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Obama in Pennsylvania
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has proposed delaying Constellation, yet there has been little outcry from space advocacy groups. (credit: BarackObama.com)

Obama’s modest proposal: no hue, no cry?

If elected President, Senator Barack Obama plans to delay Project Constellation for at least five years, putting the saved money into a new $10-billion-a-year education program that would, in essence, nationalize early-education for children under five years old to prepare them for the rigors of kindergarten and beyond.

Why single out the space budget to cut for this program? “NASA is no longer associated with inspiration,” Obama told a campaign rally audience in March. The silence from space advocacy groups in response to this policy, made public in November, has been deafening. As I have discovered in recent weeks, Obama is personally adamant about this approach, if the details of its implementation remain hazy.

The proposal

Obama’s education platform document, released last November, ends with the following paragraph (emphasis added):

IX. A COMMITMENT TO FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY
Barack Obama’s early education and K-12 plan package costs about $18 billion per year. He will maintain fiscal responsibility and prevent any increase in the deficit by offsetting cuts and revenue sources in other parts of the government. The early education plan will be paid for by delaying the NASA Constellation Program for five years, using purchase cards and the negotiating power of the government to reduce costs of standardized procurement, auctioning surplus federal property, and reducing the erroneous payments identified by the Government Accountability Office, and closing the CEO pay deductibility loophole. The rest of the plan will be funded using a small portion of the savings associated with fighting the war in Iraq.

The trouble is, it’s not really clear exactly what part(s) of the NASA budget Obama would cut to pay for getting the under-four set into pre-K programs.

The “early education plan” in question is a proposed “Zero to Five Plan” aimed at nationalizing an Obama-supported program in Illinois. This plan would create a “Presidential Early Learning Council”, fund and expand state funded pre-K programs, encourage universal pre-school in all states, and even “expand evidence-based home visiting programs to all low-income, first-time mothers” to “help improve the mental and physical health of the family.” Existing pre-K efforts aren’t good enough: “Pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds is important, but it is not enough to ensure children will arrive at school ready to learn.”

The trouble is, it’s not really clear exactly what part(s) of the NASA budget Obama would cut to pay for getting the under-four set into pre-K programs. Obama’s separately released quasi-official space policy does indeed leave out any mention of the Moon or Mars, Constellation’s intended ultimate destinations. However, it states support for development of the Ares 1 rocket and Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). “As president, Obama will support the development of this vital new platform to ensure that the United States’ reliance on foreign space capabilities is limited to the minimum possible time period. The CEV will be the backbone of future missions, and is being designed with technology that is already proven and available.”

Since Constellation is focused in its early years on Ares 1 and CEV development, what exactly will be deleted? Specific lunar exploration planning? Downstream work on the Ares 5 heavy-lift rocket? These aren’t specified, but in any event cutting them will provide no real benefit in the earlier years of an Obama administration.

It is probably fair to point out here that there are two other presidential candidates, and both have refreshingly provided specific – if not precise – statements on space.

In a short page on his campaign website, presumptive Republican nominee John McCain says he is “proud to have sponsored legislation authorizing funding consistent with the President’s vision for the space program, which includes a return of astronauts to the Moon in preparation for a manned mission to Mars.” This convoluted statement, which seems to imply that he wants us to continue to work on Constellation’s Moon/Mars goals, falls under the airy lead quote attributed to McCain: “Let us now embark upon this great journey into the stars to find whatever may await us.”

Clinton, meanwhile, in a science policy statement issued on Sputnik’s 50th anniversary, said she wants “a balanced strategy of robust human spaceflight, expanded robotic spaceflight, and enhanced space science activities.” While she hasn’t endorsed Moon/Mars, she has spoken of the need to develop the Ares launch vehicle. Her policy does imply that she might seek a reorienting of NASA priorities, in that it specifically calls for more money for Earth monitoring, climate change studies, and aeronautics.

Obama in Wyoming

As fate would have it, I had the chance to ask Obama about his policy at a recent town hall meeting in Wyoming. In an unlikely scenario, both he and Clinton were stumping through this lightly populated, heavily Republican state in their tight battle for convention delegates. While Clinton did not take questions at her Casper rally, Obama did.

It was clear to me that, at least as of early March 2008, Barack Obama is vocally insistent that we should forget about the Moon or Mars.

Frankly, Obama showed himself to be eloquent, forthright, smart, and engaging. Watching him in person, it was easy to see why he has become the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. Personally, I now have no doubt he would be a formidable opponent to John McCain in the general election.

Mine was the third question after his short speech, after one off-mike query that I think was an autograph request, and another about the plight of Native American children on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation.

After a brief summary of the policy, I asked, “Why are you specifically pitting the space program against education, and where’s the vision in shutting down the [human] space program?”

My question, and Senator Obama’s response, were included in several newspaper accounts. As recounted by John McCormick of the Chicago Tribune:

During the question-and-answer portion of an event at a recreational center here, Obama was asked about the nation's space program.

“I grew up on Star Trek,” Obama said. “I believe in the final frontier.”

But Obama said he does not agree with the way the space program is now being run and thinks funding should be trimmed until the mission is clearer.

“NASA has lost focus and is no longer associated with inspiration,” he said. “I don't think our kids are watching the space shuttle launches. It used to be a remarkable thing. It doesn't even pass for news anymore.”

Obama seemed to resent my question. A little later, he addressed another on energy, and spoke of the need for an alternative energy effort. He concluded by turning to my direction and saying pointedly, “And that, sir, is what our next Apollo Program should be.”

It was clear to me that, at least as of early March 2008, Barack Obama is vocally insistent that we should forget about the Moon or Mars, and use the money to fund part of his Zero-to-Five Plan.

Where is everybody?

Even if this policy were merely election-year posturing, even if Congress would squelch such a plan, the space community faces a good possibility of having four or eight years under an antagonistic President who considers space little more than a budget target.

If enacted, of course, it would have a significant impact on the future of space, especially coming as it does with the scheduled end of the shuttle in 2010, concerns over a space workforce “brain drain” akin to that after Apollo, and uncertainty over the future course of space exploration.

Wouldn’t spaceflight advocates at least respond to the notion that exploration is superfluous enough to be de-funded to pay a fraction of the cost of a pre-K education initiative?

Wouldn’t those inclined to see the current Moon/Mars effort scrapped for something else, such as a “better” space effort, or a movement towards more commercial spaceflight, use this as an opportunity to advocate their visions?

For a variety of reasons, the answer appears to be basically “No.” I decided to find out why, and that will be the subject of Part 2 of this article.


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