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Donald Trump
Donald Trump, speaking in New Hampshire in August, called a human mission to Mars “wonderful” but said he wanted to “rebuild our infrastructure first.” (credit: C-SPAN)

Why there’s no “space candidate”

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Summer’s over. Congress reconvenes today after a summer recess that lasted more than a month, with a full slate of work ahead of them, not the least of which is passing a temporary spending bill to keep the government funded when the new fiscal year stars October 1. (One space-specific item on their to-do list: convene a conference committee to hammer out differences between House and Senate versions of a commercial space launch bill that includes extensions of a regulatory “learning period” and third-party indemnification.)

“Up,” Bush said when asked about NASA’s budget. “I’m a space guy.”

The return of Congress—to debate spending bills, the Iran nuclear weapons deal, and other issues—will likely take some of the spotlight away from the 2016 Presidential race, which has dominated the headlines for much of the summer. However, the race won’t cede the spotlight entirely, or much at all, given both the quantity of the candidates (more than a dozen running for the Republican nomination alone) and their qualities. And that’s with still nearly five months to go until the Iowa caucuses.

That heightened interest in the Presidential race has, for space advocates, created a desire to understand their positions on space issues. Some have even tried to anoint a “space candidate” for the White House: an article published late last month by Inverse asked, “Who Is the 2016 Presidential Race’s Space Candidate?” Its subhead teased, “Probably not who you'd guess.” (Spoiler: they picked as their “space candidate” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee.)

“Cruz seems like the guy, but if you can’t bring yourself to vote for a hardcore conservative and you think exploration is a priority, your vote should probably go to [Martin] O’Malley,” the article concluded. O’Malley, the former Maryland governor running far back in the polls for the Democratic nomination? That was based on his decision to create a “Space Business Development Initiative” in the state while governor, and for congratulating on Twitter the Maryland-based New Horizons team for the successful Pluto flyby in July.

That’s not much to go on. And that’s pretty much the case with all the candidates, both Republican and Democratic: most have said nothing about space, and those that have mentioned space have said so little that any policy projections are, at best, ill-advised.

Take, for example, former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Near the end of an interview with the editorial board of the New Hampshire Union Leader in early July, Bush fielded a question about whether he would increase or decrease NASA’s budget. “Up,” he said. “I’m a space guy. I think we need to be aspirational as a country, and the space program… I would add, R&D in general is a proper role for the federal government.”

“Honestly, I think it’s wonderful,” Trump responded. “I want to rebuild our infrastructure first, okay? I think it’s wonderful.”

Left unsaid, though, is how much he would increase NASA’s budget, and in what areas. The conversation turned almost immediately to drug legalization, relations with Cuba, and other issues that got more airtime than space policy. Bush spent more time discussing how he used his Apple Watch than about NASA funding.

Last month, the current frontrunner in many Republican polls, Donald Trump, fielded a question during a speech in New Hampshire about human Mars exploration. “What do you think about putting humans on Mars?” that audience member asked, in between numerous interruptions by Trump.

“Honestly, I think it’s wonderful,” Trump responded. “I want to rebuild our infrastructure first, okay? I think it’s wonderful.” That “wonderful” is clearly meant sarcastically by Trump: he’s more interested in rebuilding our infrastructure (however that is defined) that going to Mars, but is silent on other aspects of space policy.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton mentioned SpaceX in passing in a July speech. “Innovators like Google and SpaceX are investing in research that does little for today’s bottom line, but may yield transformational benefits down the line,” she said. She did not elaborate on what those “transformational benefits” might be in the case of SpaceX.

A few candidates have space policy track records to run on, but they’re either short or dated. Cruz, as noted above, chairs the Senate’s space subcommittee, but has held that post only since the beginning of the year. Clinton ran for president in 2008, but in a very different space policy environment, when NASA was still carrying out the Constellation program with plans to return humans to the Moon. Many other candidates, by contrast, have said little or anything about space—some, like Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina, have never even held elected office at any level.

That makes declarations like the one published by Inverse on the “space candidate” highly premature, at best. Space advocates will no doubt continue to press the candidates for their views on space issues in the months to come, taking advantage of the opportunities presented by frequent campaign events in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, where the earliest caucuses and primaries are scheduled.

History, though, suggests that candidates will not go too far out on a limb when it comes to space policy. It’s been less than four years, after all, since Newt Gingrich, leading in many polls after a win in South Carolina’s Republican primary, went to Florida and pitched his vision of humans to the Moon, to stay and to even, perhaps some day, become a state (see “Campaign lunacy”, The Space Review, January 20, 2012).

“There are issues here beyond just having a president” interested in space, Dreier noted. “Having a president is good, but it is not the end all and be all of what we want here.”

The rest was history, especially for Gingrich’s campaign. “The reception was great from people and utterly stupid from my opponents,” he recalled during an appearance Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program, where he criticized the “political elite” in the White House an Congress for space exploration approaches that are “slow, overly planned, and frankly very pork barrel.”

That experience might deter 2016 candidates from making bold stands on space—or any stands at all, given the low priority of space policy when there are so many larger issues, from the economy to foreign policy to immigration, that are more likely to sway voters’ opinions one way or another.

And, some argue, presidential positions on space policy are overrated. “Having a president fond of the space program is great,” said Casey Dreier, director of advocacy for The Planetary Society, during a panel session at the annual Mars Society conference in Washington last month. But, he noted, past presidential space policy proposals, like the Space Exploration Initiative and the Vision for Space Exploration, failed to survive in the long run.

“There are issues here beyond just having a president” interested in space, he noted. “Having a president is good, but it is not the end all and be all of what we want here.”

Space, he advised the relatively small audience at the conference (at least one of whom, he noted, was yawning during the post-launch discussion) is not a big issue in presidential or other elections. “We’re in a minority here… space has never been a high priority for most Americans,” he said. “That’s a good reality check to remember, that not everyone feels the way we do about space as a priority.”

That doesn’t mean, he suggested, giving up on space advocacy, but that small groups have to work harder to be heard. “We do have the advantage as well as there is no anti-space coalition out there, either,” he added. “There’s no one organizing against Mars. There’s no one organizing against the Moon or an increased NASA budget.”

There are, though, few people organizing for Mars, the Moon, or an increased NASA budget. That should be mean it’s no surprise that presidential candidates say much about space policy: there are few votes to win. Worse, as Gingrich demonstrated in the 2012 campaign, there may be many more to lose if you take a specific position that opens you up to criticism and ridicule.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying to get the candidates to think more about space policy, and elucidate their views on the campaign trail in the months to come. Just don’t expect them to say too much—or be able to follow through on their proposals if elected.