Will presidential race end with a shift in space?

(FLORIDA TODAY FILE)

Written by James Dean | FLORIDA TODAY

After the space shuttle’s retirement this year, frustration over the decline in the nation’s human spaceflight capability might leave President Barack Obama open to attack in the 2012 campaign.

But experts say the Republicans vying to replace Obama are unlikely to seek big changes to NASA’s post-shuttle transition, which relies on Russia to deliver U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station until the commercial sector is ready to take over the job.

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Obama’s signature space policy shift — privatizing astronaut flights to the space station — is a conservative one, and tight NASA budgets in the coming years will limit flexibility to change course.

“His image on space is vulnerable. I think his policies are less vulnerable,” said Howard McCurdy, a professor of public affairs at American University in Washington, D.C. “Since the White House has already embraced the commercial approach, it’s hard for a Republican to get on the other side of that position.”

Obama stunned some within NASA and Congress last year when, following a review by a blue-ribbon commission, he proposed canceling an over-budget program for returning astronauts to the moon and instead develop commercial systems to taxi crews to low-Earth orbit.

Space advocates from both parties accused the president of killing human spaceflight and ceding U.S. leadership in space.

But he quickly won what might seem to be an unlikely ally: Newt Gingrich.

The former speaker of the house, the Republican frontrunner heading toward Florida’s Jan. 21 primary, co-authored an op-ed article in February 2010 saying the Democratic president’s plan deserved strong Republican support.

“The use of commercial launch companies to carry cargo and crews into low Earth orbit will be controversial, but it should not be,” the article stated.

New NASA direction

Congress ultimately approved a plan for commercial crew flights by mid-decade, while directing NASA to build a giant rocket for human exploration of a deep space destination by 2021.

The agency’s other priority is the James Webb Space Telescope, a vastly over-budget successor to the Hubble Space Telescope that the House threatened to kill this year.

Before and during the presidential campaign, Gingrich, whom the media once dubbed “Newt Skywalker,” has been the most outspoken among GOP contenders on space issues.

Now, it is his views that might strike voters as either bold or controversial.

“His policy would represent a pretty sharp change from the current policy,” said Jeff Foust, an industry analyst and author of the Space Politics blog. “He would represent probably the biggest change from the status quo of any of the campaigns.”

That change might include a stronger emphasis on commercial space activity and competitions to spur innovation, attempts to restructure NASA, and potentially to revise or even eliminate major programs.

On the campaign trail, Gingrich has called NASA an innovation-stifling bureaucracy where employees only “think space.”

Candidates’ banter

His chief rival in the polls, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has seized on Gringrich’s interest in a colony to mine minerals from the moon as a wasteful idea that raises broader questions about his fitness to lead.

“I’m not in favor of spending that kind of money to do that,” Romney said during a recent debate in Iowa, eliciting laughter from the audience.

“I’m happy to defend the idea that America should be in space and should be there in an aggressive, entrepreneurial way,” Gingrich responded.

No other leading Republicans have addressed space issues substantively, and none has released detailed space policies, leaving voters to interpret such exchanges for hints about candidates’ leanings.

Romney toured Kennedy Space Center and met with industry leaders in Florida during his last presidential run in 2008. He expressed general support but promised no increased funding before studying the issues further.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, after the last shuttle launch in July, blamed the Obama administration for “shutting down our nation’s legacy of leadership in human spaceflight and exploration, leaving American astronauts with no alternative but to hitchhike in space.”

Herman Cain, before he quit the race, also blamed Obama for lost leadership in space. Neither has offered specific solutions.

Shuttle retirement

The decision to retire the shuttle was made in 2004 under then-President George W. Bush for safety and cost reasons. NASA couldn’t afford to fly it and simultaneously develop new vehicles needed to reach the moon or beyond.

Obama’s challenge is to persuade space advocates that despite an unavoidable gap in human spaceflight capability, his approach offers the best chance to limit its duration and rebuild a vibrant, sustainable space program.

Whether candidates present bold space visions or simply preferences for speeding development of commercial or government rockets, their options might be limited once in office.

Congress last year approved a new direction for NASA after bruising debate, and the agency faces flat or lower budgets for years as the federal government tightens its belt.

Critical concern

Leaders on Florida’s Space Coast, which includes Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, have invited Republican candidates to briefings next month to discuss space issues, which they believe campaigns must take seriously.

Though a niche issue nationally, space resonates along the Interstate 4 high-tech corridor in Central Florida, a region considered critical to winning the state, and perhaps, even the general election.

“It remains a potent issue in a critical area of the electorate,” said Dale Ketcham, director of the University of Central Florida’s Spaceport Research and Technology Institute. “It’s an important issue they’re going to want to speak to with a compelling theme.”

Ketcham said local space leaders want support for commercial space initiatives, including flights of NASA crews, that hold the potential to diversify the area’s space economy and attract more launches and jobs over time. They also consider the giant Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule key to future exploration goals.

The space community would be wary of more upheaval at NASA after the painful transition that accompanied the 30-year shuttle program’s end, which has seen thousands of Kennedy contractors lose jobs.

Whoever wins in 2012, Ketcham said, “Pick something, stick with it, fund it, and we’ll fight for our share of it.”

Given that sentiment, Gingrich and the rest of the field must consider how to strike the right note on space as the Florida contests near.

“If you think you’re going to win, this is not an issue where you’d like to scare people away in a battleground state,” McCurdy said. “The closer they get to Florida, it will dampen any enthusiasm they have for radical change.”

Credit: [ Florida Today ]

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