“Obama campaign could trip over space policy” reads the headline of a Houston Chronicle article today that sounds almost hopeful that space policy—specifically, continued US reliance on Russian vehicles to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station—will become an issue during this year’s presidential campaign. The article tries to make the case that the “politically embarrassing reliance on Russia” could give Republicans “a potential avenue of attack on Obama in the fall campaign”, at least in Florida. (The article is tied to President Obama’s visit to Florida today, but that trip is focused on an energy policy speech in Miami and campaign fundraisers, not space.)
It’s possible space could become an issue, but there are a couple issues with that assessment. One is that regardless of the decisions made by the Obama Administration on Constellation, we would be relying now on Soyuz vehicles for ISS access: the original Vision for Space Exploration featured a gap of up to four years between the 2010 retirement of the shuttle and the introduction no later than 2014 of a Crew Exploration Vehicle. By the time Obama took office, the entry into service of what had become Ares 1 and Orion had slipped to at least 2015, and perhaps much later, in the opinion of the Augustine Committee. Short of extending the shuttle program or simply stretching out the remaining missions—at significant cost—the US would likely be using Soyuz vehicles right now even if Constellation remained alive and on schedule.
The second issue is whether this issue rises to worthy of national debate in the general election. Space has traditionally been a topic of niche, regional interest, and that seems unlikely to change this year given bigger concerns about economic, foreign policy, and social issues that have dominated the Republican primary campaign to date. There is the Space Coast in Florida, a state expected to be up for grabs in the 2012 campaign. But it’s worth noting that Brevard County—the heart of the Space Coast—is a small part of the state overall, and one that leans Republican: John McCain won the county by 30,000 votes in 2008 but the lost the state overall as Obama had much larger margins of victory elsewhere in the state, including more populous portions of the state’s “I-4 Corridor”, where space is not an issue. A campaign may decide to maximize its resources by focusing on other issues in other regions of the state where it thinks it may get better leverage.
The counterexample, of course, is last month’s unexpected debate about lunar bases triggered by Newt Gingrich’s speech on the topic of space on the Space Coast. For several days people were talking about space—until they moved on to other topics. Space was brought up in campaign ads and statements even after the candidates moved on from Florida, but I noted earlier this month that this was less a discussion about space but instead a way of criticizing Gingrich’s conservative bona fides by other candidates, who argued that Gingrich was pushing a half-trillion-dollar government program instead of finding ways to reduce government spending and budget deficits. That doesn’t augur well for a sustained, substantive debate about space policy once the campaign moves on to the general election phase.