency, the published portion of the statement read, “also complement and advance the worthy ambition of sending human expeditions to Mars.”

Clinton’s strong support of Constellation stands in stark contrast with the position taken by one of her biggest rivals for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Barack Obama. In November, Obama issued his proposed education policy, a 15-page document that included a single paragraph at the end regarding how he would pay for the $18 billion per year initiative. The most expensive aspect of the initiative, support for pre-kindergarten education efforts, would be paid for in part by “delaying the NASA Constellation Program for five years,” according to the document. (Although not specified in the policy itself, media reports indicated that Obama would leave $500 million a year for preserving the manufacturing and technology base while Constellation was put on hold.)

While apparently not supportive of Constellation (the campaign has not publicly addressed the topic since the policy’s release last month), Obama does not appear to be openly hostile to human spaceflight. When approached by members of the Mars Society after a New Hampshire rally, Obama was interested but non-committal in that organization’s goal of human Mars exploration. “I’m inspired by the idea of going to Mars,” he said, according to an article on Wired.com. “I’m also mindful of the budgetary constraints. So I won’t give you an answer right now.”

The other leading Democratic candidate, former senator John Edwards, has also said little about space policy. In an interview with Scienceblogs.com in July, Edwards said that he was a “strong supporter” of the American space program, and called for a “balanced” space program. “We need to support solar system exploration as an important goal for our human and robotic programs, but only as one goal among several,” he said.

While apparently not supportive of Constellation, Obama does not appear to be openly hostile to human spaceflight. When approached by members of the Mars Society after a New Hampshire rally, Obama was interested but non-committal in that organization’s goal of human Mars exploration.

The other Democratic candidates, all but lost in the shadows of Clinton, Edwards, and Obama, have said little about space policy. Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio congressman whose district includes the Glenn Research Center, has been a supporter of the space agency, although in his presidential campaign he has focused more on using NASA as a tool to support the development of alternative energy technologies. “We need to subsidize the development of new energy technologies. And I’m willing to do that through NASA, which has been of singular importance to our economy by developing technologies for propulsion, for aerospace, for materials, for medicines, and for communication,” his campaign’s position paper on energy reads. “We need to fund NASA in, among other areas, a mission to planet Earth.” In a speech earlier this month in Nevada (which hosts a caucus in mid-January), Kucinich’s wife, Elizabeth, said that NASA should focus on alternative energy technologies “instead of sending people to the moon”, according to a local newspaper report.

While the campaign of New Mexico governor Bill Richardson has been silent on space policy topics, his campaign has attracted attention from some in the NewSpace sector because of his support for the development of a new commercial spaceport in his state. In perhaps his only published comments on space, Richardson told a questioner after a debate in New Hampshire that space exploration was necessary “for the health of the nation” and that the country should “encourage private companies”, citing his work in New Mexico. That position may be of interest down the road since Richardson, while given little chance of securing the presidential nomination himself, has often been cited as a potential running mate for the eventual nominee.

Republicans: not yet ready for Mars?

In July, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was mired near the bottom of most polls, far behind Republican frontrunners like Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. With little mainstream interest in his campaign at the time, a media conference call he held on July 19 attracted a motley group of participants, from radio personalities to bloggers. One of the latter, Steve Nielson, who operated a pro-Huckabee blog in Colorado at the time, asked him about his stance on human space exploration, particularly human missions to Mars. Huckabee, after describing the benefits of space exploration in the form of spinoffs and other applications, said, “I certainly would be in strong favor of increasing our efforts in space exploration and technology.”

Huckabee added that he supported a combination of robotic and human space exploration, in part because “you have all the tools that exist within the human capacity that simply are unmatched by any technology at this point.” However, he stopped short of endorsing a human mission to Mars, saying it was premature to make a decision on that. “[I]f we came to the place in my tenure where that was a reasonable possibility and one that made sense, I’m not opposed to it,” he said, “I’m just not quite ready to say, because I can just see the headline now, ‘Huckabee Proposes Mars Mission.’”

A little over four months later, Huckabee had emerged as a frontrunner in Iowa, pulling even with or even moving ahead of Romney in some polls. What hadn’t changed, though, were his opinions about human spaceflight and Mars exploration. During a CNN/YouTube debate in Florida on November 28, Huckabee fielded a question (posed, in what could legitimately be called a cosmic coincidence, by the same Steve Nielson who asked the question in the July conference call) about whether any candidate would be willing to pledge to send humans to Mars by 2020. “Whether we ought to go to Mars is not a decision that I would want to make, but I would certainly want to make sure that we expand the space program,” Huckabee responded. After ticking off some of the side benefits of space exploration, he added that “we need to put more money into science and technology and exploration.”

“Whether we ought to go to Mars is not a decision that I would want to make, but I would certainly want to make sure that we expand the space program,” Huckabee said in a November debate.

Even if Huckabee’s support in Iowa and elsewhere had not grown in the last several months, his statements would still be significant since they amount to effectively the most detailed space policy statements by any Republican candidate to date. When Congressman Weldon said that Hillary Clinton was “the best person with a space policy”, he meant to encourage his fellow Republicans to respond with their own proposals. “The Republican candidates need to wake up and smell the coffee,” he said.

The other major Republican candidates, as Weldon indicated, have said little, if anything, about space policy. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, speaking in Florida in April, said he “supported continuing to aggressively pursue space exploration,” according to a newspaper account, but offered no other details. When contacted by the Washington Post in November, a campaign spokesperson responded, “I’m not sure anything is out there on this subject.”

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, speaking in August on Florida’s Space Coast, provided a tepid endorsement of the Vision for Space Exploration, saying that he hadn’t decided if he would continue that plan if elected, but “I have no reason to change that at this point.” Sen. John McCain, also in Florida back in February, said he “strongly supports” missions to Mars and Florida’s role in space exploration, noting the “infrastructure that’s very expensive and very extensive there.” Former senator Fred Thompson has said effectively nothing about space since entering the race earlier this year.

Congressman Ron Paul, who has attracted some voter support, particularly in New Hampshire, has not talked about space policy during this campaign, but did in 1988 when he was the Libertarian Party nominee. At that time he was critical of the lack of progress NASA had achieved over the previous two decades. “NASA has cost our nation a full twenty years in space development, twenty years that has seen the Soviet Union surpass us to an extent that may well be irreparable,” he states in a position paper from that 1988 campaign (one that apparently did not foresee the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union.) “It is inconceivable that a private firm could have committed such follies and survived. NASA deserves no better.”

When contacted by the Washington Post in November, a Giuliani campaign spokesperson responded, “I’m not sure anything is out there on this subject.”

Paul, who was not in Congress during that 1988 campaign, has been in Congress for over a decade now (he previously served in the House in two periods from the mid 1970s through the mid 1980s), in a district that includes some Houston suburbs near the Johnson Space Center. When the House passed its version of a NASA authorization bill in 2005, one of the few roll call votes in recent years on space-specific legislation, Paul did not cast a vote. He did, though, vote in favor of the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act (HR 5382) in a critical November 2004 vote after being the only member to oppose an earlier version of the bill that March.

So, what conclusions can be drawn from this? As in past elections, space policy in a minor topic that doesn’t get a lot of attention from either the mainstream media or the candidates themselves. Those interested in these issues will have to continue to scrutinize the speeches, statements, and other activities of the candidates to try and discern their positions on space issues. There will be plenty of time to do that: after all, even though this presidential campaign has been going on for many months, the general election is still over ten months away.


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