NASA no priority for most presidential candidates

By Mark K. Matthews, Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Of all the presidential candidates, the election of Newt Gingrich likely would have the greatest effect on NASA for one simple reason. He would pay attention to it.

The beleaguered space agency, despite its frequent mention in lofty speeches about “reaching for the stars,” rarely gets put on the front burner of domestic policy — if it’s on the stove at all.

It took former President George W. Bush more than three years after his election in 2000 to unveil any significant plan for the agency. President Barack Obama‘s biggest impact has been following through on a campaign promise to downgrade NASA’s troubled moon program — the one set up by Bush.

But Gingrich is a self-described “space nut,” an advocate whose ideas — from space taxis to orbiting lasers to a colony on the moon — have drawn praise and derision.

Most recently, Republican rival Mitt Romney zinged Gingrich, once nicknamed “Newt Skywalker,” for supporting the idea of moon colonies.

When asked at a debate what separated the two candidates, Romney said: “We can start with his idea to have a lunar colony that would mine minerals from the moon. I’m not in favor of spending that kind of money to do that.”

The line played to laughs with the Iowa audience — but it’s a jab that might not sit well in Florida, home toKennedy Space Center and a half-century of NASA tradition.

Even though a moon colony remains a far-off — and expensive — goal, this type of aspiration has nourished the KSC area for decades — financially and inspirationally. And it’s an issue for local officials that could play a role, albeit a minor one, in Florida’s Jan. 31 presidential primary.

“That one [Romney] comment, by itself, won’t help or hurt him. But if he goes on to say he doesn’t support [space] exploration, I think that would be a disaster,” said Marshall Heard, chairman of the Florida Aviation Aerospace Alliance.

He added that NASA exploration, coupled with new commercial-rocket launches, is critical to the Space Coast economy as it tries to recover from the space shuttle’s retirement, which cost the region thousands of well-paying jobs.

The combination of commercial and exploration efforts “will shape our economy for the next 15 to 25 years,” Heard said.

The Romney campaign did not respond to questions about his NASA stance, but in 2008 the former governor stood solidly behind Bush’s plan to return astronauts to the moon.

That program, dubbed Constellation, bogged down because of major technical and financial problems and was canceled by Obama, who early in the 2008 campaign had suggested delaying the moon project to help pay for education reforms.

Now, his new plan for NASA is to rely on commercial rockets to carry crew and cargo to the International Space Station while NASA builds a new spacecraft to explore asteroids or return to the moon — but not until the 2020s at the earliest.

It’s a strategy that received some early support from an unlikely source: Gingrich.

“Despite the shrieks you might have heard from a few special interests, the Obama administration’s budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration deserves strong approval from Republicans,” wrote Gingrich in a 2010 essay penned with Bob Walker, former chair of the House science committee.

The two specifically were referring to Obama’s push to cancel Constellation and jump-start the commercial space industry. That policy ultimately was whittled to a compromise in which a major new NASA rocket and capsule, called the Space Launch System, would coexist with commercial companies.

Gingrich supporters said they would expect the former House speaker to double-down on support for commercial companies — over the objections of a space establishment that still doubts these companies can safely fly astronauts.

“Clearly, Newt has been a proponent for some time of greater commercial operations in space,” said Walker, a Gingrich supporter, who added that the KSC area would benefit from this policy.

Indeed, John Logsdon, a space expert at George Washington University, said Obama and Gingrich weren’t too far apart on NASA policy. The dividing line, he said, was a matter of passion.

“I think Mr. Obama has a warm feeling for the space program. But Gingrich knows the people, knows the issues. Among the recent, plausible presidential candidates … he is the most informed of the issues and history of the space program,” said Logsdon, who noted Gingrich cofounded the congressional space caucus.

The rest of the GOP field has been relatively quiet on the issue of space.

U.S. Reps. Ron Paul of Texas and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota split their votes on the 2010 compromise that established the multibillion-dollar Space Launch System — with Bachmann in support and Paul in opposition.

Paul, a well-known opponent of big government, nonetheless signed a letter in 2010 urging continuation of the troubled Constellation program, which included $5 billion for a rocket that will never fly.

It’s a lesson Logsdon said every presidential candidate should keep in mind.

“What you can do in that position [of president] compared to what you’d like to do is very different,” he said, pointing to Obama’s troubles in getting his own pro-commercial policy passed. or 202-824-8222

Credit: [ Orlando Sentinel ]


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