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Culberson et al
Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) stands at the podium outside the US Capitol on September 20 to announce the Space Leadership Preservation Act, joined by cosponsors (from left) Pete Olson (R-TX), Bill Posey (R-FL), and Frank Wolf (R-VA). (credit: J. Foust)

Shedding a little more light on space policy

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Those interested in space science are often driven by a strong sense of curiosity about the universe. Is there life elsewhere in the solar system or the galaxy? How did our solar system form? What is the origin of the universe? Those interested in space policy, particularly in this presidential election year, also are driven by curiosity; in this case, to learn more about the stances the two major candidates, President Barack Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney, have on space issues. And, like those big questions about the universe, the answers have often been elusive.

The Romney white paper is in part a critique of the Obama Administration’s policy as well as a description of what a Romney Administration would do in space.

There have been some positive developments in the last couple of weeks, though, when the details about the candidates’ positions looked particularly sparse (see “Space policy in the campaign shadows”, The Space Review, September 4, 2012). Over the weekend, the Romney campaign issued a white paper offering some additional details about the different approach it would take to space policy if elected in November. A top NASA official made the case for why the space agency is in better condition now than four years ago. Meanwhile, several members of Congress have introduced legislation that would shift the balance of power in shaping space policy away from the White House.

Romney’s vision of American space leadership

On Saturday afternoon, the Romney campaign released an eight-page white paper titled “Securing U.S. Leadership in Space”. (The release of the white paper, over a weekend, appeared to be timed with a speech that Romney’s running mate, Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, gave in Orlando, where he did mention space.) The release was also tied to statements of support from two members of Congress, Sandy Adams of Florida and Pete Olson of Texas; former astronaut Gene Cernan; and Scott Pace, chairman of the campaign’s Space Policy Advisory Group.

The white paper is in part a critique of the Obama Administration’s policy as well as a description of what a Romney Administration would do in space. “President Obama has failed to deliver a coherent policy for human space exploration and space security,” the paper’s one-page introduction, signed by Romney, states. “As a result, he has created uncertainty and confusion within U.S. industry and the international community… America’s capabilities are eroding, and with each passing year will become more difficult to rebuild.”

The introduction and a later two-page description of the administration’s space policy failings criticizes the president for cancelling the “bipartisan consensus” behind the Vision for Space Exploration and Project Constellation and leaving little in its place. “For the first time since the dawn of the Space Age, the United States has no clear plan for putting its own astronauts into space,” the white paper states, making no mention of the ongoing Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs, or commercial crew development efforts. “We have a space station that we cannot send astronauts to without Russian transportation.”

The white paper also singles out the administration for problems with national security space efforts. “Many of our national security space programs are significantly over budget and behind schedule, and many are designed to meet yesterday’s threats,” it states. “The Obama Administration’s poor management of programs, its indifference to the industrial base, and the lack of investment in leading edge technological improvements have led to the U.S. aerospace industry’s retreat from leading global space markets and innovation.”

What would a Romney Administration do differently? The white paper identifies its four priorities for space. One would be to “focus” NASA by giving the agency “practical and sustainable missions.” A second priority would be on international partnerships, which the campaign believes will go hand-in-hand with the improved clarity of space priorities. A third priority would be to strengthen national security space programs, including systems that “that defend and increase the resilience of space assets” as well as “capabilities that will deter adversaries seeking to damage or destroy” US or allied space systems. A final priority would be to revitalize the American space industry by easing unspecified “trade limitations” on foreign sales of American space products, and to “expand access” to new markets.

The white paper, though, was not the first time the campaign had elucidated those four priorities. In its answer on space policy to ScienceDebate 2012, an effort to get the two campaigns to answer a series of questions on science issues, the Romney campaign mentioned the same four priorities, in language almost identical to that contained in the white paper.

Neither the ScienceDebate answers nor the white paper offered much in the way of additional detail on programs or budgets. As Romney had said since January, the white paper noted that, if elected, he would bring in “stakeholders” from the commercial, civil, military, and academic sectors of the space community “to set goals, identify missions, and define a pathway forward” for the space program. And Romney also made it clear in the white paper that NASA should not expect more funding than it currently gets. “A strong and successful NASA does not require more funding, it needs clearer priorities,” the paper states.

