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Garver and Cunningham
Lori Garver and Walt Cunningham debate space policy at the Mars Society’s annual conference at University of Colorado in Boulder on August 14. (credit: J. Foust)

Space policy heats up this summer

The first half of August is supposed to be the dog days of summer for the presidential campaigns. With many people on vacation or distracted by the Olympics and other events, the campaigns have throttled back a bit—even going on vacation, in the case of one candidate—to prepare for the sprint to November that will start with the conventions late this month and early next month.

In the relatively tiny niche of space policy, on the other hand, the last couple of weeks have been as active as any time in recent memory. There has been a flurry of activity from both Democratic candidate Barack Obama and Republican candidate John McCain since the beginning of August, when Obama discussed space issues in a campaign appearance in Titusville, Florida (see “The (not so) big switch”, The Space Review, August 11, 2008). The two campaigns have put out increasingly detailed space policy statements, and even sent proxies to participate in a debate on space issues in Colorado last week. Whatever concerns had existed about a lack of definition in the candidates’ positions on space have largely—although not entirely—dissipated in the last two weeks.

Dueling documents

About a week after Obama’s Titusville speech, the McCain campaign quietly updated the space policy statement on the campaign’s web site. (There was no formal announcement of the revised position and so no exact date when the policy was issued; this author noted the new document on the evening of August 10.) Prior to the revision, the campaign’s published space policy was a single paragraph announcing general support for NASA and space exploration that had been originally published in January, just before the Florida primary.

McCain will “commit to funding the NASA Constellation program to ensure it has the resources it needs to begin a new era of human space exploration” and “review and explore all options” to minimize the gap between shuttle and Constellation.

The revised document replaces that single paragraph with eight paragraphs of space policy discussion, primarily offering background on the topic and McCain’s philosophy on the issue. That section includes discussions on topics ranging from international competition to the growth of commercial space ventures, including space tourism and the Google Lunar X Prize. It also notes that human spaceflight “goes well beyond the issue of scientific discovery and is reflection of national power and pride”, citing a 1971 memo by OMB deputy director Casper Weinberger that convinced President Nixon to approve the shuttle program and keep NASA in the human spaceflight business (see “Negative symbolism, or why America will continue to fly astronauts”, The Space Review, January 16, 2006).

That discussion is followed by a number of bullet points outlining what a President McCain would do in regards to space issues. Those plans include a statement that McCain will “commit to funding the NASA Constellation program to ensure it has the resources it needs to begin a new era of human space exploration” and “review and explore all options” to minimize the gap between shuttle and Constellation. The policy also includes language about both completing the ISS and maximizing its research capability. There are also brief mentions about Earth science and aeronautics work, as well as a desire to “seek to maintain the nation's space infrastructure.”

Then, on Sunday, the Obama campaign countered with an even more comprehensive space policy. The document, just over six pages long, touches upon nearly every major—and many more obscure—policy issues, building upon the statements that Obama made in Titusville earlier this month.

One thing the document makes clear is that while the campaign may have once proposed delaying Constellation by five years, Obama has now staked out a position strongly supportive not just of human spaceflight, but human exploration of the Moon and beyond. “Human spaceflight is important to America’s political, economic, technological, and scientific leadership,” the document states. “Barack Obama will support renewed human exploration beyond low earth orbit. He endorses the goal of sending human missions to the Moon by 2020, as a precursor in an orderly progression to missions to more distant destinations, including Mars.”

As in his Titusville speech, the policy calls for one additional shuttle mission (which the document states would be for the launch of “a valuable mission” sought by members of Congress, a reference to efforts to fly the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the International Space Station.) The document also states that he will “expedite the development of the Shuttle’s successor systems” but says that “This will be difficult; underfunding by the Bush administration has left NASA with limited flexibility to accelerate the development of the new systems.”

The policy also delves into issues of interest for commercial space. “We must unleash the genius of private enterprise to secure the United States’ leadership in space,” the document states. In several locations the document mentions support for commercial activities on the ISS as well as commercial transportation to and from the station, although in one place he hedges his bets a bit: “Obama will evaluate whether the private sector can safely and effectively fulfill some of NASA’s need for lower earth orbit cargo transport.” The policy endorses the expanded use of prizes as well, and calls for a review of current export control policy.

“We must unleash the genius of private enterprise to secure the United States’ leadership in space,” the Obama document states.

The policy also addresses some military space issues, primarily in the realm of space weaponization. The document calls for international negotiations on “rules of the road” regarding acceptable behavior in space, and also opposes weapons in space and the development of anti-satellite weapons. However, the policy also acknowledges concerns about protecting US space assets from attack by others. “Obama will work to protect our assets in space by pursuing new technologies and capabilities that allow us to avoid attacks and recover from them quickly,” the policy states, citing in particular Operationally Responsive Space as one way to do this.

