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Space policy panel
Lori Garver, Floyd DesChamps, and Steve Robinson discuss the space policies of the three remaining major presidential candidates at the ISDC on May 30. (credit: J. Foust)

The so-so space debate

Those interested in space policy this election year have suffered from conflicting feelings. On the one hand, there have been plenty of opportunities for the candidates to speak about space issues, more so than in a typical election cycle, due perhaps to the length or intensity of the campaign. From formal policy statements to questions posed at town hall meetings, all three of the major remaining candidates—Senators Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama—have had multiple opportunities to talk about how they would handle various space-related issues as president.

On the other hand, though, the information they have provided has done little to satisfy the curiosity of space advocates. What does Obama mean when he says that he would delay Constellation by five years, and how does that mesh with his more recent statements supporting continued development of the Ares 1 rocket and Orion spacecraft? Would McCain’s support for the Vision for Space Exploration be jeopardized by proposals to freeze discretionary spending for a year? How strongly does Clinton support some of the key goals in the Vision, including returning humans to the Moon by 2020?

Those uncertainties and conflicts got people interested in a debate held Friday at the International Space Development Conference (ISDC), the annual conference of the National Space Society (NSS), in Washington DC. The “Election 2008 Space Panel” appeared to offer the best opportunity to resolve those questions, with representatives of all three candidates participating in an hour-long panel moderated by CNN’s Miles O’Brien and broadcast live on C-SPAN. At the end of the hour, though, many people left the event (held, appropriately enough, in the Presidential Ballroom of the Capital Hilton Hotel near the White House) with few of their questions and concerns about the candidates’ space positions resolved.

Opening salvos

The panel started off with opening statements from the three campaign representatives. Steve Robinson, an Obama staffer who works primarily on education issues, said that space policy was part of the campaign’s broader science policy, and that Obama was a “friend” of science and engineering who would seek to consult more frequently with scientists on key policy issues, a theme that would be repeated several times during the panel.

“This is not an issue where you’re going to see a lot of daylight between the candidates’ positions,” Garver said. “I think the space program… is absolutely a bipartisan issue.”

He then laid out some general principles of Obama’s science and space policy, starting with the need to build up the talent pool of scientists and engineers. He also said Obama would create a “supportive environment for scientific research and space exploration” in the public and private sectors, “including the new generation of entrepreneurs who are interested in space exploration.” The campaign’s third key principle, he said, was to use science and space to tackle the planet’s most pressing problems, including “the idea of linking human and robotic exploration more clearly, more closely, to the needs of our planet, such as climate change, such as energy.” The final principle, he said, would be to allow scientists to provide “unadulterated” expert advice to the government.

Robinson spoke frequently, both during the opening statement and later discussion, about the importance of inspiration, from its role in encouraging youth to pursue careers in this area to how the candidate himself approaches the topic. “My boss hasn’t talked much about space,” he said, “but when he does, he will talk about it in an inspirational way.”

Floyd DesChamps, a Senate Commerce Committee staffer representing the McCain campaign, said the presumptive Republican nominee believes that NASA’s exploration efforts should be based on “sound management, safe practices, and fiscal responsibility.” Those beliefs, he noted, were demonstrated during McCain’s time as chairman of the Commerce Committee, which has oversight on NASA’s activities; McCain pressed for a cost cap on the International Space Station program and also held hearings on the Columbia shuttle accident.

DesChamps said McCain was a strong supporter of NASA’s exploration efforts, including having introduced authorizing legislation during his tenure as committee chairman explicitly supporting the Vision for Space Exploration. (That legislation, introduced in 2004, did not pass, but a similar bill did pass the following year, although without McCain as a co-sponsor as he was no longer committee chairman.) He added that McCain was concerned about the gap between the retirement of the shuttle and the introduction of Ares 1 and Orion. “Certainly McCain recognizes that relying on the Russians for total access to the space station is not a good situation for the country to be in,” he said. McCain would take a “close look” at the gap and the development status of Ares 1 and Orion and “whether or not additional investment is the right way to go and what is the correct direction of that investment.”

