Campaign '12

Dueling astronaut op-eds (and the utility thereof)

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.

29 comments to Dueling astronaut op-eds (and the utility thereof)

  • JimNobles

    As far as I can tell only one of the candidates has anything like an actual space policy. Some of that policy I like and some of it I do not like.

    The other guy doesn’t even seem to be in the 21st century. He kind of scares me. And not just for space related reasons.

  • amightywind

    The op eds are useful because they reveal the profound political changes in NASA over the decades. Mark Kelly is card carrying member the leftist cabal. It should be no surprise that he defends the miserable status quo. The strong voices of the Apollo astronauts won’t be with us forever. It is time we listened to them before it is too late.

  • Ben Russell-Gough

    FWIW, whilst their usefulness is debatable, I think it is a sign of a healthy democracy that people have their say. Space policy is a tiny and nearly-invisible part of the overall (to the point where JimNobles rightly points out above that Mitt Romney can get away without really having a declared space policy).

    That said, I suppose that some care enough that they will consider this issue when making their choice. So, having someone remind everyone of where the two candidates stand is useful. However, on the flip side, the days when an astronaut’s opinion carried special weight is probably long gone.


    I think Apollo astronaut Al Worden expressed the details of the skill and expertise requirements for being an astronaut very nicely in his great book, Falling to Earth:

    “I had heard some other Apollo astronauts talk about a sense of peaking after their missions: a feeling that they had done the most significant thing in their lives in their late thirties. What could top flying to the moon? I didn’t feel that way at all.

    Going to the moon was wonderful, but in terms of personal achievement, it was a rote skill. It was something I learned how to do, like driving a car or flying an airplane. It didn’t take much intellectual capacity. I needed to memorize facts and know what the machines told me when they gave me information.

    It didn’t take a lot of creative thought. As a matter of fact, NASA didn’t want creative thought on a moon flight; I needed to focus instead on what was written down, what the structure of the mission was, and if all the systems worked.

    I think the most important things we do in life are intellectual, not rote skills. Personally; running for Congress was a much bigger challenge than going to the moon. Where you stand on issues, how you live your life, and how much good you can do in the world are greater challenges than a lunar mission.

    I hadn’t been successful in my political ambitions, but that didn’t matter. I had done my best to become a leader through the strength of my intellectual capacity and learned an important lesson. Just like athletes who have success early in life need to have ambitions for when they are no longer at the top of their game, I also needed to not peak early: I decided to find new goals and ambitions.

    So I think that the astronauts who are living their lives based solely on what they did by flying to the moon, or by flying on a Shuttle, don’t have much to offer.

    • Robert G. Oler

      Any individual who has a single accomplishment as the “high point of their life” is in fact a shallow person incapable of enjoying or contributing to anything else. RGO

  • E.P. Grondine

    Hi AW –

    What part of .7 G combustion oscillations is Astronaut Cernan having trouble understanding?

    While I disagree with Obama setting manned Mars flight as the
    nation’s ultimate goal, and using asteroids as a system test to get there, that’s what his policy is: the Decadal Planning Team’s plan, not Lori Garver’s. What part of that is Astronaut Cernan having problems understanding?

    How does a centrist like Astronaut Kelly become a card carrying member of the “leftist cabal”.
    (He was more conservative than his wife.)

    Aside from that, I hear Gov. Romney is leading in the polls in the Cayman Islands.

  • Robert G. Oler

    What if anything these op eds do (if they are not written by the campaigns and signed by the people attached to them…and in this case I suspect that they are mostly original works by the people who have their names on them)…is allow one to get a sense of the tone of each campaign and where it is trying to go in terms of appealing to voters…and what voter they are appealing to

    From the post “Cernan writes of Obama. Romney would make sure the US “continues to lead the world” in space exploration, ”

    No hint of how or what or even what money they would spend…but it doesnt matter because this is the campaign that Romney is running …it is a ten word campaign “We will be strong”

    In addition it repeats tired lies…the “keep all the jobs” lie not even bothering to mention that the program was a shambles..

    Kelly’s is not much better except he actually can talk about what Obama has done and how he has done it…no hard choices there.

    In the end the sad thing is that neither campaign has run one on the future but is hung up on the past and a litigation of it.

    Robert G. Oler

  • amightywind

    So I think that the astronauts who are living their lives based solely on what they did by flying to the moon, or by flying on a Shuttle, don’t have much to offer.

    Neither does a nation that cannot sustain the progress in spaceflight of 50 years ago. Win or lose Obama’s America has the funk of decline about it.

