Congress will be returning from its extended summer/convention break next week, and one committee already has a space-related hearing lined up. The space subcommittee of the House Science Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday morning titled “Examining NASA’s Development of the Space Launch System and Orion Crew Capsule”. Only two witnesses are listed as of Thursday morning, although with the promise of more: NASA’s Dan Dumbacher and Space Telescope Science Institute director Matt Mountain. The latter suggests that the committee will be interested in other uses of the SLS beyond human exploration missions; the SLS has been suggested for launching large space telescopes or flagship planetary missions, although whether such missions could afford an SLS is an open question.
Yesterday ScienceDebate 2012 released answers to a series of questions on science topics provided by the Obama and Romney campaigns. (Interest was high enough that the web site was largely inaccessible for most of the day; while it appears to be up and running now, a copy of the questions and answers is on Scientific American’s site.) One of the 14 questions dealt with space: “The United States is currently in a major discussion over our national goals in space. What should America’s space exploration and utilization goals be in the 21st century and what steps should the government take to help achieve them?”
The answer from the Romney campaign is worth reading since it offers a little bit more perspective on the campaign’s views on space and what a Romney Administration might do. The campaign starts with his view of the purpose of the space program:
The mission of the U.S. space program is to spur innovation through exploration of the heavens, inspire future generations, and protect our citizens and allies.
That’s followed by several bullet points on the role of space in technological innovation, the economy, national security, and foreign relations. The Romney statement then goes on to suggest that America’s space capabilities are deteriorating, in part because of a lack of perceived direction for the space program:
America has enjoyed a half-century of leadership in space, but now that leadership is eroding despite the hard work of American industry and government personnel. The current purpose and goals of the American space program are difficult to determine. With clear, decisive, and steadfast leadership, space can once again be an engine of technology and commerce. It can help to strengthen America’s entrepreneurial spirit and commercial competitiveness, launch new industries and new technologies, protect our security interests, and increase our knowledge.
The statement then reiterates statements Romney made back in January, where he said he would being in experts from a variety of disciplines to develop new goals and missions for NASA:
Rebuilding NASA, restoring U.S. leadership, and creating new opportunities for space commerce will be hard work, but I will strive to rebuild an institution worthy of our aspirations and capable once again leading the world toward new frontiers. I will bring together all the stakeholders – from NASA and other civil agencies, from the full range of national security institutions, from our leading universities, and from commercial enterprises – to set goals, identify missions, and define the pathway forward.
Then the campaign springs the bad news on space advocates looking to increase NASA’s budget:
Focusing NASA. A strong and successful NASA does not require more funding, it needs clearer priorities. I will ensure that NASA has practical and sustainable missions. There will be a balance of pragmatic and top-priority science with inspirational and groundbreaking exploration programs.
The statement then goes on to support international partnerships, stating that a Romney Administration “will invite friends and allies to cooperate with America in achieving mutually beneficial goals.” The campaign also has some strong words about national security space policy:
I am committed to a robust national security space program and I will direct the development of capabilities that defend and increase the resilience of space assets. I will also direct the development of capabilities that will deter adversaries seeking to damage or destroy the space capabilities of the U.S. and its allies.
The statement doesn’t go into additional details about what those capabilities to both defend US space assets and deter attacks might be. The National Security Space Strategy released by the Pentagon in January 2011 also includes language on these topics. “We seek to enhance our national capability to dissuade and deter the development, testing, and employment of counterspace systems and prevent and deter aggression against space systems and supporting infrastructure that support U.S. national security,” that document states, adding that such efforts include “strengthening the resilience of our architectures.”
Finally, and very briefly, the Romney statement addresses commercial space:
Revitalizing Industry. A strong aerospace industry must be able to compete for and win business in foreign markets. I will work to ease trade limitations, as appropriate, on foreign sales of U.S. space goods and will work to expand access to new markets.
It’s not clear what “trade limitations” the campaign is referring to, although it could be an oblique reference to export controls, which are a self-imposed form of trade limitations that makes it more difficult for US companies to export satellites and related components.
The key takeaway from the answer is that a Romney Administration would seek to refocus NASA in as-yet-unspecified ways (pending, perhaps, the recommendations of that collection of stakeholders mentioned both in the statement and in previous comments by Romney), but would not necessarily seek to increase NASA’s budget to carry out those revised priorities.
On Tuesday the Democratic Party released its platform, one week after the Republicans did. While space got a two-paragraph plank in the Republican platform, only one sentence in the Democratic one is devoted to space, under the “Out-Innovating the Rest of the World” subheading: “President Obama has charted a new mission for NASA to lead us to a future that builds on America’s legacy of innovation and exploration.” That’s it.