Lori Garver, the former NASA associate administrator and NSS executive director representing the Clinton campaign, primarily reiterated the campaign’s science policy issued last October 4, which included several provisions about space, including space exploration, earth sciences, and aeronautics. Garver added that the campaign, shortly after the policy’s release, clarified the policy “because she hadn’t specifically mentioned the Moon and Mars” in the original policy; that clarification did specifically mention the development of vehicles that would “take us back to the Moon and beyond” as well as the “worthy ambition of sending humans to Mars.”

Garver also noted that although there had been more discussion about space policy in this campaign than in prior ones, it was difficult to find a lot of differences between the campaigns. “This is not an issue where you’re going to see a lot of daylight between the candidates’ positions,” she said. “I think the space program… is absolutely a bipartisan issue.”

Inspiration and the future of the Vision

Much of the debate by the panel focused how the exploration vision NASA is currently implementing would fare under the next administration. O’Brien’s first question focused on perhaps the biggest uncertainty, namely Obama’s education policy, which calls for delaying Constellation by five years. Robinson largely dodged the question, instead talking about funding levels for NASA. “My boss, Senator Obama, has come out and said that, overall, science funding, nationally, needs to double, and that includes an increase in NASA funding,” he said. When pressed by O’Brien for the size of that increase—did Obama really mean to double NASA’s overall budget?—Robinson demurred. “I believe he’s willing to listen to the space and science community about this. I don’t know that a clear decision has been made, but that’s something that’s been discussed at the campaign level.”

Robinson added that a National Research Council study concluded that NASA was being tasked with more work that it could afford to do with its current budget. “The rallying cry, I think, for NASA now is that we will go as we can afford to pay. That’s not exactly an inspirational message, and that’s something I think my boss would like to look at and decide how to do this.”

Wouldn’t be more inspiring, though, O’Brien continued, to send humans to Mars than just robots? “To me, yes; to some of my high school students, I’m not sure,” Robinson said.

Later, O’Brien picked on the theme of inspiration: wouldn’t committing to send humans to Mars, he asked, promote inspiration and stimulate interest in much the same way as Apollo did 40 years ago? “I’d like to remind you that we actually are on Mars, and have been on Mars for four days,” Robinson said, referring to the Phoenix lander. “I think for many people of my generation, we think of inspiration as being a person on a planet. I think there’s a huge amount of inspiration from the pictures we’ve seen in the last week of a parachute, a heat shield, and a lander on the surface of another planet. I think we shouldn’t limit what inspires us to just exploration by humans. Exploration by robots can also be tremendously inspirational.”

“There aren’t any high schools named after robots, are there?” O’Brien asked.

“No, but they are at high schools building robots,” Robinson responded. “I think it’s important, and my boss thinks it’s important, to have a balance between robotic exploration and human exploration, and to not discount the fact that we are now on Mars, and have been for four days.”

Robinson, a high school teacher before coming to Washington to work for Obama, argued that, for students and young adults, robotic exploration might be more interesting and inspiring than for older generations. Students are using advanced technology, like robots and the Internet, “in such a way that people of our generation maybe discount because we don’t understand it as much as the next generation does.”

Wouldn’t be more inspiring, though, O’Brien continued, to send humans to Mars than just robots? “To me, yes; to some of my high school students, I’m not sure,” Robinson said. “To some of my high school students, it might be more inspiring if we built ways for them to connect to probes on Mars that they could actually interact with in real time… I think we shouldn’t limit our view of inspiration to what inspires us. I think other people may be inspired, and other generations may be inspired, in other ways. I’m not inspired by Second Life, but a lot of kids are.”

Garver said that Clinton strongly supported human spaceflight and would be willing to support it even while pressing on with other initiatives in the sciences and aeronautics. “The human program is something that Sen. Clinton very much supports,” she said. “Human spaceflight is a priority. I do believe that the NASA program’s balance has been weighted towards human exploration under the Bush Administration’s budget at the expense of earth science and aeronautics, so those are things that would most likely increase in a Clinton Administration, but she’s been clear that she’s willing to add more money so it would not be to the detriment of human spaceflight.”

