October 08, 2012
Frank Morring, Jr. Washington
Surrogates for President Barack Obama and Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney are doing their best to distinguish their candidates on space-policy issues, but grim budget reality has forced both parties into supporting the U.S. space program that evolved in the past four years.
The handwriting was on the wall when Obama took office, and he quickly established a review panel headed by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine to certify that the George W. Bush administration's Constellation program was “unsustainable . . . perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources.”
At that point things got messy. The Obama-administration call for a shift to commercial human spaceflight and an open-ended “push” for technology to enable unspecified exploration missions ran into a buzz saw of competing Capitol Hill constituent interests and White House power plays.
The upshot is today's compromise policy that combines commercial human spaceflight with the government's deep-space Orion crew vehicle and the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS). Technology spending is reduced from Obama's original wish list, and is now more tightly focused on destination-driven exploration.
Obama set his preferred destination—a near-Earth asteroid—under congressional pressure to target NASA spending somewhere. The target date—2025—is extremely notional as the budget pressure continues. Both parties are pretty much boxed in as a result, unable to advocate more dramatic shifts in U.S. space policy. That leaves how well the candidates say they will manage the hybrid civil space program for the next four years as essentially the major space-policy issue for the campaign.
Neither candidate is making space policy a big deal this year, leaving the discussion to the same set of experts who have traded jobs in keeping with partisan shifts in White House control over the past two decades or more. For Obama that means NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and his deputy, Lori Garver. Romney's space position has been drafted by a panel of advisers that includes former Administrator Michael Griffin and White House space officials from the two Bush administrations.
“We have watched with dismay as President Obama dismantled the structure that was guiding both the government and commercial space sectors, while providing no purpose or vision or mission,” the Romney advisers wrote in a joint letter in January. “This failure of leadership has thrust the space program into disarray and triggered a dangerous erosion of our technical workforce and capabilities.”