Space Is the New Frontier of the 2012 Presidential Campaign

A Romney presidency, the candidate says, would "rebuild NASA" without more funding.

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NASA

The decidedly human undertaking that is the 2012 presidential election has taken a cosmic turn. On Saturday, at a campaign event on Florida's "Space Coast," Paul Ryan derided President Obama's handling of space exploration. "We have presided over a dismantling of the space program over the last four years," the candidate told the crowd. "He has put the space program on a path where we're conceding our position as the unequivocal leader in space." 

The Obama campaign replied minutes later with its own statement, pointing out that Ryan, as a member of Congress, has voted against funding for NASA multiple times. It also noted that the Romney-Ryan budget cuts, if applied across the board, would slash funding for space exploration programs by 19 percent. "In the past," the campaign declared, "Mitt Romney has criticized Washington politicians for pandering to Florida voters by making empty promises about space. After his event today, it's probably time for Romney to have a talk with Paul Ryan." 

But the Republican ticket, it seems, had already talked about space. Earlier that day, the Romney/Ryan campaign released its official take on space policy: a white paper tellingly titled, "Securing U.S. Leadership in Space."

The paper's rhetoric, distilled down, goes something like this: Space is awesome! And we should definitely keep exploring it! Just not with additional taxpayer dollars. The document, unsurprisingly, spends much of its energy outlining the Obama administration's failures when it comes to space exploration. But it also stresses the strategic value of space exploration -- militarily, economically, psychologically. (Not to mention when it comes to the more ineffable value that is our "international standing" -- our bragging rights, essentially, when it comes to our space achievements.) 

For all these articulated values, though, the paper is vague about how it would improve on the current administration's attempts to achieve them. As Space Policy Online's Marcia Smith sums it up: "The white paper sheds no light on how the space program would be different under his leadership." 

One thing is clear from the paper, though: Simply allocating more money to the nation's space agency is not the answer to ensuring its improvement. "A strong and successful NASA does not require more funding," the candidate declares; "it needs clearer priorities." 

These would include: ensuring that NASA "has practical and sustainable missions" and "a balance of pragmatic and top-priority science with inspirational and groundbreaking exploration"; collaborating with other countries ("Romney will be clear about the nation's space objectives and will invite friends and allies to cooperate with America in achieving mutually beneficial goals"); strengthening security ("Romney is committed to a robust national security space program and will direct the development of capabilities that defend and increase the resilience of space assets"); and revitalizing industry ("Romney will work to ease trade limitations, as appropriate, on foreign sales of U.S. space goods and will work to expand access to new markets"). A Romney administration would also, unsurprisingly, focus on domestic privatization of space, particularly when it comes to repeatable services like human and cargo transport to and from low-Earth orbit. 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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