  • Robert G. Oler

    “”Frankly, the world’s leading space-faring nation shouldn’t have to pay Russia for rides to the International Space Station. That’s not only an insult to the hundreds of women and men like me who have built a legacy based on, literally, reaching for the stars, but it also hurts the local economy and puts local jobs at risk at a time when Florida’s unemployment rate is already higher than the national average.”

    this is from Geno’s op ed…and its typical of the space argument by the Romney campaign in specific and its tone is typical of the entire Romney campaign.

    The story is well known. In the end the ACRV agreement was Bush43’s and is essential for a lot of reasons…not the least of which is to help the Russians stay in the space “game” which is a desired result, at least it was by Bush 43.

    Geno makes no mention of that, neither does Mike Griffin who must be aware of the negotiations that went on…and neither does Ryan or Romney…

    What I like though is this ” but it also hurts the local economy and puts local jobs at risk ”

    There are three consistent themes in the Romney campaign (amazing when you think of all the changes in his position)…1) is that he (Romney) is going to cut the budget and 2) that the government has no role in providing jobs. (the third is that American exceptionalism (whatever that is) has suffered under Obama and will be great under Romney)

    Geno repudiates both those concepts in that sentence I quoted…but of course the technwelfare people who had jobs from government spending dont view themselves in the same breath as people who are on unemployment…THEY of course earn their technowelfare…even though the Nation has been able to live without their jobs or its product.

    It would be OK if Geno was arguing a specific future vrs another promised one…but in the end he is left with “Romney will keep us strong” arguments when SLS is about as useful as say Horses in the military.

    Romney and Geno live in a past that they have created…and are wanting to force on the rest of us. RGO

    • DCSCA

      The tone and tect of Geno’s reply echoes the flavor of fellows his age about 40 years ago who found themselves forced to watch moonwalks on Japanese TV sets and seeing their kids buying goorvy VW bugs. What Gene doesn’t seem to accept is he did his job, won his Cold War battle and got the accolades– and the nation moved on. Both Willard and Eugene should realize that Russia stopped being the enemy over 20 years ago and Japan as well as Germany are close allies today.

      It’s rather sad.

  • Robert G. Oler

    November 1, 2012 at 1:11 pm · Reply
    . Win or lose Obama’s America has the funk of decline about it.”

    It is likely he (Obama) will win…but to your point.

    really? The most modern vehicle that comes and goes at ISS is the Dragon.

    Decline is when you start two wars and they bankrupt the nation with nothing to show for them. Or you build Cx spend 15 billion and dont get a darn thing.


  • Vladislaw

    Windy, you are confusing what a Nation’s GOVERNMENT can do or not do with what the citizens of that Nation can do.

    America’s aerospace industry has a better chance of sustained progress in space transportation than the federal government. Unless you are advocating that the federal government should have monopolies for all transportation systems from the bicycle to spacecraft because the government can do it better. America has never experienced open domestically provided, commerical space travel. It will soon be here and a new chapter will have to written.

    • Robert G. Oler

      First time I have used he “reply” feature

      In the end the worst thing that has happened for American industry in general and the space industry in specific has been the “space industrial complex” and to extend that the notion of the federal government taking perpetual care of several industries.

      We now have spacecraft and weapons that dont work anywhere near what they are suppose to and we cannot afford. Apollo was a great thing…we just couldnt afford to continue it RGO

  • Rhyolite

    “Op-eds like these raise a question: are they really that useful?”

    Probably, not. They are just a drum beat to get out the faithful. “No, the guy at the top of your ticket hasn’t forgotten you little special interest. Do your part and show up on the polls on Tuesday. yada, yada, yada…”

  • CharlesHouston

    The real situation is that neither camp has put much effort into space or technology efforts – Romney (according to Paul Ryan) is gonna have a big meeting and come up with another plan – yet to be determined. The Obama campaign is gonna stick with their plan – leaving all decisions to Administrations yet to be elected. Their silly asteroid plan is way out in the future and is unrealistic. They just allowed the Senate to create the fiction of progress by renaming the Constellation program.
    Where are the technology leaders (could be astronauts) that point out the fact that our current efforts are political expedients, unlikely to come up with any effort (I am talking about the SLS and MPCV here) that will survive long after the next term (who ever is elected)?
    The commercial operators will continue but that is just gonna keep ISS going, what is the next step? We should seriously be working on that now (and SLS/MPCV is likely not serious).

  • Meanwhile, in the reality-based world …

    NASA held two media events today at Kennedy Space Center. Click the links to watch:

    Future Bright for Human Spaceflight — a one-hour press conference with Bob Cabana, Ed Mango and others about all the plans for the future of U.S. human spaceflight.

    KSC Transforming into Multi-User Spaceport — a 75-minute media event for the #NASASocial giving an extensive overview of how KSC is preparing for the next generation.

    These videos are what’s really happening here, not the rants of someone who hasn’t flown in space for 40 years and has no clue about what’s really going on here.

