The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Romney in Florida
Mitt Romney, seen here at a Florida campaign stop in January, has offered few additional details about his campaign’s space policy since then. (credit: Mitt Romney for President)

Space policy in the campaign shadows

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Yesterday was Labor Day, a holiday that, every four years, has traditionally marked the beginning of the home stretch of the presidential campaign. That milestone looks increasingly anachronistic today, in an era where campaigns stretch out over years and the airwaves, particularly in critical “swing states”, have been filled with political ads for months, with still just over two months to go until Election Day.

“The soles of Neil Armstrong’s boots on the Moon made permanent impressions on our souls and in our national psyche,” Romney said in his acceptance speech.

The focus of those ads, campaign appearances by the candidates, and other events has been primarily on the economy, social issues, and foreign policy. Space policy, a niche issue that accounts for a tiny fraction of the federal budget, traditionally gets very little attention during a presidential campaign, and understandably so. However, even with that calibration, space is getting markedly less attention than just four years ago, when the campaigns provided an impressive amount of detail—relatively speaking—in the run-up to the 2008 election. While several events in the last week have gotten the attention of space enthusiasts, from party platforms to speeches to even an online chat, what has been said has offered little new insight into the policies of the two major candidates.

Invoking Armstrong

The death of Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the Moon, on August 25, came just days before the start of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, where the party would formally nominate former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney for president. That timing would seem to offer an opportunity to invoke his memory and perhaps offer a vision of the future, but only half of that came to pass.

In his acceptance speech at the convention Thursday night, Romney did mention Armstrong, but used his passing to reflect on what the nation was capable of doing in general. “To be an American was to assume that all things were possible. When President Kennedy challenged Americans to go to the Moon, the question wasn’t whether we’d get there, it was only when we’d get there,” Romney said.

“The soles of Neil Armstrong’s boots on the Moon made permanent impressions on our souls and in our national psyche,” he continued. “Tonight that American flag is still there on the Moon. And I don't doubt for a second that Neil Armstrong’s spirit is still with us: that unique blend of optimism, humility, and the utter confidence that when the world needs someone to do the really big stuff, you need an American.”

On Saturday, in a campaign stop in Cincinnati (where Armstrong’s funeral service took place the previous day), Romney again invoked Armstrong, but in the most general of terms. “I will do everything in my power to bring us together, because united, America built the strongest economy in the history of the earth. United, we put Neil Armstrong on the Moon.”

Planking space

Also last week in Tampa, the Republican Party formally adopted its party platform, outlining its general positions on various issues and how they set themselves apart from the Democrats and President Obama. That platform did include a section, or plank, about space, but those looking for some specifics about what a Romney Administration might do in space came away largely disappointed.

“[W]e must sustain our preeminence in space, launching more science missions, guaranteeing unfettered access, and maintaining a source of high-value American jobs,” states the Republican party platform.

The plank, titled “America’s Future in Space: Continuing this Quest”, spends one paragraph describing the achievements of the US in space and their importance. “The exploration of space has been a key part of U.S. global leadership and has supported innovation and ownership of technology,” it states. “Through its achievements, NASA has inspired generations of Americans to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, leading to careers that drive our country’s technological and economic engines.”

The second paragraph looks ahead, but offers little in the way of specifics about what Republicans would do differently:

Today, America’s leadership in space is challenged by countries eager to emulate – and surpass – NASA’s accomplishments. To preserve our national security interests and foster innovation and competitiveness, we must sustain our preeminence in space, launching more science missions, guaranteeing unfettered access, and maintaining a source of high-value American jobs.

The closest thing to a difference to the current administration’s policy is the reference to “launching more science missions”, which could be a reference to proposed cuts in NASA’s planetary science budget and termination of NASA’s participation in the ExoMars mission (see “Fighting for Mars”, The Space Review, March 26, 2012). But the platform is silent on what kind of science missions should be increased, and how those missions should be paid for. Also absent from the platform is an mention of human spaceflight, a hot topic in the last two and a half years with the retirement of the Space Shuttle, the Obama Administration’s decision to cancel the Constellation program, and battles over both government and commercial human spaceflight projects.