DesChamps, though, was less optimistic about NASA’s budget. “I’m not sure we can grow the budget given the total situation,” he said. Human spaceflight, he said, was the “face of NASA”, but there was a need to balance spending on that versus earth sciences, given the growing concerns about climate change. He did say, though, that McCain would likely continue the current Vision for Space Exploration in a similar manner. “He’ll look to demonstrate an understanding of that vision and the foresight to determine what it takes to make that a reality,” he said. “If the community still supports that, then we should rally around how do we make it real. I’m not sure we need another new vision for NASA at this point.”

One issue that did not come up during the panel, though, was a proposal floated by McCain several weeks ago to freeze non-defense discretionary spending—which includes NASA—for a year. That, coupled with the possibility that NASA might spend much or all of fiscal year 2009 under a continuing resolution, which would fund the agency at 2008 levels, raises the concern that NASA have to extend the Shuttle-Constellation gap. Asked after the panel if it would be possible to exclude NASA from such a spending freeze because of those concerns, DesChamps said he was not optimistic it could be done.

Other policy issues

While much of the hour-long session was devoted to exploration and human spaceflight, there was time to address other space issues that have received less attention on the campaign trail. All three candidates were generally supportive of commercialization initiatives. “The most damage that NASA can do is to compete with the private sector,” Garver said. “So we would have to decide, both on the replacement for the shuttle and any low Earth orbit activities… to make sure NASA s facilitating those things but not smothering them.”

DesChamps was less optimistic about NASA’s budget. “I’m not sure we can grow the budget given the total situation,” he said.

DesChamps said that more attention needs to be paid to the future of the ISS and any commercial uses of it. “As we make these huge investments with the taxpayers’ funds, how do we reap the benefits for the taxpayers, i.e., how do we maximize it from an economic standpoint?” he asked. Robinson briefly said that Obama would “use commercial enterprises when they’re valuable.”

On the military side, Robinson said he was strongly opposed to any weaponization of space. “We don’t need more battlegrounds,” he said. “The idea of militarization of space is not something that Sen. Obama is in favor of, and cooperation is better than confrontation.”

DesChamps said that McCain also was not interested in turning space into a battleground, but he was also concerned about protecting critical satellites. “With those assets, and our reliance on them, there are certain vulnerabilities,” he said. “The reality is that we have to protect those assets.”

Both Garver and DesChamps expressed the need to reform export control regulations, a frequent complaint by many in the space industry who believe the current state of regulations make it difficult for US companies to compete in the international market. “Moving things off the [Munitions] list to Commerce is a start, but I don't believe that’s the full answer, either,” Garver said. DesChamps said it would be pruduent “to stop and review the whole situation” to determine if there are technologies currently controlled that should be taken off.

Robinson, the final panelist asked about export control, looked a little surprised by the question and paused before saying, “I actually have nothing to add.”

The best we can hope for?

For those looking for concrete details about the candidates’ space policies, and had been following the topic to date, the debate was something of a disappointment. There were few, if any, grand new insights, and some key questions about their policies remained unanswered. That can be traced to the panel’s composition: while Garver was well-versed in space issues given her background and role in the Clinton campaign, DesChamps and Robinson were less familiar with those positions, and Robinson in particular, nominally an education advisor, appeared out of his element discussing details like commercialization and export control. (DesChamps, a Senate staffer, was added to the panel at the last minute when no one else from the McCain campaign was available.)

It’s quite possible we’ve gotten just about as much detail on space policy as we will from the candidates until one of them is sworn in as president next January.

The panel’s outcome raises the question of whether we can hope for more details from the campaigns on their space policies before the November 4 election. It would be hard to craft a better forum for discussing the issue—a relevant audience, a prominent moderator, national TV coverage—than Friday’s event. And while the panel did provide a good review of what the candidates have said about space, there are still many uncertainties about what a President Clinton, McCain, or Obama might do on civil, military, and commercial space issues once in office. That’s not that surprising—after all, space is a niche issue dwarfed by the economy, Iraq, immigration, and many other concerns—but it is still a little disappointing to the space community.

There is, though, still five months to go before the election, a time that includes the development of party platforms, debates, and countless campaign appearances, including in potential electoral battleground states like Florida and Ohio where space is a particularly concern for many. However, it’s quite possible we’ve gotten just about as much detail on space policy as we will from the candidates until one of them is sworn in as president next January.


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