“Because of the 2008 presidential election, our nation’s human spaceflight program is at a perilous crossroad,” claims Douglas MacKinnon in an op-ed Sunday in the Houston Chronicle. MacKinnon, a former White House and Pentagon official who is now director of federal affairs and communications for a K Street law firm, believes none of the three remaining major candidates is sufficiently committed to carrying out current national space exploration policy (aka the Vision for Space Exploration), although he singles out Barack Obama for particular attention. (A quibble: MacKinnon writes that “Obama went on record as saying he planned to pay for his $18 billion education plan by taking it out of the hide of NASA”; rather, Obama said he would pay for his education plan in part by delaying Constellation by five years. He also did not specifically mention Ares and Orion in the statement, contrary to what MacKinnon writes, although the campaign has been vague about what exactly they meant, especially since they have not issued a formal space policy statement to date.)
MacKinnon believes that the next president, whomever he or she is, needs to “stay the course” and continue the program. Drawing parallels to JFK, who said in a 1962 speech that “Our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to become the world’s leading spacefaring nation,” MacKinnon writes: “No matter who is our next president, he or she is either going to have to buy in completely to the premise of that young president, or stand aside and watch as other nations lay claim to the promise of space. There is no middle ground.”
If that rhetoric isn’t strong enough for you, MacKinnon has more: “Should the next president decide to delay or cancel our next generation spacecraft and rockets for partisan reasons, he or she will be condemning the United States to second-class status in space for decades to come.” Second class in space? For decades? That is strong stuff.
Unfortunately, it’s not clear that it is all that attached to reality. MacKinnon doesn’t explain how not developing Ares and Orion would affect issues like national security and commercial space, which are not directly tied to Constellation yet arguably are just as important, if not more so, to US “status in space” than the ability of putting humans in space (it’s just that the latter is far more visible to the public than launching reconnaissance or communications satellites.) The ability to “lay claim to the promise of space” is not dependent solely, or even primarily, on developing Ares and Orion.
Essays like MacKinnon’s though, appear part of a theme that has emerged over the last several months: rather than selling the current space exploration policy on what it can do for the nation, sell it instead on the perceived dire consequences if it is altered or cancelled. But does fearmongering make for good space policy?