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Garver and Sietzen
Lori Garver (left) and Frank Sietzen debate their candidates’ space policy positions on October 14 in Washington. (credit: J. Foust)

The great (well, ok) space debate

For most of 2004 space advocates have sought to learn more about the Presidential candidates’ stands on space issues. While President Bush made his position clear in January when he unveiled the Vision for Space Exploration, he has remained quiet in public on space topics since then. The various Democratic candidates, including eventual nominee John Kerry, have also said little about space during the course of the campaign. (See “Democratic presidential candidates and space: a primer”, The Space Review, January 12, 2004)

That silence is not surprising, given how unimportant space policy is in the near term versus topics like the economy, Iraq, and terrorism, but disappointing nonetheless for those relative handful of people who care about the topic. The best opportunity for space advocates and professionals to learn more about where Kerry and Bush stand occurred last Thursday in downtown Washington, as representatives of the two campaigns engaged in a 90-minute debate sponsored by Women in Aerospace and the Washington Space Business Roundtable on a variety of civil space topics.

The participants in the debate reflected how space rated in both campaigns: while knowledgeable about space topics, neither Lori Garver, representing Kerry, nor Frank Sietzen, representing Bush, rank high in the hierarchy of either campaign organization. Garver is a former executive director of the National Space Society who later served as associate administrator for policy and plans at NASA. During the debate, she noted that she has volunteered on Kerry’s science and technology policy team for the last eight months.

The selection of Sietzen to represent the Bush campaign was more interesting. Although Sietzen is a Republican and has served on the board of the Arlington County (Virginia) Republican Committee in recent years, he is best known as a journalist. Aware of the skepticism about the role Sietzen is playing in the Bush campaign, as well as potential conflicts of interest, Sietzen made it clear that he has given up his journalism work, at least for the duration of the campaign. “I decided to stop reporting on the plan and start defending it,” he said. In perhaps a show of the relationship he has with the Bush Administration, during the debate he delivered a letter to the president of Women in Aerospace from, and signed by, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe.

Two visions for NASA

Those following the campaign have struggled to figure out exactly what the differences are between the Bush and Kerry campaigns on space policy: while Kerry certainly hasn’t endorsed the Vision for Space Exploration, he has said little to indicate what a Kerry Administration would do with NASA. While Garver couldn’t offer many details on a Kerry space policy, she was able to highlight the differences between what he would do and what Bush has done.

“Exploration is exciting, but it isn’t the only thing we get from space,” Garver said. “Sending a few people to Mars maybe isn’t the most inspirational thing that we can be doing.”

Sietzen made it clear in his comments that a second Bush administration would press ahead with the space exploration program announced in January. “Now is the time and this is the election to keep this dream alive and well,” he said. Turning to Garver, he added, “Your candidate has no vision of space of his own. He has never stood with this industry once.”

Garver countered that Kerry does have a vision for NASA, one that calls for a “strong, stable, and balanced” space program that “continues to deliver many benefits to society.” Such an approach, she said, would include support for exploration programs, but not at the expense of earth science, space science, or aeronautics. “Exploration is exciting, but it isn’t the only thing we get from space,” she said. “Sending a few people to Mars maybe isn’t the most inspirational thing that we can be doing.”

Sietzen was unconvinced. “Nobody sitting here can tell me there’s anything more exciting than exploring the universe,” he said. “Why is it such a hard thing to grasp? The purpose of the space program is to explore space.”

Garver, though, insisted that NASA must be seen as an agency that does more than exploration, saying that a single-minded focus on exploration would be as if the National Institutes of Health decided to focus solely on curing cancer. “Exploration is valuable, but what will we give up along the way?”

Shuttle, station, and Hubble

While the two candidates have differing visions of the role of exploration at NASA, in the near term a Kerry or second Bush Administration will face more prosaic issues: returning the space shuttle to flight, continuing assembly of the International Space Station, and repairing the Hubble Space Telescope. On these issues the two candidates are much closer together.

Both Garver and Sietzen said that their respective candidates were committed to returning the shuttle to flight so assembly of the ISS can resume. Current plans call for 25-30 shuttle flights to complete the ISS, but Garver noted that “no one believes” that those flights can be completed by 2010, the date Bush announced in January that the shuttle would be retired. She said that a Kerry Administration would work with the ISS international partners to fly as many shuttle missions as needed to fulfill existing agreements, a number that “could be significantly less than 25 to 30.”

“Nobody sitting here can tell me there’s anything more exciting than exploring the universe,” Sietzen said. “Why is it such a hard thing to grasp? The purpose of the space program is to explore space.”

