Saturday, October 30, 2004

The election on Nov. 2 will have many far-reaching implications, not the least of which is mankind’s fledgling reach into space. Differences in space policy may not swing many voters, but the divergent visions of President Bush and Sen. John Kerry merit careful consideration.

Mr. Kerry’s prospective space policy reflects a pre-Columbia mindset, reaching back to the days before the tragedy that claimed seven astronauts and disregarding the hard choices it necessitated. The loss of Columbia did more than reduce the shuttle fleet; it dictated either the retirement or re-certification of the remaining shuttles by 2010. Neither alternative is wise. The shuttles have never fulfilled their promise and their primary destination, the International Space Station (ISS), has proved a costly experimental platform.

The bold alternative of exploration is almost an afterthought under Mr. Kerry’s plan. He supports human and robotic solar system exploration, “but only as one goal among several.” Instead, Mr. Kerry would return the manned space program to spinning in circles, as it has done for decades. “Two of NASA’s top priorities,” under Mr. Kerry, would be returning the shuttle to flight and completing the ISS, according to spokesman Jason Furman. Mr. Furman added that Mr. Kerry believes that the ISS should have a “much broader mission.”

That mission is heavily weighted toward Earth. In an Oct. 25 one-page position paper, Mr. Kerry promises to “pursue a more balanced space and aeronautics program, one that assigns appropriate priority to all NASA programs.” The senator would effectively clip NASA’s wings by putting more emphasis on Earth science and aeronautics, including spending on a “secure air traffic management system.”

Another of Mr. Kerry’s declared goals for space exploration is “ensuring that [it] is a global undertaking that unites all nations in a quest for understanding.” (Presumably, doing so will allow America to pass the global test.)

Mr. Bush’s space vision encourages international involvement, too, but only as a part of a far grander purpose — our reach upward and outward. His post-Columbia space policy calls for a sustained human push into the solar system — and beyond. Mr. Bush puts the focus of the manned space program exactly where it should be: space exploration.

Mr. Bush aims to permanently break the bonds of low-Earth orbit, making discoveries and developing infrastructure along the way. Benefits in the form of innovative solutions and technical spinoffs will be a consequence of that exploration, but they are not, per se, its primary object.

Rather, as Mr. Bush declared in his memorial speech for the Columbia astronauts, “The cause of exploration and discovery is not an option we choose. It is a desire written in the human heart.”

The contrasts are stark. A Kerry administration would delay — if not doom — America’s reach into space.

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