Last night provided a rare opportunity for presidential candidates to address space policy issues on a national stage. Too bad that most everyone involved fumbled the chance.
In the CNN/YouTube Republican debate in St. Petersburg, Florida, the questions came from short videos from the public, similar to a Democratic debate earlier this year. And one of those questions came from a Mars exploration advocate in Colorado: (All quotes from the CNN transcript of the debate)
Steve Nielson: My name is Steve Nielson. And this question comes to you from Denver, Colorado.
JFK’s vision put a man on the moon from a nonexistent space program in about seven years. The new vision for space exploration has provided about 15 years for that same feat.
Meanwhile, Congress is pulling funding for human-to-Mars research altogether.
Is there a candidate amongst you willing to take a pledge on behalf of the Mars Society of sending an American to the surface of Mars by 2020? If not, what is your vision for human space exploration?
Host Anderson Cooper turned, for no particular reason, to Mike Huckabee to take a first shot at the question. Huckabee’s response was similar to the one he gave this summer when asked a similar question about Mars exploration:
Huckabee: Whether we ought to go to Mars is not a decision that I would want to make, but I would certainly want to make sure that we expand the space program, because every one of us who are sitting here tonight have our lives dramatically improved because there was a space program — whether it’s these screens that we see or the incredible electronics that we use, including the GPS systems that got many of you to this arena tonight.
Some of you were late because you didn’t have one, by the way. Or whether it’s the medical technologies that saved many of our lives or the lives or our families, it’s the direct result of the space program, and we need to put more money into science and technology and exploration.
Now, whether we need to send somebody to Mars, I don’t know. But I’ll tell you what: If we do, I’ve got a few suggestions, and maybe Hillary could be on the first rocket to Mars.
Cooper then turned, not to Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani or Fred Thompson or even Ron Paul, but to Tom Tancredo, who wasn’t exactly supportive of the proposition:
Tancredo: The question is a serious one and it deserves a serious answer, and that is this: Look, we’ve been — how many times up here, how many questions have dealt with the issue of deficit spending, the debt out of control? And yet, we have somebody saying, “But would you spend more money on going to Mars?”
And the suggestion that we need to spend more money on space exploration. This is it, folks. That’s why we have such incredible problems with our debt, because everybody’s trying to be everything to all people.
We can’t afford some things, and by the way, going to Mars is one of them.
And that was it. Cooper then turned to the next question. (To be fair, that was how the debate was run: most questions were only answered by a couple of the candidates.) CNN deserves some credit for selecting a question about space policy in general, although the debate questions were very wide ranging: one person asked about the candidates’ gun collections, and another if the candidates believed “every word” in the Bible. However, asking the candidates if they supported a human Mars mission by 2020 isn’t exactly the highest priority space policy issue today: did no one submit questions about the NASA budget in general, the Vision for Space Exploration and its current implementation, the “gap” between the shuttle and Orion, or even milspace issues like space weaponization and the Chinese ASAT test?
Still, the question did provide some latitude for candidates to go off in a different direction on space policy. However, CNN trivialized (inadvertently or otherwise) the question by posing it to a candidate polling well only in Iowa (Huckabee) and one not polling well anywhere (Tancredo). That meant no chance to find out what candidates doing well nationally (Giuliani, Romney, Thompson) thought—important since they have said little, if anything, on the topic.
One other bizarre aspect of this: the Steve Nielson who asked the question appears to be the same Steve Nielson who ran a pro-Huckabee blog, “Colorado for Huckabee” until recently (when he took a leadership post in his county’s Republican Party), and was the one who asked Huckabee the Mars exploration question in the July conference call.