At first glance, it might appear that space policy got a lot of attention in the last week: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney mentioned the late Neil Armstrong in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on Thursday night, and did so again during a campaign stop on Saturday in Cincinnati, a day after the Apollo 11 astronaut’s funeral there. The Republican Party platform, approved during the convention, included a plank about space. Meanwhile, while the Republicans convened in Tampa, President Barack Obama found a very different outlet to discuss policy issues, an “Ask Me Anything” discussion on the popular website Reddit, where he answered one question on space policy.
So, that should be good news for those who follow space policy, right? Not really. None of these comments said much of anything new—or even much of anything at all—about the candidates’ positions on space policy. The fact that we’re paying so much attention to such minor comments indicates how little the candidates, in particular Romney, have said on space, especially in comparison to just four years ago.
The highest-profile mention of space came Thursday night, when Romney gave his acceptance speech at the convention in Tampa. He mentioned in his address Neil Armstrong, but only to reflect on this significance of Armsrong’s accomplishments and not mentioning either the current administration’s space policy or what a Romney Administration might do differently:
I was born in the middle of the century in the middle of the country, a classic baby boomer. It was a time when Americans were returning from war and eager to work. To be an American was to assume that all things were possible. When President Kennedy challenged Americans to go to the moon, the question wasn’t whether we’d get there, it was only when we’d get there.
The soles of Neil Armstrong’s boots on the moon made permanent impressions on OUR souls and in our national psyche. Ann and I watched those steps together on her parent’s sofa. Like all Americans we went to bed that night knowing we lived in the greatest country in the history of the world.
God bless Neil Armstrong.
Tonight that American flag is still there on the moon. And I don’t doubt for a second that Neil Armstrong’s spirit is still with us: that unique blend of optimism, humility and the utter confidence that when the world needs someone to do the really big stuff, you need an American.
On Saturday, his reference to Armstrong in Cincinnati was even shorter, effectively doing little more than namechecking him: “I will do everything in my power to bring us together, because united, America built the strongest economy in the history of the earth. United, we put Neil Armstrong on the moon.”
As for the reference to space in the GOP platform, the two paragraphs about space said very little, describing only the benefits of spaceflight and, in the most general of language, what (if anything) the US should be doing differently:
America’s Future in Space: Continuing this Quest
The exploration of space has been a key part of U.S. global leadership and has supported innovation and ownership of technology. Over the last half-century, in partnership with our aerospace industry, the work of NASA has helped define and strengthen our nation’s technological prowess. From building the world’s most powerful rockets to landing men on the Moon, sending robotic spacecraft throughout our solar system and beyond, building the International Space Station, and launching space-based telescopes that allow scientists to better understand our universe, NASA science and engineering have produced spectacular results. The technologies that emerged from those programs propelled our aerospace industrial base and directly benefit our national security, safety, economy, and quality of life. Through its achievements, NASA has inspired generations of Americans to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, leading to careers that drive our country’s technological and economic engines.
Today, America’s leadership in space is challenged by countries eager to emulate – and surpass – NASA’s accomplishments. To preserve our national security interests and foster innovation and competitiveness, we must sustain our preeminence in space, launching more science missions, guaranteeing unfettered access, and maintaining a source of high-value American jobs.
The first paragraph only describes the varied benefits of space exploration, while the second offers virtually nothing in the way of specifics. The closest break to the current administration’s policy is the call for “more science missions”, but how many more, and of what kind? There’s also no reference to human spaceflight, including the retirement of the Space Shuttle, cancellation of Constellation, or anything else. In addition, while the space program, in particular human spaceflight, is often claimed to be something that sets the US apart from other nations, the plank was not included in the platform’s “American Exceptionalism” section, but instead near the end of “Reforming Government to Serve the People”, although there’s really nothing in the way of reform in that platform language regarding space.
Then there’s Obama’s participation in the Reddit AMA session. Much of that interest was devoted to the novelty of the event, including the fact that Obama himself was writing the answers (the White House released a photo of him typing away on a MacBook Pro, his tie loosened and sleeves rolled up.) Given the Reddit audience skews strongly towards people with an interest in technology, it’s not surprising someone asked, “Are you considering increasing funds to the space program?” Obama’s answer, though, didn’t address the point of the question:
Making sure we stay at the forefront of space exploration is a big priority for my administration. The passing of Neil Armstrong this week is a reminder of the inspiration and wonder that our space program has provided in the past; the curiosity probe on mars is a reminder of what remains to be discovered. The key is to make sure that we invest in cutting edge research that can take us to the next level – so even as we continue work with the international space station, we are focused on a potential mission to a asteroid as a prelude to a manned Mars flight.
That was simply a reiteration of some of the general points of his space exploration policy, including the goals of human missions to an asteroid and to Mars as well as increased investment in technology development. He said nothing, though, about the size of NASA’s budget.
This limited attention the campaigns are playing to space is a sharp contrast to 2008. By this point (the beginning of September) in the 2008 campaign, the Obama campaign had released a detailed space policy white paper, just a few days after the John McCain campaign released its own policy paper. At that time, neither was the incumbent, nor had either built up much of a record on the topic in the Senate. Four years later, the Obama Administration does have a policy to run on, if they so choose, but Romney’s comments are little more than vague statements to date, such as his January speech in Florida where he talked about how to develop a mission for NASA rather than articulate what that mission should be.
So why is that the case? In an article published Friday evening by the Orlando Sentinel, former congressman Bob Walker suggested that internal conflicts within the Romney campaign might be preventing it from providing a more detailed policy. “I think the civil war has kept any one faction from dominating the discussion inside the Romney advisory group,” Walker said, referring to the campaign’s space policy advisory group announced in January.
Or, it may be that, contrary to the wishes of space advocates and enthusiasts, space just isn’t that important an issue. The presidential campaign is largely revolving around the economy: are you better off that you were four years ago? Space is lost in the shadow of that debate, even in a swing state like Florida where, at least in the state’s Space Coast region, people think and care more about space policy than most of the rest of the country. That seems unlikely to change in the final two months of the campaign.