That limited reference to space has caused some grumbling in the space community, who clearly wanted more discussion about space in the platform. However, to put it into perspective, that one sentence is actually more than in the 2008 platform, when space had to share a sentence: “We will double federal funding for basic research, invest in a strong and inspirational vision for space exploration, and make the Research and Development Tax Credit permanent.” In addition, while the Republican platform’s space section was longer, it didn’t necessarily say much more: it lacked specific policy prescriptions, whereas the one sentence in the Democratic platform references the administration’s record (for better or for worse) on space over the last four years.
Curiously, in an editorial Florida Today approves of the brief reference to space in the Democratic platform, saying it is “claiming ownership” of the administration’s policies on space. The Republicans, meanwhile, are criticized in the same editorial “for copping out on space” by not offering a distinctive space policy of their own after years of criticizing the Obama Administration’s policy.
One thing that should be kept in mind is that platforms are not binding policy documents but instead general expressions of what party members like and don’t like on various issues. The only reason we’re paying that much attention to them is that there’s little other specific information out there about where the candidates stand on space issues.
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.
On Saturday afternoon, the family of Neil Armstrong announced that the famous astronaut had passed away at the age of 82 after complications from heart surgery he had earlier this month. Within a few hours there was an outpouring of reaction to the death of the first man to walk on the Moon, including official statements from President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
“Neil was among the greatest of American heroes – not just of his time, but of all time,” said President Obama in a White House statement. “Today, Neil’s spirit of discovery lives on in all the men and women who have devoted their lives to exploring the unknown – including those who are ensuring that we reach higher and go further in space. That legacy will endure – sparked by a man who taught us the enormous power of one small step.”
Obama summarized that sentiment in a tweet from his campaign account, @BarackObama; the “-bo” indicates the tweet was written by Obama himself:
Gov. Romney also issued a statement from his campaign mourning Armstrong’s passing. “Neil Armstrong today takes his place in the hall of heroes. With courage unmeasured and unbounded love for his country, he walked where man had never walked before. The moon will miss its first son of earth.” Romney added that he “met and spoke” with Armstrong just a few weeks ago, although he does not mention the subject of that conversation.
Romney also provided a brief summary of his statement via Twitter:
In Congress, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) issued a brief statement. “A true hero has returned to the Heavens to which he once flew,” he said. “Ohio has lost one of her proudest sons. Humanity has gained a legend.”
On Facebook, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) posted a brief note about the death of Armstrong. “He will always be remembered as one of the most iconic pioneers of the NASA community – dedicated to the team that helped him achieve glory for us all,” she wrote.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) also provided a brief comment in a statement via the Miami Herald. “Neil Armstrong understood that we should reach beyond the stars. His ‘one giant leap for mankind’ was taken by a giant of a man.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) also expressed his condolences in a statement while taking a bigger-picture view. “America, the space community and the entire world have lost a courageous pioneer. One needs to look no further than the various foreign currencies in the donation box at Washington’s National Air and Space Museum to understand what our space program means not only for our country but for all of humanity.”
[ Apologies for the lack of posts recently, a combination of travel, a heavy workload, and illness. ]
In his first stint as governor of California in the 1970s, Jerry Brown earned the sobriquet “Governor Moonbeam” in part for his interest in space topics, including a proposal that California have its own satellite to support emergency communications in the state. That proposal never became reality, and that moniker faded away. However, that interest in space shines through a bit as Brown, back in Sacramento as governor, signed a proclamation declaring Wednesday to be “Space Day” in the state. The proclamation cites both the general benefits of spaceflight, including uniting “all of humanity in a shared sense of curiosity, hope and wonderment” as well as the successful landing on Mars of the Curiosity rover, led by the team at JPL in Pasadena. Brown is scheduled to be at JPL today to meet the Mars Science Laboratory team and tour the lab. If this landing has rekindled any latent interest the governor has in space, local space advocates might want to take advantage of this to discuss what the state government can do to support the state’s space industry and workforce…
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), one of the strongest NASA advocates in Congress, now officially knows who he’ll have to beat in order to secure a third term in the Senate. Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-FL) easily won the Republican primary for the Senate seat on Tuesday and will face off against Nelson in November in what polls currently suggest to be a tight race. Mack, son of a former senator, easily beat out a familar name in space policy circles: former congressman Dave Weldon, who represented Florida’s Space Coast in the House from 1994 through 2008 (a seat now held by fellow Republican Bill Posey.) Mack’s campaign web site is silent on space (and many other specific policy issues), but does describe his “Mack Penny Plan” that would cut federal spending across the board by one percent per year for six years.