Obama, Ryan claimed, “has put the space program on a path where we are conceding our global position as the unequivocal leader in space,” which he called “unacceptable.”

The white paper does include some additional discussion about the role of the government and industry in space. Romney “will establish a clear framework that ensures NASA serves as a constructive partner for private sector initiatives,” the paper states. Under this model, NASA would “lead the way” in human space exploration, but turn over to the private sector “repeatable space-based services like human and cargo transport,” an approach very similar to the current administration’s policy.

Coincident with the release of the space policy white paper was a speech by Ryan in Orlando, where he spent about a minute talking about space. Obama, Ryan claimed, “has put the space program on a path where we are conceding our global position as the unequivocal leader in space,” which he called “unacceptable.” “Mitt Romney and I believe we need a mission for NASA, a mission for the space program, and we also believe that this is an integral part of our national security,” he concluded.

In that segment of his speech, Ryan added that “China may someday be looking down on us from the Moon,” a statement also included in the space policy white paper. That, though, is somewhat contradictory to statements by Romney himself, who has previously played down the prospects of a Chinese human mission to the Moon. “I know the Chinese are planning on going to the Moon, and I hope they have a good experience doing that,” he said during a campaign stop in Florida in mid-August. “And I hope they stop in and take a look at our flag that was put there 43 years ago.” Six months earlier, in Michigan, he was similarly unconcerned about Chinese space ambitions. “They’re planning on going to the Moon, and some people say, oh, we’ve got to get to the Moon, we’ve got to get there in a hurry to prove we can get there before China. It’s like, guys, we were there a long time ago, all right?”

Back in February, Romney was still competing for the Republican nomination against, among others, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who made headlines in January when he called for the development of a lunar base by 2020, an idea dismissed at the time by Romney (see “Campaign lunacy”, The Space Review, January 30, 2012). Contacted by NBC News on Sunday, Gingrich offered a mild endorsement of Romney’s new space policy paper. “The Romney plan for space starts to move in the right direction but could be much more robust,” Gingrich said. “Romney is better than Obama on space but could be bolder and more visionary.”

Is space better off than four years ago?

At the AIAA Space 2012 conference in Pasadena, California, earlier this month, organizers had hoped to open the conference with a presidential space policy debate between representatives of the Obama and Romney campaigns. However, that “presidential candidates forum” was cancelled at the last minute after AIAA failed to secure commitments from both campaigns to participate. “It turns out we had lots of ‘maybes’ and lots of ‘we’ll get back to you’, but by Friday morning of last week we could not confirm both being here, so we canceled that part of the program,” AIAA executive director Robert Dickman explained at the conference’s opening session on September 11.

“Some have claimed that we are adrift and with no clear spaceflight destinations and no plans for the future,” Garver said. “But nothing could be further from the truth.”

However, at the conference luncheon that day, they did get a bit of a campaign speech from NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver, who argued that NASA today was in better condition than it was four years ago. “What a difference four years makes,” she said. At the beginning of the administration, she said they had “inherited the decision of the previous administration to end NASA’s 30-year Space Shuttle program” and that the overall human spaceflight program, in the words of the Augustine Committee report, was “on an unsustainable trajectory.” The current framework for NASA’s exploration programs, laid out in the 2010 NASA authorization act, is a far cry from the situation four years ago. “We have a very strong bipartisan commitment on the path that we’re on,” she said.

She also criticized those who have argued that the agency currently doesn’t have a firm direction forward. “Some have claimed that we are adrift and with no clear spaceflight destinations and no plans for the future,” she said. “But nothing could be further from the truth. The perpetuation of this myth only hurts our entire industry and undermines our nation’s goals at this critical time period.”

Beyond speeches like that, though, the Obama campaign has said little about space. Earlier in the month, the campaign issued a three-page white paper of its own, which largely outlined the administration’s accomplishments in space during its first term. “I am 100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and its future,” President Obama said in a one-paragraph introduction to the white paper. “[I]f we fail to press forward in the pursuit of discovery, we are ceding our future and we are ceding that essential element of the American character.”