  • CharlesHouston

    The video of the transformation of KSC is interesting but it is realistic? Atlas and Delta and Falcon all fly from the Air Force side of the Causeway. Antares will from from Wallops. Crews fly from Baikonur on Soyuz.
    Later they will fly on Atlas, Delta, Falcon – as vehicles evolve.
    The chances of the US using KSC for launches is small, we may have used KSC for the last time. What is the chance that the SLS will actually be built? Small.
    We should just rent out more of KSC.

    • We already know that XCOR will use the old Shuttle runway. As mentioned in the video, in the future the runway will be viewed as third “launch pad,” only the launch will be horizontal. Stratolaunch is also interested in the runway, as are others.

      As for LC-39A, a SpaceX executive told me last year they were talking to NASA about taking over that pad for Falcon Heavy. As we know from subsequent events, SpaceX is also looking at a potential commercial facility up the road in Shiloh or in Brownsville, TX.

      As for LC-39B, ATK had specially said they would use the pad for Liberty, but Liberty is now on the back-burner since ATK didn’t win the commercial crew competition.

      Eventually users will be interested in LC-39. It’s just going to take a few more years of evolution.

    • CharlesHouston

      Not that I wish to begin a long debate, but there is a lot of talk about various uses for KSC but none of them has much chance of coming true. Many unlikely scenarios do not always equate to even one likely user.
      XCOR may use the Shuttle runway – among other runways? Let us assume that their business model works and they survive, how many launches per year? They do want to turn around very fast but we will see; as I recall that the Shuttle was supposed to turn around much faster than it did.
      SpaceX is building a Falcon Heavy pad in California, and likely one in Texas. Will they need one in Florida, where it is tough to get a launch slot? If so, will they want to wheel a Falcon Heavy up that ramp?
      We will see when Stratolaunch and “other users” actually sign the papers.
      When we are trying so hard that we bring up Liberty, we are trying too hard to make the case.
      Maybe KSC will again be used for space launches but in the meantime we are paying for a lot of empty offices, etc. Chances are good that KSC is mostly out of the launch business. I am sorry to see it but that is the most likely scenario.

      • Neil Shipley

        Yes agreed. There’s lots of ifs, buts, and maybes, nothing of substance as yet.

      • XCOR has already signed a contract to use the runway and build a launch facility at the runway.

        Boeing has already leased OPF-3 with the goal of using it as a base to launch CST-100s for NASA and private customers going to Bigelow habitats.

        As Bob Cabana said, other tenants are about to sign as well.

        You can be negative and cynical and claim nothing will ever happen, but that can be said of anything on Planet Earth — until it happens.

        Me, I’m watching KSC convert into the 21st Century space launch complex. Please feel free to stay at home and ignore all the flights coming in a couple years.

        • CharlesHouston

          How does this relate to the original intent of the discussion? Why can’t our technology leaders (retired astronauts, retired professors, retired executives) write an op-ed (well I guess some have but where is the effort that resulted?) that points out that a new effort takes ten years to come about – and we are diverting our resources to unproductive programs (like SLS)!

          And Boeing is not going to launch anything from OPF-3, they rent the facility. KSC needs to do a lot more of that, rent out more buildings.

          While some of us are watching KSC convert into something – the launches already moved. They are gone. Now many just moved to the Air Force side but lots of flights will originate from Wallops and maybe South Texas.

          Does either campaign give us a chance that KSC will not just end up as a rusty visitor’s tour? I don’t see it.

          Now, that may not be a big problem. We will still launch from CC AFS. But it is sad to see KSC end up a visitor’s center only.

      • Paul

        The California launch site is for polar launches. This is a disjoint market from that served by Florida.


    Wrongo, Geno. There is no future with a Romney space policy. It’s as clear as the dawn at your Apollo landing 40 Decembers ago.

    Obama’s plans are placeholders until Hillary is elected. She has a genuine interest in space. Kelly’s claim to fame is the misfortune befalling his wife- not anything he did during shuttle.

    And in case he or Gene need reminding, a wag once noted the uncomfortable truth of Lindbergh that pilots are essentially chauffeurs. And the hired help, particularly in Romneyland, doesn’t plan the trip; they go where they’re told.

    • Neil Shipley

      Hi DCSCA. Would you care to share your sources wrt Hillary and her interest (dare I say abiding interest)in space? I guess I must have missed her speeches, press releases, et al.
      Many thanks.

      • Dave Hall

        I’d also like to hear or read more about Hillary’s interest in space. I like to imagine Obama as being more bold and clear in his goal setting in a 2nd term (with the potential to hand over to 2 terms of Hillary) than Romney would be in a 1st term.


    Memo to Geno: There’s a McDonald’s in Red Square. That’s how we measure victories today, Gene. The Big Mac is a more powerful symbol than your flag on the moon these days.

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