I admit it: I did not watch the Democratic debate last night, and I don’t regret it. Instead, I went to a Washington Capitals game, where I got to see Alex Ovechkin score four goals, including the game winner in overtime. When I got home, I checked the debate transcript and, sure enough, there were no questions about space policy, just as was the case Wednesday night with the Republican debate.
So what to make of all the activity on this topic that energized at least a part of the space advocacy community for the last couple of weeks? John Benac at Political Action for Space tries to put a positive spin on events: “the simple exercise of people getting active in the political process about space exploration in this nation will have a profound effect on the future of the industry.”
However, from a practical standpoint, the effort was a failure: there were no space-related questions asked in either debate. That failure is not necessarily because of a lack of enthusiasm from activists, but because of a strategic error the organizers of the debate voting effort made: success relied on the cooperation of an intermediary gatekeeper—Politico.com—over whom space advocates had no control. Politico never said that the most popular questions would be asked in either debate, never listed the criteria for selecting questions, and never even displayed how many votes each question had. Politico also didn’t respond to inquiries (by myself and most likely a number of others) about the question voting process. This should have raised some red flags (and I did mention those concerns a couple of weeks ago) but advocates pressed ahead with ever more strident exhortations to vote for questions. Now some space advocates are angry at Politico and the other debate organizers, the Los Angeles Times and CNN, although none of them ever specified if and how they would use the questions submitted and voted upon.
Despite the lack of space questions in the two debates, the last month has actually been a good one for those interested in space policy. Barack Obama provided a more detailed space policy that went far beyond the one-line reference to delaying Constellation he made in November. Among the Republicans, Rudy Giuliani called for human missions to the Moon and Mars while also supporting COTS, John McCain issued his own statement in support of space exploration, while Mitt Romney met with Space Coast officials but made no bold policy pronouncements. None of these can be directly linked to the debate vote drive—Obama’s statement preceded the effort while the Republican statements came during their win the Florida primary—but still gave voters (the primary/caucus kind, not the online debate question kind) a much clearer view of what the major candidates thought about space—or that they, at least, had given space some thought at all.
When I was interviewed by Space News last week for their article about the debate question voting drive, I said, “The question is, what happens to all this after the 31st, particularly if the debate organizers decide to skip the space questions?” I hoped the question would be made moot by getting a question asked in either or both debates, but now that question hangs out there. There’s still a lot more to learn about what the candidates would do about space if elected president. Will they explicitly commit to the goals and timetable laid out in the Vision for Space Exploration? Would they support a budget increase for NASA, and if so, how much? What sort of incentives would they offer to promote the growth of the commercial, entrepreneurial space industry? Would they support export control reform to take many satellites and their components off the Munitions List? And so on.
As I noted earlier this week, the window to get the candidates to speak out on space issues may be closing, especially since Florida’s primaries have taken place and the focus now turns to states where space is nowhere near as high profile. However, it’s still nine months until the general election, leaving plenty of opportunities for activists to reach out to the campaigns and ask them to elucidate their space policy platforms. This time, the direct approach might be better: organizers like John Benac might encourage activists to contact the campaigns with specific, targeted questions. Campaigns are bombarded with questions on their policies on just about every topic under the sun, but if they started getting thousands of questions on specific space issues, you can be sure they would feel the need to address them in some manner. If there really were thousands of people who voted for space questions, then they should also be able to take a few minutes to fire off a question to their favorite candidate(s); otherwise, they’re not much of a space advocate. And, this approach doesn’t require the cooperation of a gatekeeper. Success—or failure—will be more directly in the hands of the space activist community.