Space Is the New Frontier of the 2012 Presidential Campaign

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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. 

These are nice details and reasonable goals; it never hurts, after all, to have an articulated vision for the future. They are also, however, pretty much exactly what the Obama administration has already implemented when it comes to NASA. It's true, as Ryan suggested, that the administration has scaled back many of NASA's signature programs -- 2020's human return to the moon, for example. But it's also true that Ryan voted against the last two NASA reauthorization acts. And the United States, via its space agency, is already actively partnering with other countries to execute its space-based initiatives. Domestically, it is already actively partnering with private industry. (Two weeks from now, SpaceX will make its first NASA-sanctioned resupply trip to the International Space Station -- the first of 12 such collaborations planned between the government agency and the private company.) If the core goal of the Romney plan for space is to bring a management consultant's approach to "rebuilding" NASA -- implementing strategic changes that maximize efficiency and minimize expense -- that approach has already been broadly implemented.

The Romney policy paper adopts another posture that will feel familiar to anyone who has been following NASA over the years: the symbolism of space itself. Here are the concluding lines of the paper's introduction: 

In improving the competitiveness of U.S. industry, government can play important supporting roles as a steady patron of R&D, an enlightened regulator, and a first buyer or anchor tenant for space goods and services. We will have a space program worthy of a great nation -- one that strengthens our national security, builds peaceful engagements with other space-faring nations, and promotes the creation of a growing private sector for space commerce that will make America even stronger in the 21st century.

A space program worthy of a great nation. Exactly. The Romney paper makes clear the extent to which NASA, for all its evolution over the past four years, has remained the same in the eyes of the public: The agency is, on some deep level, a reflection of who we are, of what we value, of what we are capable of when we decide to challenge ourselves over the stretch of time. That makes NASA a source of inspiration. But it also makes it a source of friction. And it makes our space program appealing, for both of those reasons, as an object of political gamesmanship.

Space Policy White Paper

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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