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Candidates in Orbit

The late, great U.S. space program.

Apr 9, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 29 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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In one fundamental way, space policy alikeness goes back decades. NASA’s budget peaked in 1966 at about $32 billion in today’s dollars, which was, at that time, 4.4 percent of the federal budget. Funding has been essentially flat since George H.W. Bush took office and is, at this time, less than one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget. Despite the grief he’s gotten for the supposed cost of his Moon Homestead Act, even Newt Gingrich hasn’t suggested spending more on space. All five candidates expect the private sector to be buying a stairway to heaven.

Obama touts public-private space partnerships, use of commercial spacecraft to transport U.S. payloads, and buying government data from private satellites. “Hillary, click on Google Maps, Assad’s house, street view.”

Santorum, in a February op-ed, wrote about the “immediate, important, and realistic goals of the space program; encouraging partnerships between the space program and private business to grow the technology, engineering, and manufacturing sectors of our economy.”

Santorum isn’t far from Obama, who isn’t far from Newt, who called NASA “an absolute case study in why bureaucracy can’t innovate.” Newt would take 10 percent out of NASA’s budget every year and offer billions in prizes to private citizens who made space discoveries. It worked for Ferdinand and Isabella.

Ron Paul, as always, is more extreme. Even though congressional redistricting has moved his voters closer to the Johnson Space Center, when a delegation of businessmen came to talk about the economic benefits of space programs, Paul told them, “Space travel isn’t in the Constitution.” And neither is Texas, because the Spanish got there first.

Romney has said, “Our space program is an integral part of American exceptionalism.” But so is Nicki Minaj. Romney has promised to think about space, or, to put it in Romney-speak, “Before you make tough decisions, you start off by saying what’s the objective? And then you say what’s the data and see what information you have. And then you create hypotheses.” Whatever. Romney has assembled a panel of scientists, former astronauts, and aerospace experts. It’s different than, if not different from, the Augustine Commission.

I consulted some aerospace experts of my own. Most wished to remain anonymous, and, with the tenor of this election cycle, who can blame them? Also there’s a general feeling in the space community that partisan politics should end at the ionosphere, no matter what junk MSNBC is bouncing off communication satellites.

An acute young space policy analyst said of the Romney space panel, “I get the sense they won’t be proposing anything super-dramatic [surprise!] and will probably modify what’s in place and refocus a bit.”

He said Gingrich is “wildly enthusiastic about prizes, probably far beyond the point of reasonable applicability.” But he was critical of Gingrich’s moon base critics, saying they’ve been “throwing around this number of $500 billion or $700 billion, which is hugely, stupidly, wretchedly, violently wrong.” He estimated the actual cost to be “very, very roughly” in the “$30-$50 billion range, depending on how you count, what is included in development, and whether the cost estimator has a tendency to hook when golfing.” Even if the estimator is deep in the rough that’s 10 percent of an Obama Jobs Act.

The analyst continued, “Santorum’s space policy, as far as I can tell, is: ‘Newt is an idiot.’ I don’t think [Santorum’s] team actually has anybody on space policy, largely because space is pretty devoid of opportunities to talk about moral decay, birth control, and the war on Christmas.”

As for Obama, the analyst felt his record spoke for itself and referred me to the 2013 NASA budget. NASA’s total budget remains about the same as 2012 but with somewhat different allocations. Funding for aeronautics, space operations, and astrophysics is down slightly. Up slightly is funding for exploration, Earth science, and something called heliophysics (not a Solyndra boondoggle but R&D for an engine to be used on a solar probe). Space technology, the James Webb Space Telescope, and environmental compliance and restoration are up 21.8, 20, and 48.2 percent, respectively. Education and planetary science are respectively down 26.5 and 20.6 percent. The short version: more environmentalism and less learning about what it is.

The budget is not all bad. I sat in on a briefing by an officer from the part of the military that gathers satellite intelligence. The briefing was more or less classified (“Eyes, Ears, Nose, and Throat Only” or something). The officer said his people were pleased with their allocation, though he didn’t say where it was buried in the budget.

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