Why you should care
Because why can’t anyone mention the issue hanging over all our heads?
This is the first story in a multipart series about under-the-radar campaign issues.
A long time ago, in a galaxy not that far away, Hillary Clinton was still Hillary Rodham, and going through a “tomboy stage,” as she describes it nowadays. Inspired by John F. Kennedy’s soaring promise to land a person on the moon, and echoing the fears of her father — who worried that America would fall behind Russia — the 13-year-old sat down to pen a letter from her home in Illinois. “I wrote to NASA and asked what I needed to do to try to be an astronaut,” the former secretary of state recalled during a speech honoring Amelia Earhart several years ago, though she and NASA say they no longer have their original correspondence. “NASA wrote me back and said there would not be any women astronauts. And I was just crestfallen.”
Maybe that’s why Clinton has spoken about space only six times during more than a year of campaigning, according to a speech tracker from the Planetary Society, a space advocacy group. She’s hardly alone. Few contenders who’ve gone after their political party’s presidential nomination — whether Bernie Sanders or those on the Republican side, when they were still in the race — have even mentioned space, and Donald Trump has yet to announce a space strategy or committee. “That is the political black hole,” says Casey Dreier, director of space policy at the Planetary Society.
But while space hasn’t been a major campaign issue so far, there are reasons it should be, some experts argue. There are pragmatic points, such as advancing research, as well as addressing aspirational desires — like inspiring a new generation of scientists. Others hope space can help solve questions about the very genesis of life itself, or serve as the ultimate Plan B in case extreme fears over climate change come to fruition. “Think of how we communicate, how we navigate, how we produce food and energy,” says U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., who serves on the House Armed Services and Science, Space and Technology committees. “This is important to the presidential race because we, as a country, are dependent on space for our very way of life.”
At its height, NASA received the equivalent of 4.4 percent of the national budget through federal funding — worth almost $44 billion today. And, to be sure, space hasn’t been a standard stump-speech topic since the Kennedy-Cold War days. But now the space agency’s budget hovers around half a percent of national spending — bipartisan stinginess that’s persisted through multiple legislatures and presidents since the early 2000s. And this election cycle there’s another pressing question burning over at NASA: Might a new president toss out old projects?
Missions to send a manned flight to Mars and launch the James Webb Space Telescope continue even while the presidential race rages, representing a “once in a generation” transition. “It’s a risky time,” Dreier says, especially for unproven programs subject to the whims of a new Oval Office tenant. Just look at what happened the last time the White House switched hands: After the Columbia disaster in 2003, George W. Bush retired the space shuttle but promised another manned mission to the moon called Constellation — which was promptly shuttered in Barack Obama’s first term.
Going forward, Obama-era endeavors are likely to be safer under a Clinton administration, which would probably make only “changes on the margins,” says space advisor Jason Callahan, whose research studies the history of NASA funding. And what might happen under a Trump-run White House? “He’s talking about much larger, sweeping changes to government … and one would expect NASA to get caught up in that.”
It is very sad to see what @BarackObama has done with NASA. He has gutted the program and made us dependent on the Russians.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 27, 2012
Indeed, as a real estate mogul, Trump criticized Obama, who he said “gutted” the space program and made America “dependent on the Russians.” Yet today, as the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee, Trump has insisted that before we can reach Mars we must “fix the potholes.” He wants to expand privatized space exploration, headed by fellow billionaires like Elon Musk and his SpaceX program. It’s hardly a partisan idea; similar partnerships began with the Obama administration.
The value here isn’t just in sharing elbow room on flights to the cosmos — sharing wealth and research could allow public orgs to tap into the data troves of private company satellites, which help everything from weather forecasts to national defense. “In some cases, we can get better data,” says Bridenstine. But, more important, diversifying protects government institutions from shutting down if their own satellites are ever taken out of the picture.
The most out-of-this-world visions of space involve mining the moon for precious materials, rather than fracking our backyards, or building a colony on, say, Mars to escape an Earth poisoned beyond repair. But there are simpler steps worth taking, says John Logsdon, a Space Policy Institute professor at George Washington University. When funded, he notes, space research “sends a message that we’re still a future-oriented society.”