Marc's note: The current edition of Space Quarterly magazine has a couple of articles dealing with the election and space. One discusses the Democratic perspective and the other the Republican perspective. Below you'll find excerpts from each. To read the full versions please subscribe to the magazine. A single digital issue is $5.95 while a 1 year digital subscription is $19.
Space, Republicans, and the 2012 Election, by Eric Sterner
Every four years, when the United States holds its Presidential election, the space community turns to electoral politics and, to a lesser degree, some elements of the political community turn to space issues. This year is no different. In fact, the political salience of space issues has grown in many ways. The trend may have started in 2001, when political professionals noted that Florida--where the 2000 results were close and contested--launched rockets and, presumably, had a large number of voters who cared about it. Since then, candidates or their surrogates have routinely trekked to the Melbourne, Florida area to discuss their aspirations for the space program. This year has been no exception.
Florida is, once again, in play politically. A January 2012 poll of Florida voters by Quinnipiac University found Romney and Obama tied at 45%. While other states also have a significant role in space activities, among the competitive states, just a few so closely identify with the nation's space program. One of the state's more popular vehicle license plates has a picture of the Space Shuttle on it and reads "Challenger - Columbia."
Republicans may sense vulnerability in the Administration's handling of NASA and the civil space program. During the 2008 primaries, candidate Obama promised to cancel NASA's flagship human exploration program, Constellation. He reversed himself for the general election, promising to increase support for it, which he did his first year in office, before finally canceling it in 2010 and then muffing the development and roll-out of a new civil space framework. He was quickly rebuked by a Democratic Congress, which resurrected the core Constellation concept--a very heavy lift launch vehicle--with its Space Launch System in 2010. Meanwhile, layoffs associated with the end of the Space Shuttle program hit the Space Coast particularly hard in a state already suffering from housing bubble and recession-induced fall-off in tourism. In April, the CBS News magazine 60 Minutes aired a segment in which one Floridian formerly employed in the program said simply that he felt lied to. Other critical swing states with important space industries in them include Virginia and Ohio, meaning a candidate ignores space at his peril.
The electoral map is not the only, or even primary, factor that will drive the modern Republican party's (i.e., post-1980) interest in space this year. The Republicans have a long history of viewing the space program as critically important to the country. The party's 2008 platform endorsed returning to the Moon and identified NASA as "one of the world's most important pioneers in technology...[that can provide]...tremendous benefits for mankind." Similar language graced the party platforms in 2004, 2000, 1984, and 1980. The longer 1996, 1992, and 1988 party platforms contained entire sections dedicated to space, highlighting the party's commitment to it. In civil space, Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush both proposed significant expansions of space exploration to return to the moon and send people to Mars. Their Democratic successors killed both programs after Democratic Congresses cut funding.
Tradition vs Reform in 2012: A Democratic Perspective, By Aaron Oesterle
The current debate about U.S. space policy is based on one simple premise - how close must current U.S. space policy resemble that of previous U.S. space policy, whether viewed in terms of organization, funding, policy stances, goals, or other metrics? This debate, that pits traditionalists vs. reformers, is what is at the heart of all current discussions about space policy (regardless whether the specific issue under discussion is contracting options, export port controls, architecture designs, etc). Therefore, any Democratic victories resulting from the 2012 election must be viewed through the lens of this debate - do the reformers come out stronger, or do the traditionalists come out stronger? And when faced with outstanding issues unresolved by the election, how will this debate proceed?
While this debate has been occurring quietly for over a decade, it was the release of President Obama's FY2011 budget that this debate became much more vocal. Because that budget was strongly influenced by the reformers, President Obama has become permanently associated with the reformer movement, and many reformers have fallen behind him. Therefore many traditionalists have gravitated away from President Obama and towards the Republican campaign, and now there is the perception that the traditionalists are backing Governor Romney, largely due to the January 27, 2012 letter signed by Dr. Mike Griffin, Dr. Scott Pace, and Captain Gene Cernan.
However, President Obama winning the election does not guarantee success for the reformers. Space policy is at best a 3rd tier issue for most people (whether voters or elected officials), and having fought two very bruising battles over space policy, President Obama may want space to pass into the realm of "do no harm" to his other priorities. Who President Obama picks for his space team will demonstrate whether he wishes to spend politic capital on the issue of space policy during his second term. Would Dr. John Holdren remain as the Presidential Science Advisor? Would Lori Garver become NASA administrator? While these answers will have to wait until after the election, it is likely that President Obama would remain tied to many of his prior decisions (such as embracing Commercial Crew, and large scale technology development and demonstration).
This divide between traditionalists and reformers isn't occurring just in the executive branch; ultimately it is Congress who writes the checks. Therefore members of Congress are engaged in this debate. Parochial interest strongly informs whether a particular member of Congress embraces the reformers or the traditionalists. However, it is not always clear where the parochial interest actually lies in the reformer vs. traditionalist debate.