- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 9, 2012

Kicking off the campaign season in early 2004, President Bush had two big ideas: pursue an immigration bill in Congress, and vow to put a man back on the moon by 2020 as a precursor to “human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond.”

But that was eight years ago, before a dismal economy and a disastrous federal budget grounded his celestial ambitions.

Advantageous as it may have been for a standing Republican president to have dreamed of the moon two elections ago, it’s a call unlikely to emerge this campaign season from either President Obama or Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

Mr. Obama, traveling in Florida on Sunday, did raise the issue by saying he has laid the groundwork for 21st-century space exploration.

Space ambitions get little attention outside of Florida and sometimes don’t play well even inside the state.

Mr. Romney drew laughter during a Republican debate in Florida in January when he proclaimed that he would have fired primary contest rival Newt Gingrich for proposing the establishment of a human colony on the moon.

“If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I’d say, ‘You’re fired,’” Mr. Romney quipped. “The idea that corporate America wants to go off to the moon and build a colony there, it may be a big idea, but it’s not a good idea.”

For what is known as the Space Coast in Florida, exploration is an economic issue.

But for most voters, space exploration is more aspirational than concrete. They balance grand calls — such as President Kennedy’s prestigious promise to put a man on the moon — with questions about whether the government is spending enough money on schools and police.

That could be one reason why the Romney campaign has been nearly silent on the issue since the Florida primary in January. When it comes to the notion of a manned mission to Mars, for instance, the campaign won’t say one way or another whether the former Massachusetts governor supports it.

Pressed on the question recently, the campaign provided a quote from an interview with Mr. Romney on NBC the day after he chastised Mr. Gingrich.

Mr. Romney said, “I’m not going to come here today and tell you precisely what the mission will be. I’m going to tell you how I’m going to get there.

“That is by bringing in people from the Department of Defense, the Air Force and other branches of service, astrophysicists from some of the leading institutions in the world, along with people from the commercial sector, the industrial sector, as well as people from NASA.”

The appearance dovetailed with an official campaign statement that said, as president, Mr. Romney “will create conditions for a strong and competitive commercial space industry that can contribute greatly to our national capabilities and goals.”

Hollow echoes

The claim, driven by the free market, doesn’t differ much from Mr. Obama’s posture on space as outlined a year earlier by Charles Bolden, who was appointed by the Obama administration as head of NASA.

“We will expand our partnerships with private industry, allowing commercial companies to take a larger role in the exploration of space,” Mr. Bolden said in a June 2010 press release.

Speaking about the same time, Mr. Obama laid out the same sorts of exciting and date-oriented goals that Mr. Bush embraced six years earlier: manned flights beyond Earth’s orbit during next decade, followed by trips to asteroids.

“By the mid-2030s, I believe, we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow,” he said at the time. “And I expect to be around to see it.”

In Florida this weekend, Mr. Obama said the country has “started a new era of American exploration” that will benefit the state’s economy. He also praised a much more modest Mars landing — that of the Curiosity rover last month.

“This is an example of what we do when we combine our science, our research, our ability to commercialize, new products, making them here in America,” he said, contrasting it with what he said was the Republican approach. “We could, as the House Republican budget proposes, cut back on research and technology. Or we can spark new discoveries, launch new careers, inspire the next generation to reach for something better.”

At $2.5 billion, the rover landing was relatively affordable.

But the notion of a human return to the moon, let alone landing on Mars or even a nearby asteroid, remains far-fetched because the United States lacks a completed vehicle to accomplish such a mission. It’s a reality that space-policy analysts blame on two primary factors: the failure of several White House administrations to follow through on politically advantageous and theatrical space exploration promises, and repeated congressional unwillingness to fund such promises.

The result is that U.S. astronauts have depended on Russia for rides to the International Space Station since the U.S. space shuttle program officially came to an end last year. Headlines often blame the Obama administration for gutting the program, but its closure was announced by Mr. Bush in 2004.

What the Obama administration did do was cancel the Constellation Program, which the Bush administration attempted to create as a replacement for the space shuttle. A 2010 Obama administration panel found Constellation too costly to warrant more funding.

Primary mission is election

Attempts to remedy the situation have been pinned on a program known as the Space Launch System.

While the system aspires to be a heavy-lift booster with enough power to send humans way beyond low-Earth orbit, space-policy insiders jocularly refer to it as the “Senate Launch System” because big questions remain about its funding and the extent to which its capabilities will accurately fit the goals outlined by either Mr. Bush or Mr. Obama.

“The real problem is Congress. They don’t really care about actually doing anything in space,” said Rand Simberg, an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a leading space-policy journalist.

Internal NASA studies suggest cheaper and faster alternatives to the Space Launch System should be pursued. But work on the system is going forward because, Mr. Simberg said, it is a “politically expedient” option for members of Congress from states that are home to factories capable of building such rockets.

“They just want to keep the jobs going,” he said. “So they’re having NASA build a new rocket that the Senate designed whose primary mission is to provide jobs in Alabama, Utah and Florida.

“In theory, it’s supposed to be used for a manned mission. The problem is, no mission was designed, and there’s no payload specified for it or funded,” he added. “There’s no funding for things like landers, any of the things that we really need to open up space.”

The situation is unlikely to be fixed by whoever occupies the White House during the next four years, said Robert S. Walker, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who chaired the House Committee on Science and Technology.

“In the case of Obama,” said Mr. Walker, “his main focus on this has been political.”

The president gave an inspirational space speech in Florida and followed the recommendations of analysts to close down the Constellation Program, but “beyond congratulating the people who put Curiosity down on Mars and congratulating NASA on some of its success with the commercial piece of the work, he and his White House have not spent much work on this.”

“Florida is a key state for [Mr. Obama], so he’s focused on whether or not he can present a good enough story to keep the Floridians happy,” Mr. Walker said.

When it comes to Mr. Obama’s challenger, he said, it has been “very difficult to figure out where the space issue rests with the inner circle of Romney’s campaign and with the candidate himself.”

“The team of advisers he put around himself in the primaries is a mixed bag of people,” he said. “None of them have really been authorized to speak for the campaign on space issues.”

Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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