Some expected the president to speak more about space when he made a campaign appearance September 9 on the campus of the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, in the Space Coast part of the state. However, he only briefly touched upon space policy in the speech, devoting more attention to issues such as the economy and health care. “Here on the Space Coast, we started a new era of American exploration that is creating good jobs right here in this county,” he said. “We’ve begun an ambitious new direction for NASA by laying the groundwork for 21st century spaceflight and innovation. And just last month, we witnessed an incredible achievement that speaks to the nation’s sense of wonder and our can-do spirit: the United States of America landing Curiosity on Mars.”

Seeking space stability

The presidential campaign statements on space—as limited as they may be—are based on the idea that space policy leadership is centered on the executive branch, where administrations propose budgets, nominate NASA administrators, and craft new initiatives for space. Legislation introduced last week in the House of Representatives, though, could shift that power down Pennsylvania Avenue.

On Thursday, four members of the House held a press conference outside the Capitol building to announce the “Space Leadership Preservation Act” (HR 6491), legislation they formally introduced that day. The bill would restructure how NASA is run, which the bill’s sponsors argued would given the space agency more long-term stability.

The bill, while promising stability, could potentially shift the balance of power in crafting space policy in favor of Congress.

“We’re introducing this legislation today to restore the NASA we know and love,” said Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), the lead sponsor for the bill. “The NASA that we know is capable of maintaining that world leadership in space exploration, if we would just get the politics out of NASA, allow them to do what they do best, to allow NASA to be led by the scientists, the engineers, the astronauts, the professionals that have made that agency an extraordinary place.”

The bill would establish an 11-person board of directors for NASA—a concept borrowed from the National Science Foundation (NSF)—who would craft budgets for the agency and also select finalists for the position of NASA administrator. The president would select one of those finalists for the job, which would have a fixed ten-year term, similar to the director of the FBI. The bill would also allow multi-year appropriations for launch vehicles and spacecraft.

This approach, the bill’s sponsors argued, would give NASA stability and protect it from sudden changes in policies; several cited the Obama Administration’s move to cancel the Constellation program in 2010 as one example. “The administration’s canceling of the Constellation program, after investing nearly $9 billion and five years of development, is the perfect example of why these changes are needed,” said Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), a co-sponsor of the bill. He added that bill would ensure that “recent success stories with commercial crew programs will continue on a positive trajectory.” The representatives also released a chart that showed NASA spaceflight programs that had been cancelled over the last two decades, “resulting in over $20 billion wasted,” Posey said.

The bill, while promising stability, could potentially shift the balance of power in crafting space policy in favor of Congress. Eight of the 11 board members would be appointed by Congress (three by the majority party and one by the minority party in each house), giving it control over development of the agency’s budget and selection of potential future administrators. In addition, the bill would require the budget proposal developed by the board to be delivered to both the White House and Congress, in contrast to today, where the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) alone receives budget request and incorporates it, often with changes, into the administration’s overall budget proposal. OMB would still be able to make those changes, but Congress would now be able to see both the original and final proposals.

Those changes make it likely that the White House would oppose the legislation, regardless of the party in power. For now, though, this bill is likely to be only an academic exercise: the day after its introduction, Congress recessed until after the November election. When it returns, it’s likely that it will devote its attention to dealing with fiscal year 2013 spending bills and also attempting to work out solutions to the automatic budget cuts known as “sequestration” that take effect in January unless the White House and Congress develop an alternative.

“We are offering the bill today because we want this, I hope, to become a part of the debate in the presidential campaign,” said Culberson. He added that that they’ve been promised a hearing by House Science Committee chairman Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX). “We’ve encountered wide-ranging and very deep support for the concepts behind this bill.” He added that Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), who is retiring after this year, is “keenly interested” in supporting the bill in the Senate.

While Culberson’s bill is unlikely to become law this year, in about six weeks we should have an answer regarding who will be in the White House for the next four years. Even then, though, those interested in space will likely remain curious regarding the direction the winner will take space policy during the next four years.