With less than a week until the election, the presidential campaigns, and their supporters, are making their final cases—even in the realm of space policy. In the Orlando Sentinel on Wednesday, former astronaut Gene Cernan criticized the Obama Administration’s space policy and said Mitt Romney would do a better job on space issues. And, in today’s Florida Today, another former astronaut, Mark Kelly, says President Obama is the “clear choice” on space issues.
Neither op-ed breaks new ground, largely reiterating past arguments for and against the Obama Administration’s space policies. Cernan argues that Obama broke a promise from the 2008 campaign to fund Constellation, resulting in thousands of lost jobs at the Kennedy Space Center. “Not only is he willing to sacrifice the United States’ pre-eminence in space exploration, but he seems unconcerned that our economic and national security might falter as well,” Cernan writes of Obama. Romney would make sure the US “continues to lead the world” in space exploration, making points taken directly from the campaign’s space policy white paper (Cernan serves on the campaign’s space policy advisory group.)
“The president has been criticized for not being clear about his priorities when it comes to space policy, but I see things differently,” Kelly counters in his piece, saying that the president has made “clear decisions” on space issues, including some that benefit those on the Space Coast. He cites in particular the decision to continue development of Orion and build the Space Launch System, as well as commercial cargo and crew efforts, specifically mentioning SpaceX’s recent accomplishments. Kelly previously made the case for the administration’s space policy in a Sentinel op-ed in May, where he described how he became a covert to that policy after initially being skeptical of the plan to cancel Constellation.
Op-eds like these raise a question: are they really that useful? At this late stage of the campaign, it’s hard to imagine that there are that many undecided voters, let alone those who would be swayed by commentaries on space policy, even in a region like the Space Coast. These pieces appear, at best, to reinforce existing views in favor of or against a candidate (the handful of comments that Cernan’s Sentinel piece has attracted in the day since its publication have largely been critical of it); at worst, they devolve to “my astronaut is better than your astronaut” arguments.
There’s also a related question of just how much weight people should give to the views of former astronauts, who, after all, made the names as astronauts based on their ability to fly and operate spacecraft, and not on their policy expertise. Both commentaries focus almost exclusively on human spaceflight topics (Cernan mentions national security as well as science missions, but only in passing, using the campaign’s language): understandable given their experiences, and the audiences in and around Kennedy Space Center, but incomplete from a broader policy perspective.