Mr. Candidate, What About Space?

Neil Armstrong walks on the moon.

The United States asserted its position as the leading technological power in the world on July 20, 1969. Up until then, it had been in doubt, as the Soviet Union set one first after another in space, but on that day, the Eagle Landed and an American became the first human being to walk on the moon. That American, Neil Armstrong, died the other day, and as we head into the presidential elections, the question we have to ask the candidates is whether our technological dominance in general, and our space program in particular, are once again in doubt.

Mock-up of Curiosity rover on Mars.

It might seem like an odd time to ask that question. NASA’s Curiosity rover is sending back high resolution images of the planet Mars even as you read this, and is potentially on the verge of untold discoveries about our neighboring planet, but we have to remind ourselves that the most recent budget proposal from the Obama White House slashed $1 Billion dollars from NASA’s funding. That’s a 5% cut. It reduces the budget of the Planetary Science Division, the part of the agency responsible for the Hubble Space Telescope, the Cassini spacecraft, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and, yes, the Curiosity Rover, by over 20%.

It’s also important to realize that we aren’t the only ones with extraterrestrial aspirations. A new space race is underway. Russia, China, India, Japan and Europe all have active space programs, and they have their eyes on the moon. The Japanese and the Indians have proposed manned lunar missions as early as 2020. That might seem overly ambitious, but compare it to our own efforts. We were the first to set foot on the moon, but we haven’t been back since 1972. Recently NASA developed the Constellation Program, to establish a permanent moon base by 2024. Unfortunately, the funding for it was cut.

Neil Armstrong aboard Apollo 11.

The future of NASA and our future in space will likely be determined by whoever wins the November election, so with that in mind, what is each candidate’s vision for our space program? When speaking to the press about Neil Armstrong, President Obama described him as, “among the greatest of American heroes – not just of his time, but of all time.” Later, he continued, “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,”

Beyond such lofty rhetoric, however, neither candidate has laid out specific proposals for NASA during the current election. In a 2009 speech, Obama spoke of his vision for the future, “Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flight will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit, and by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed mission beyond the moon into deep space. We’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.” It should be noted that this speech took place before the current round of deficit reduction mania. Since that speech, as was noted earlier, NASA’s budget has been cut significantly.

For his part, Mitt Romney also heaped praise upon Armstrong. Saying, “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,” Despite this high praise, Romney, unlike his primary opponent, Newt Gingrich, hasn’t articulated a bold plan for human space. Instead, back in January, he told an audience at Cape Canaveral during a brief 15 minute speech, “So I’m not going to come here today and tell you precisely what the mission will be. I’m going to tell you how I’m going to get there.” In order to do that, he pledged to gather together a team of experts from NASA and the worlds of defense, academia and industry to evaluate various proposals. He said they “will talk about each of those missions, each of those objectives, and then determine which mission for NASA, which mission for space, will most effectively carry out those missions.”

Maybe it’s too much to expect presidential candidates to lay out their plans for the space program when everyone’s eyes are on the economy, but it’s up to us to remind them that science and space exploration are vital to the American economy too. NASA employs thousands of Americans. When the Space Shuttle program ended, 9,000 jobs were lost. Putting those highly trained people back to work would help stimulate a sluggish economy. In addition, millions of people have benefited from the spin-off technologies that came from NASA. Thousands of men and women went into the fields of science and engineering because they were inspired by the brave steps that Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts took. If we’re going to follow in their footsteps, it will require vision and leadership from whoever our next president is.

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