The featured event Friday afternoon at the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) was the “Election 2008 Space Panel” featuring representatives of the three major presidential candidates (Sens. Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama), moderated by CNN’s Miles O’Brien. This was one of the few opportunities for the campaigns to speak out in detail and debate various elements of space policy. For those looking for grand new insights into the candidates’ space policies, though, or even settle some nagging questions, the panel was a disappointment.
Half of the four people on the panel were able to talk about space policy quite well: Lori Garver, representing Clinton, was well-versed in the issues, not surprisingly; O’Brien has also done his homework, based on the questions he asked on topics beyond NASA’s budget and the future of the vision, ranging from commercialization to military space policy to export control. However, Steve Robinson, an Obama advisor who works on primarily education issues, as well as Floyd DesChamps, a Senate staffer called in at the last moment to represent McCain, were not as fluent on the issues. More than one person remarked afterwards that Robinson has a “deer in the headlights” look when asked about export control, and only said he had nothing more to add on the issue. (To be fair, his turn to address the topic came after the other two panelists, who both said that ITAR was a problem that needed to be addressed.)
A couple highlights: During the session, O’Brien asked Robinson about the Obama education policy, which includes the now-infamous statement about delaying Constellation for five years, even though Obama is now talking about continuing to develop Ares 1 and Orion. Robinson never directly addressed the issue, saying that Obama would be willing to listen to the space and science community about this (a theme of consultation with scientists that he mentioned elsewhere in the panel). On the balance of human and robotic exploration, he suggested that younger audiences might find robots more inspirational (another theme) than human missions, or at least find them inspiring to some degree, whereas older audiences might not.
DesChamps mentioned that McCain was concerned about the Shuttle-Constellation gap, and suggested that McCain would take a “closer look” at NASA to see if additional investment was warranted. (This was after he noted McCain’s strong interest in fiscal responsibility.) He did not specifically mention McCain’s proposal for a spending freeze for discretionary non-defense programs, though. After the panel I asked him whether there might be a possibility of excluding NASA from that freeze, particularly if there is a continuing resolution for part or all of FY2009, since the combination of a CR and a freeze would likely lengthen the gap or force NASA to raid other programs to keep Constellation on track. He said he was not optimistic that such an exemption could be worked out.
I’ll have a more thorough review of the panel and its implications on the overall space policy debate in Monday’s issue of The Space Review.