One of the interesting aspects of any modern presidential campaign has been the lack of detailed policy positions from the candidates on NASA and space exploration. The reason for this can be illustrated by what happened to Newt Gingrich when he made an exception and proposed building a moon base when he ran for president in 2012. More of that anon.
When a presidential candidate mentions #Space at all, he or she offers boilerplate verbiage about how important it is for the United States. Details on levels of spending, the question of where to direct space exploration efforts, how much to support the commercial space sector, and international engagement tends to be lacking. That approach is being used by Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton, and Dr. Ben Carson.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, has stated that while he thinks space exploration is a fine thing, it needs to take a back seat to social programs. Donald Trump has taken a similar stance, stating on at least two occasions that America’s infrastructure needs to be fixed first, before NASA heads off on its Journey to Mars.
One reason for this lack of detail is that NASA does not expend as much of the federal budget as does Medicare, the Defense Department, and Social Security. The space agency takes up just about one-half of one percent of federal spending. On the other hand, the things NASA does have captured public attention out of proportion to its size and budget. From the continuing adventures of astronauts on the International Space Station to the spectacular images the New Horizons space probe sent from Pluto, current space exploration efforts have proven to be a source of inspiration.
Two exceptions have occurred in recent memory to this studied vagueness insofar as space is concerned. The first happened during the 2008 election cycle when then Sen. Barack Obama proposed delaying President George W. Bush’s Constellation program for five years in order to pay for an education program. The reaction to that proposal was so negative that Obama told an audience of aerospace workers in Florida that he supported a return to the moon. However, when he became president, Obama cancelled the Bush-era program and, when the outcry resounded from that decision, he proposed the current Journey to Mars program. The sequence of events could serve as a commentary on the value of a politician’s promises.
Fast forward to the 2012 presidential election cycle when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich delivered a speech in Florida and proposed building a lunar base by the year 2020. Even though a moon base had been a noncontroversial part of President George W. Bush’s space policy, Gingrich’s moon base proposal was met with ridicule. The former speaker’s major rival for the presidency, Mitt Romney, called it a “zany” idea. The proposal was even the subject of a Saturday Night Live skit. The moon base, followed by Gingrich’s candidacy, soon sank out of existence.
Gingrich’s unhappy experience would seem to inform subsequent presidential candidates’ lack of specifics on space policy. Still, it might be nice to be able to know what the candidates are thinking about the future direction of the space program. Do they favor the Journey to Mars, or should a return to the moon be back on the manifest? How much should NASA support commercial space companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin? What should the direction of planetary exploration, with missions like New Horizons and Mars Curiosity, take? What is the appropriate level of spending for the space agency, considering what it's being asked to do?