Dueling debaters

In the midst of this exchange of space policies, representatives of the two campaigns participated in a debate on space policy at the 11th Annual International Mars Society Convention at the University of Colorado in Boulder on August 14. Representing the Obama campaign was Lori Garver, who played a similar role for the campaign of former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in a space policy debate in May in Washington (see “The so-so space debate”, The Space Review, June 2, 2008). Former Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham represented the McCain campaign.

The contrasts between the two were sharp, and not just because of their backgrounds and political affiliations. Garver is now working with the Obama campaign on space policy issues, and said that she had spoken with Obama himself on several occasions. Cunningham, by contrast, does not appear to have an official role in the McCain campaign, at least in the area of space policy. (“I don’t talk to the senator,” he quipped at one point. “He calls me.”) That made it difficult at times to separate what he said that was official campaign policy versus comments that simply represented his own opinion, such as a desire to keep flying the shuttle after its planned 2010 retirement.

Still, there were a number of key insights to come from the debate, including an explanation from Garver why the Obama campaign initially proposed delaying Constellation by five years. “I think it’s very clear that, early on, Senator Obama and his staff did feel that Constellation was a Bush program and didn’t make a lot of sense,” she said, an impression provided in part from feedback from space scientists who were less supportive of human spaceflight than robotic missions. “As they started to hear from more people from not only the space community but also the education community, they really thought it through and they recognized the importance of space.” Obama, she concluded, “recognizes that Constellation really is exploring with human and robots beyond low Earth orbit… This is something he really believes.”

“I think it’s very clear that, early on, Senator Obama and his staff did feel that Constellation was a Bush program and didn’t make a lot of sense,” Garver said.

Cunningham, by contrast, seized on Obama’s change in heart in the issue as a sign that the candidate was flip-flopping to win votes. “Until this first weekend of August, Barack Obama was widely regarded as anti-space,” Cunningham said. “I maintain Obama has no real commitment to space. Initially his campaign looked at space as a potential source of funding for other things, like education, and early in the campaign he identified NASA as wasteful spending in a time of economic hardship. Mr. Obama is committed to nearer-term goals, like getting elected. He will say anything it takes to get elected.”

Cunningham was similarly unimpressed with Obama’s support for an additional shuttle flight, even though Cunningham believes the shuttle is a safe vehicle that should be kept flying after 2010 as a means to minimize the gap. “Adding one more launch isn’t going to do diddly for either the workers or the space program or Florida, but it might buy a few votes from those people who are down there.”

Garver countered that McCain had changed positions on a number of issues himself during the course of the campaign and his time in the Senate, “including in 1991 when he put a bill forward to cancel the space station,” she said. She added that just in the last year, when the Senate was considering adding an extra billion dollars to NASA’s budget, McCain was opposed to the effort. “‘I continue to support NASA and space research, but at what cost to our nation’s children, who will inherit the largest national debt this country has seen,’” Garver, quoting McCain from the record, said.

Final words?

Seeing the campaigns devote this much attention to space policy is both surprising and gratifying for most space advocates, who in the past have had to look for the slightest detail mentioned in passing in speeches to glean some bit of insight into what the candidate would do on space if elected. To see them virtually duel with each other to be the most specific on space is an unexpected twist.

That doesn’t mean, though, that the campaigns have answered everyone’s questions about space policy, even on key issues. The Obama campaign, for example, hasn’t specified how it would try to minimize the gap, particularly since just last week NASA Constellation managers shifted the internal target for the first crewed Orion flight back a year, from late 2013 to late 2014. Garver did say that while Obama has talked about Constellation, he was not thinking of any specific architecture. “I think one of the reasons for that is that until you have the office, until you’re there and know what’s going on with these programs, you’re not going to make a commitment to it,” she said. The McCain campaign, meanwhile, has to reconcile statements in the space policy that indicated he would give Constellation the “resources it needs” and work to minimize the gap with a statement made in an earlier economic policy that called for a one-year freeze on non-defense discretionary spending, which includes NASA.

“Adding one more [shuttle] launch isn’t going to do diddly for either the workers or the space program or Florida, but it might buy a few votes from those people who are down there,” said Cunningham.

There is also the question of why the candidates are suddenly devoting so much attention to space. Part of it might be a desire to win votes in Florida, a large and hotly-contested state in the general election. Recent events, including a deterioration in relations with Russia because of its conflict with Georgia, may have also spurred the campaigns to take a stronger stand on issues like the gap and reliance on Russian vehicles to access the ISS. Or, as one observer pointed out in the case of Obama’s six-page policy, it’s no more detailed than any other policy paper the campaign issues on other topics.

There’s also the sense, though, that the candidates have placed most of their space policy cards on the table at this point. It is unlikely, for example, that the Obama campaign will publish an even more detailed paper, although the McCain campaign could still fill in some details on its policy. However, with the conventions looming in the near future, followed by the final push for the general election, there won’t be much time to delve into greater detail on these issues as the campaigns focus on the bigger issues—foreign policy, the economy, etc.—that will play a larger role in the election. Nonetheless, if this is the most detail space advocates will get on the candidates’ space positions, they will be far more informed on the topic than in any presidential election in years.