Garver also used the debate to explain Kerry’s past record regarding the ISS. For months people have pointed to a series of votes in the Senate by Kerry from 1991 through 1996 in support of efforts to kill the space station—Sietzen referred to them in dramatic style during the debate, pointing towards Garver as he read details about each vote. Less well known, though, are votes Kerry cast in 1997 and 1998 to block similar efforts to kill the program.

Garver explained that those votes against the station came early in the program. “At that time the space station was supposed to be an $8-billion program, and he didn’t believe it was going to be an $8-billion program,” she said, triggering a few laughs from the crowd. Once the station finally started getting built, she explained, “he did get on board.”

She did blame the Bush Administration and NASA for not coming up with plans to provide crew return vehicles for the station once the existing agreement with Russia expires in 2006, in particular criticizing them for canceling the X-38, a prototype for an ISS crew return vehicle. Sietzen said discussions with the Russians are underway “as we speak” on ISS transportation issues, including what to do once the shuttle is retired. (On Saturday NASA and Roskosmos officials said they had reached an agreement for NASA to “purchase and barter” for Soyuz rides though 2006, with a long-term agreement through 2010 still in the works.)

Both candidates also support some kind of repair mission for Hubble. Garver said that Kerry would not rule out restoring a shuttle servicing mission to Hubble, but would also be willing to spend $1-2 billion on a robotic servicing mission. Sietzen defended the decision to cancel the shuttle servicing mission because of a lack of a “safe haven” as would be the case for shuttle missions to the ISS. He did add, though, that at the request of an independent panel, NASA was keeping open a shuttle mission to Hubble “while a robotic solution is being explored.”

The politicization of NASA

NASA has traditionally been viewed as a nonpartisan agency, one that finds support from both sides of the aisle in Congress, even in periods of great partisan discord. However, Garver alleged that this tradition has been broken by the current administration, creating what she called “the most partisan NASA in history.” To support this, she primarily cited the activities of O’Keefe, noting his appearances at fundraisers for members of Congress as well as at the Republican National Convention, where he attended a reception with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. “John Kerry and John Edwards will work to depoliticize space,” she promised.

“We have the closest working relationship between the White House and NASA since James Webb was the head of NASA” in the 1960s, Sietzen said. “O’Keefe speaks with the Vice President or the President at least once every other day.”

Sietzen argued that NASA was no more politicized than in the past. He described recent efforts by both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate to add funding to NASA’s budget through an emergency spending measure as “a clear sign that this is a bipartisan effort.” O’Keefe’s fundraising for Republican Congressional candidates is not the first time a NASA administrator has made a campaign appearance, either: Sietzen noted that O’Keefe’s predecessor, Dan Goldin (who Sietzen inexplicably referred to more than once by his full name, Daniel Saul Goldin) appeared at a campaign event for Al Gore. “I guess that doesn’t count,” he sniffed.

O’Keefe’s Republican ties are not necessarily a bad thing, Sietzen added. “We have the closest working relationship between the White House and NASA since James Webb was the head of NASA” in the 1960s, he said. Under the current arrangement, he claimed, “O’Keefe speaks with the Vice President or the President at least once every other day.”

Supporting commercial space

Most of the debate focused on civil space issues: Garver begged off a question on missile defense because she described herself as not a “military space person.” However, a few questions did touch upon the private sector, including the role it can play in exploration and other programs. Sietzen reiterated NASA and the Administration’s belief that the agency must rely increasingly on the private sector “if NASA has a future”. Garver described the Kerry campaign’s interest in prizes, citing the Ansari X Prize as an example of a successful prize effort.

One area where the two campaigns disagree, though, is reforming export control regulations, which most people in the space industry believe have hurt aerospace companies, notably satellite manufacturers. “Kerry believes that the export control regime is, in fact, broken,” Garver said. “This is a problem.” When asked if export controls should be changed, Sietzen had a succinct response: “Beats me.”

Debate versus preview

There was a natural tendency to compare this debate with the nationally-televised debates between the candidates themselves, the last of which took place the night before this event. Unlike the Bush-Kerry debates, there was no post-debate spinning by the campaigns, nor any polls to try and determine which campaign won. There was also a more fundamental difference between the two debates: the Bush-Kerry debates touched upon key issues that voters will use to determine for whom to vote on November 2. Space is not such an important issue, and few people—even among those attending the Thursday debate—will base their choice for President on who has the better space policy. Thursday’s event was less a debate than a preview of what will happen to NASA after January 20, 2005.