The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Lori Garver speaks about her role in the creation of Kerry’s space policy during a conference at MIT on November 12. (credit: J. Foust)

The making of a space policy

What a difference a couple of weeks makes. At the beginning of November the presidential election was in its final phase, with heated discussion and debate about the policy positions of the two major candidates, including—at least within the cozy confines of the aerospace community—space policy. A space policy document issued by the campaign of Democratic challenger John Kerry just a week before the election triggered a new round of debate as people debated whether the Kerry policy, which called for a more “balanced” approach to supporting NASA’s various programs, was preferable to President Bush’s exploration vision.

Now, after an election decided on issues such as Iraq, the economy, and “moral values”—but certainly not space exploration—that Kerry policy is a historical footnote. Yet, there is certainly some interest among space advocates and policy wonks about how and why the Kerry campaign took that particular position, and what lessons that process might provide for future campaigns. One person actively involved in the formation of that policy, former NASA associate administrator Lori Garver, offered some insights into the process during a talk at the SpaceVision2004 conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on November 12.

Garver, currently an executive with the consulting firm DFI International, said she was asked to serve on the Kerry campaign’s science and technology policy team back in April. By that time Kerry had wrapped up the nomination and the candidate that Garver had previously supported, retired general Wesley Clark, had dropped out of the race. Kerry had, in her view, “said somewhat positive things” about space during the primary campaign, but with caveats about the budget.

“I don’t believe space should be a partisan issue, and wanted to keep it from being a partisan issue,” she said. “I’m not sure we succeeded at that.”

However, Kerry also had a political reaction against the Vision for Space Exploration since it was introduced by Bush during an election year. “He did have more of a knee-jerk reaction against space, which is one of the reasons I wanted to get involved,” she said. “First and foremost my goal was to get Senator Kerry elected president, and if we were going to have a new president, which I desperately hoped that we would, I wanted to make sure that he would do things during the campaign that would let him be a very pro-space president.”

During the campaign Garver was asked several times to represent Kerry at a number of off-the-record industry events, such as an Aerospace Industries Association board meeting where Garver filled in at the last minute for an unidentified Congressman who couldn’t attend. Garver effectively became the designated spokesperson for space in the Kerry campaign, while the Bush campaign used a variety of representatives, including Sean O’Keefe, former House Science Committee chairman Robert Walker, and Frank Sietzen (see “The great (well, ok) space debate”, The Space Review, October 18, 2004).

Policy goals

Garver and her colleagues within the campaign’s science and technology team had several goals in forming a space policy for Kerry. One goal was to keep space from becoming too politicized. “I don’t believe space should be a partisan issue, and wanted to keep it from being a partisan issue,” she said. “I’m not sure we succeeded at that.”

She said that she wanted to focus on civil space and aeronautics issues over the commercial sector (military issues were handled by a different team) because “the President is really asked most about NASA.” Her group also had to fit space into the broader themes of the campaign, in areas like technology policy and job creation. She noted that the campaign used the Ansari X Prize as an example of the effectiveness of prizes in an economic policy document. She also tried to make inroads on the use of space resources, such as space solar power, and their role in energy independence for the country, although that was eventually not adopted by the campaign.

Most importantly, she said, the campaign wanted to differentiate its policy from the Bush space policy. “That’s what got the most press,” she said, “but I really felt our goals in the campaign were much, much broader than that. On the policy side, we really hoped to keep it so positive that if Kerry was elected, he would be a pro-space president.”

These various goals shaped the space policy, as well as what the public perceived as the benefits gained from NASA. Garver said that the agency did a poll last year surveying the public on what they get out of the space program. While NASA has not formally released the results of the poll, she said that “general knowledge” came out on top, followed by aeronautics and earth sciences; exploration was, she said, “way down on the list.” This led the campaign to adopt a policy that called for a balance between the various facets of NASA’s mission.

“Ultimately, the campaign felt that those NASA public dollars were at risk if all you’re going to do is explore,” she said. If NASA handed over aeronautics and earth sciences to FAA and NOAA, respectively, “and NASA becomes an exploration organization, that puts the agency potentially at risk in the discretionary budget, especially given the deficits and the war and the other things happening today.”

“Ultimately, the campaign felt that those NASA public dollars were at risk if all you’re going to do is explore,” she said.

One criticism that the Kerry space policy received when it was finally introduced in late October was that is was very vague, with few specifics and no mention of the space shuttle or International Space Station. That was a deliberate decision, she explained. “It’s just a no-win to mention existing programs during the campaign,” she said. “We’re not at NASA now, we don’t know what it’s going to take to return the space shuttle to flight, and how much that’s going to cost. It’s not up to a presidential campaign, in our view, to make those kinds of calls during the campaign.”

Lessons learned

One thing that surprised Garver was the strong negative reaction directly at her. “This was a very challenging thing to do, personally. I was attacked and slammed within my own community,” she said. “It is difficult to operate in that kind of environment, since I was very concerned that this would come out negatively within the campaign.”

She noted that, for example, she was vilified for “flip-flopping” on the Vision for Space Exploration, initially supporting it before arguing against it, but insisted her change in opinion was sincere. “I truly believed, over time, that we would have a better chance of sustaining a NASA program that would evolve civilization into space,” she said. “I truly started to believe that Kerry would be a better pro-space president.”

The fact that Garver was the de facto Kerry space representative, while the Bush campaign rotated through a series of spokespeople, was also a problem, she noted. “I think it’s better if you have a lot of people giving the same message to show that this is the message of the candidate and not the individual,” she said.

Regardless of the specific policy approach, Garver said that space needs to be seen within campaigns as more than just a science and technology issue. “We have to get involved early enough that people recognize space for all it contributes to many, many other issues,” she said. “Because the chairs of our team were scientists, they were really only interested in the NASA science part. We as a community need to better structure ourselves so that we’re recognized far beyond our contributions to science.”

Over the course of the campaign “I truly started to believe that Kerry would be a better pro-space president,” Garver said.

Space advocates also need to get an earlier start in campaigns, she said. “Our biggest challenge is to get candidates early on to take positions. After the convention it was really hard to get anyone’s attention in the campaign.” She noted that she never spoke directly with Kerry during the campaign, instead relying on intermediaries, such as Senator Barbara Mikulski and her staff, as well as former Senator John Glenn, who she said proved helpful.

Garver also singled out the aerospace industry for criticism. “The aerospace industry wants to be nonpartisan, but 90 percent of PAC [political action committee] dollars go to Republicans,” she claimed. “That’s just not how it works.”

The future

While the Kerry space policy won’t be adopted, it is not necessarily just a historical document. Kerry remains a senator and is one of the senior Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee, whose jurisdiction includes NASA. Garver said that the policy's general themes, including fiscal responsibility and science, “clearly resonated” with Kerry. “I definitely believe that he is more pro-space now than he was eight months ago.”

However, the policy that will shape and define NASA over the next four years will be the Vision for Space Exploration. Garver noted that Bush has two things going for him that his father didn’t have when he promoted the Space Exploration Initiative 15 years ago: Bush was reelected, so he can continue to oversee this policy, and that unlike during SEI, NASA really does want to transform and carry out the Vision.

Despite her misgivings about the Vision, she believes that it can serve as a “framework” for moving forward, provided the policy is carried out in a balanced way. “I do think the most positive thing for the Vision is having the community get behind it,” she said.