Another member of Congress who has been vocal on space issues won’t be returning next year. In a member-versus-member primary created by redistricting, Rep. John Mica (R-FL) beat Rep. Sandy Adams (R-FL) by 20 percentage points. Adams’s current district includes part of the Space Coast, including KSC (the rest, including Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, is in Posey’s district), but redistricting put her in territory away from the Space Coast and in the heart of longtime member Mica’s district.
On Monday, President Obama made a congratulatory phone call to members of the Mars Science Laboratory team at JPL, thanking them for their work successfully landing the Curiosity rover on Mars. The eight-minute call was a fairly basic speech thanking the JPL team and its partners for the mission, with the now-obligatory mention of flight director Bobak Ferdowsi’s mohawk. It was, though, according to one source, only the third time a sitting president made a congratulatory call to JPL regarding a robotic mission achievement: Gerald Ford callled in 1976 for the Viking missions and George W. Bush called in 2004 after the landing of the Mars rover Spirit.
“You guys are examples of American know-how and ingenuity, and it’s really an amazing accomplishment,” the President said late in the call. “I’m going to give you guys a personal commitment to protect these critical investments in science and technology.” Left unmentioned, though, is the 20-percent cut in NASA’s planetary sciences program in his fiscal year 2013 budget proposal and a decision to back out of the joint ExoMars program with Europe.
President Obama’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, also worked in a mention of the Curiosity rover landing during a campaign stop in St. Augustine, Florida. “You also just saw we just landed on Mars and took a good look at what’s going on there,” he said, using the landing, as well as the US’s performance at the Olympics, as evidence that the America was still the greatest nation in the world. “And I know the Chinese are planning on going to the Moon, and I hope they have a good experience doing that. And I hope they stop in and take a look at our flag that was put there 43 years ago.”
The comment about China’s lunar plans recalls a statement Romney made nearly six months ago, one of the last times he mentioned space on the campaign trail. Speaking in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Romney was dismissive of claims that China was planning a human mission to the Moon. “It’s like, guys, we were there a long time ago, all right?” he said at the time. “And when you get there would you bring back some of the stuff we left?” Romney’s comments indicate he does not appear to be any more concerned about those plans now.
[Update: Nick Eftimiades contacted me earlier today and said he had a case of mistaken identity: it was not Rep. Ryan who was in attendance at the dinner he recalled in his now-deleted blog post, as it turns out. He—and I—regret the error.]
As previously discussed here, Mitt Romney’s choice of running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), doesn’t have much of a space policy background: a couple of votes on space-related bills over the years, plus his budget plan that would cut spending on science and space. However, Nicholas Eftimiades, a former National Security Space Office (NSSO) official, offers a different perspective on Ryan. In a blog post yesterday, he recalls being at a dinner with Ryan, Buzz Aldrin, and several other members of Congress to discuss space policy and STEM education. “Myself and Buzz Aldrin did the lion’s share of talking that evening. Congressman Ryan carefully listened to our respective visions of a space program for America,” he recalls. “He asked how, from a legislative perspective, the Congress could make the space program better. He showed no hint of partisan politics, was very thoughtful, and focused on positive change for the US space program.”
Early this morning, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced his choice for running mate: Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI). While the decision may, as the Washington Post article linked to above suggests, offer a “stark choice” on fiscal issues, it sheds little, if any light, on the niche issue of space policy. Ryan has said virtually nothing on space issues, and it’s not a local issue in his southeast Wisconsin district. His House web site is virtually devoid of references to NASA, beyond a link on his “Students and Kids” page to the “NASA Kids’ Club” site.
In terms of recent roll-call votes, he did vote against the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 in September 2010, legislation that did pass the House and was signed into law.
Ryan is better known as chairman of the House Budget Committee, and in that role he has offered budget proposals that included sigificant cuts in non-defense discretionary spending. The Ryan budget does not go down into the details about specific agencies, like NASA, but instead is at the “account” level, which can cut across not only the usual divisions of the appropriations process but also across agencies. As SpacePolicyOnline.com noted earlier this year, most of NASA, as well as NOAA, are accounted for within account 250, “General science, space, and technology”, but NASA’s aeronautics program is part of account 400, “Transportation”.
What the Ryan budget does show is a modest decrease in science and space spending in his budget. His ten-year (fiscal years 2013-2022) budget would spend about 6.5 percent less on that account versus the administration’s own ten-year budget, which you can compare by looking at the charts at the end of the House budget resolution with this table from the Office of Management and Budget. (This Excel file compares the two budgets on that one particular account.) This doesn’t necessarily mean he would cut NASA’s budget by this amount: he could choose to spare it and cut other programs by a correspondingly greater amount, or vice versa. And, of course, it doesn’t mean that a Romney Administration would necessarily adopt something like this in its budgets for FY2014 and beyond.