Obama and McCain on space exploration

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Aug. 4 2008 3:06 PM

Obama and McCain on space exploration

In a funny but convenient coincidence, both presidential candidates have made statements about space exploration lately; Obama while in Titusville, Florida (very close to Cape Canaveral), and McCain on NASA's 50th anniversary last week.

The full text of Obama's speech is on his site (parts are on YouTube as well), and McCain's on his. Obama's is part of a speech, so it's longer than McCain's which was a simple press release statement.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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Comparing the two is interesting. They both mention the retirement of the Shuttle in 2010, but McCain seems to imply that we have nothing funded after that, but he'll take care of it:

Under current plans, the United States will retire the space shuttle in 2010 after its final mission to the International Space Station, and thus lose the capability to send on our own, an American, to space. While my opponent seems content to retreat from American exploration of space for a decade, I am not. As President, I will act to ensure our astronauts will continue to explore space, and not just by hitching a ride with someone else. I intend to make sure that the NASA Constellation program has the resources it needs so that we can begin a new era of human space exploration. A country that sent a man to the moon should expect no less.

That, to me, is somewhat misleading. NASA won't be able to launch a manned mission until Constellation is up and running, and while it's currently having its problems, the plan is to have it going by 2015. So the gap isn't permanent (it's bad, very bad, not forever). Certainly, the incoming President will have to make sure funding is secured. But even McCain can't close that gap, so his statement is rather meaningless.

Here is what Obama has to say on the same topic:

As a result, [NASA has] had to cut back on research, and trim their programs, which means that after the Space Shuttle shuts down in 2010, we’re going to have to rely on Russian spacecraft to keep us in orbit.

We cannot cede our leadership in space. That’s why I will help close the gap and ensure that our space program doesn’t suffer when the Shuttle goes out of service by working with Senator Bill Nelson to add at least one additional Space Shuttle flight beyond 2010; by supporting continued funding for NASA; by speeding the development of the Shuttle’s successor; and by making sure that all those who work in the space industry in Florida do not lose their jobs when the Shuttle is retired – because we cannot afford to lose their expertise.

This is a better answer, though still not perfect. As I said, the gap cannot be "closed", and implying it can be is wrong. It can only be narrowed. However, the idea of another Shuttle mission is an interesting one. I assume he means launching the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the ISS. While I'm still not thrilled with another Shuttle flight -- NASA would probably disagree with me about that -- it would be nice to see this fantastic scientific instrument sent into space where it belongs (and NASA and I do agree there).

So in that statement I give Obama the edge, but only just.

However, I have to note that some time ago, Obama said he wanted to take money from NASA and put it into education. When I heard that I laughed ruefully: NASA already sets aside money for education (though less now than a few years ago when I was working with NASA's science education). Plus, NASA's budget is very small compared to, say, that of the Department of Education; NASA gets about 1/3 the money the DoE gets. So taking from NASA to give to DoE seems silly.

However, he seems to have changed his mind on that. He has been quoted as saying:

I know it's still being reported that we were talking about delaying some aspects of the Constellation program to pay for our early education program," [Obama] said. "I told my staff we're going to find an entirely different offset because we've got to make sure that the money that's going into NASA for basic research and development continues to go there. That has been a top priority for us. This is an administration that's been anti-science. Whether it's on stem cell research, whether it's on climate change, they have rejected science. I want to reverse that trend, I want us to be a science-based society and I want us to invest in science."

This is very heartening. Some on the right might call this a flip-flop, but it sounds more like someone who got more information and changed his mind because of it. That is precisely the kind of person I want in the White House (which would be a change from the past 8 years). I just hope Obama is doing it for the correct reason. It sounds like it from that quote.

Incidentally, this also shows that McCain is wrong to say: "While my opponent seems content to retreat from American exploration of space for a decade, I am not."

And may I also say how much I <3 this from Obama:

More broadly, we need a real vision for space exploration. To help formulate this vision, I’ll reestablish the National Aeronautics and Space Council so that we can develop a plan to explore the solar system – a plan that involves both human and robotic missions, and enlists both international partners and the private sector.

Yes, that is precisely correct. We need both manned and unmanned missions to further our goals in space, and to make sure we stay at the forefront of space exploration and innovation. Good on Obama for making this clear, and for also reinstating the Space Council, an advisory committee designed to provide a plan for exploration. The Space Review has an excellent overview of the Council's history. Note that if Obama calls for the Council to be restarted, he is more likely to listen to them.

Finally, a note: McCain is talking pretty loudly about tax cuts for big corporations and such, which in general means either raising taxes on others or cutting government positions. NASA has enjoyed a relatively good stretch of funding the past few years, but that may not always be the case. Having said that, either candidate, upon taking the White House, may cut or increase funding for NASA. We know for a fact that promises made in the campaign -- especially ones done in the shortening months before the election -- have little likelihood to be transubstantiated into reality after the inauguration (look up the phrase, "Read my lips: no new taxes" as a prime example).

So take whatever either man says with a few moles of salt. However, given McCain's tack to the right and pandering to the religious zealots on so many issues, I don't expect him to be a candidate who is on the side of science. That enough is sufficient for me not to vote for him -- unless he makes some very solid statements very soon (and given his flip-flops on this and his stance on about fifty other things, it's pretty unlikely I'd vote for him anyway). Obama, on the other hand, has clearly stated his opposition to what has happened to science over the past eight years, and that gives me hope.

Tip o' the styrofoam delegate hat/spacesuit visor to Kirk Enstrom and Russell Wolf for the heads-up on these statements.