One of the rationales for supporting a robust space program, particularly human spaceflight, has been the concept of “American exceptionalism”: doing things in space that few, if any, other countries can do, that sets the US apart. “Restoring the U.S. space program to greatness will require the leadership, management skill, and commitment to American exceptionalism possessed by only one candidate in this race: Mitt Romney,” said a letter in January from the campaign’s space policy advisory group, whose members include former astronauts and former NASA administrator Mike Griffin. Yet, while the Republican platform includes a section titled “American Exceptionalism”, the plank about space is not there. Instead, it is near the end of the section titled “Reforming Government to Serve the People”, between planks on civil service reform and policies for American territories.

Staying the course

While last week was devoted primarily to the Republicans and their convention, President Obama wasn’t silent on the topic of space, either. Last Wednesday he made a surprise appearance on the popular website Reddit, appearing in an online “Ask Me Anything” discussion there were members of the site do just that—pose questions on almost any topic, although with a particular emphasis on technology—with a selection answered by Obama.

Much of that attention was devoted to the novelty of the president himself participating (the White House even released a photo of Obama sitting at a laptop, tie loosened and sleeves rolled up, indicating that he was typing out the answers himself). One of the questions he chose to answer was a simple one: “Are you considering increasing funds to the space program?”

Obama’s answer, though (typos and all), didn’t directly address the central theme of the question:

Making sure we stay at the forefront of space exploration is a big priority for my administration. The passing of Neil Armstrong this week is a reminder of the inspiration and wonder that our space program has provided in the past; the curiosity probe on mars is a reminder of what remains to be discovered. The key is to make sure that we invest in cutting edge research that can take us to the next level - so even as we continue work with the international space station, we are focused on a potential mission to a asteroid as a prelude to a manned Mars flight.

That answer didn’t break any new ground in terms of policy: an emphasis on technology research has been a part of the administration’s plan for NASA since 2010, and a human mission to an asteroid was specifically indicated by the president in his April 2010 speech at the Kennedy Space Center as an interim goal towards the long-term goal of a human Mars mission. Obama’s answer, though, didn’t explicitly address the issue of funding for NASA.

A difference of four years

The relatively limited information both the Obama and Romney campaigns have released on space stands in stark contrast to four years ago. By this point of the 2008 campaign, Obama and the Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, had each issued white papers outlining their space policy positions and even had representatives of the campaigns engage in a policy debate (see “Space policy heats up this summer”, The Space Review, August 18, 2008). That’s far more information than the occasional reference to space seen in the 2012 campaign.

“I think the civil war has kept any one faction from dominating the discussion inside the Romney advisory group,” Walker told the Sentinel.

One difference, of course, is that neither McCain nor Obama had much of a record on space to stand on in their presidential campaigns: Obama had only four years in the Senate, and McCain, while serving there far longer, had not spent much time on space issues. This year, at least for Obama, the situation is different: he had a track record to run on, and there’s little indication that a second term by President Obama would be much different from their first when it comes to space. Obama’s campaign in Florida—a swing state and one of the few states where space policy gets much attention—has played up those developments and tried to contrast it with the lack of information from the Romney campaign.

Romney, though, remains much more of a blank slate when it comes to space. He has said very little about it in the campaign overall, and most of that came during the Florida primary, when he sought to distance himself to the more grandiose schemes of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (see “Campaign lunacy”, The Space Review, January 30, 2012). In a speech in Florida in late January, as well as two debates there, Romney said he would bring together experts from government, industry, and academia to determine what the appropriate missions for NASA should be. Since there he’s offered little in the way of additional details.

Why is that the case? In an article Friday in the Orlando Sentinel, former congressman Bob Walker—who supported Gingrich in the Republican primaries—suggested that internal debates within Romney’s campaign, particularly between those who would like to restore something like Constellation and those who support a more commercial approach, might be keeping him from articulating a more specific policy. “I think the civil war has kept any one faction from dominating the discussion inside the Romney advisory group,” Walker told the Sentinel.

Another possibility is that, contrary to the beliefs of some space enthusiasts, space policy simply isn’t that important an issue. The election will likely revolve around a few major issues, with the state of the economy at the forefront. Space doesn’t play a big role there, and few people, even in places like Florida, make voting decisions based entirely or primarily on space, so there’s little reason for the candidates to focus much attention and resources on it when that can be spent instead on topics that will swing a larger number of voters.

Of course, with still just over two months to go until Election Day, it’s possible the campaigns—particularly the Romney campaign—will spend a little more time on space, especially in Florida. But with so many bigger issues facing the campaigns, space is something that is unlikely to get much additional attention through the election.