Barack Obama on Space Issues
First, I must say that I tried with great thoroughness to find a direct statement on BarackObama.com about space exploration. Unlike John McCain's site, the Obama campaign does not list space among its issues. However, the following policy paper...
...includes one of the most distressing policy statements space fans have seen from a presidential candidate in years:
Barack Obama’s early education and K-12 plan package costs about $18 billion per year. He will maintain fiscal responsibility and prevent any increase in the deficit by offsetting cuts and revenue sources in other parts of the government. The early education plan will be paid for by delaying the NASA Constellation Program for five years, using purchase cards and the negotiating power of the government to reduce costs of standardized procurement, auctioning surplus federal property, and reducing the erroneous payments identified by the Government Accountability Office, and closing the CEO pay deductibility loophole. The rest of the plan will be funded using a small portion of the savings associated with fighting the war in Iraq.
This sort of policy is straight from the space advocates' least favorite talking point: "Why are we spending all this money on space when there are so many more important problems to be solved here on Earth?" Aside from the obvious--we need space technologies to make life better on Earth--there is simply a problem with this sort of policy thinking. Space exploration get kids interested in what they're hearing in school, and usually a hell of a lot more than one might find through some other egghead government program. (Pg. 15)
There are some Obama fan blogs on the site. While I assume that only supportive postings would be allowed, I must discount those posts because they are not official campaign statements. However, the education policy item was not the last Obama statement on space seen in the blogosphere:
Despite being unable to find this on the campaign web site, I must accept the content from Keith Cowing:
Barack Obama's Plan For American Leadership in Space
Over the decades, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has embodied the adventurous spirit that lifted this nation to greatness and inspired people around the world. Barack Obama believes that the United States needs a strong space program to help maintain its superiority not only in space, but also here on earth in the realms of education, technology, and national security. Over the years, NASA technology has been applied to improve everything from computers and medical technology to baby formula and automobiles. Work done at NASA, whether here on earth or in outer space, impacts the daily lives of all Americans.
Develop the Next-Generation of Space Vehicles: The retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2010 will leave the United States without manned spaceflight capability until the introduction of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) carried by the Ares I Launch Vehicle. As president, Obama will support the development of this vital new platform to ensure that the United States' reliance on foreign space capabilities is limited to the minimum possible time period. The CEV will be the backbone of future missions, and is being designed with technology that is already proven and available.
Complete the International Space Station: The International Space Station is an example of what we can accomplish through international cooperation. Barack Obama is committed to the completion of the International Space Station.
Continue Unmanned Missions: Robotic missions provide a level of endurance and cost-effectiveness that is unsurpassed. The Voyager probes, launched in the 1970s, are still sending back data beyond our solar system. Closer to home, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers have been exploring the surface of Mars for more than 1,300 days, 14 times longer than their intended mission length. Along with Earth-orbiting platforms like the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, unmanned missions have yielded some of the greatest scientific discoveries of the last century. Barack Obama is committed to a bold array of robotic missions that will expand our knowledge of the solar system and lay the foundations for further manned exploration. \
Monitor the Forces and Effects of Climate Change: Barack Obama has proposed bold initiatives to put America on the path to stop global climate change. His administration will set standards based on rigorous scientific inquiry that, in turn, cannot take place without a capable space program. The task of researching and understanding the forces that affect our home planet will require a constellation of climate monitoring space platforms. As president, Obama will ensure that NASA has the funding necessary to play its part in the fight against global climate change.
Support Scientific Research: In the past, government funding for scientific research has yielded innovations that have improved the landscape of American life, technologies like the Internet, digital photography, bar codes, Global Positioning System technology, laser surgery, and chemotherapy. Today, we face a new set of challenges, yet the United States is losing its scientific dominance. Over the last three decades, federal funding for the physical, mathematical and engineering sciences has declined at a time when other countries are substantially increasing their own research budgets. Barack Obama believes federally funded scientific research should play an important role in advancing science and technology in the classroom and in the lab. He will work to diversify the makeup of the scientific community and provide federal research programs a much- needed infusion of funds.
Maintain Surveillance to Strengthen National Security: Orbiting surveillance satellites provide a vital way to ensure compliance with non-proliferation treaties and monitor emerging threats. For example, nuclear facility construction in North Korea and Iran can be closely monitored from above without the challenges faced by weapons
inspectors on the ground. Satellites can be further used in the effort to secure loose nuclear weapons and materials around the world, an effort which Barack Obama has promoted aggressively in the U.S. Senate.
Keep Weapons out of Space: China's successful test of an anti-satellite missile in January 2007 signaled a potential new arms race in space. Barack Obama does not support the stationing of any weapons in space. He believes the international community must address the issue of space weaponization head-on and enter into a serious dialogue with Russia, China and other nations to stop this slow slide into a new
Strengthen Math and Science Education: Fifty years after Sputnik, science and math education in American schools is facing a crisis. As the Gathering Storm report concluded, "danger exists that Americans may not know enough about science, technology or mathematics to contribute significantly to, or fully benefit from, the knowledge-based economy that is already taking shape around us." Barack Obama will make math and science education a national priority, and provide our schools with the tools to educate 21st-Century learners.
Recruit High-Quality Math and Science Teachers: Barack Obama's will establish a Teaching Service Scholarship program to recruit an army of new teachers. These scholarships will prioritize recruiting math, science and technology degree graduates. Obama will create Teacher Residency Programs to train teachers using mentorship, graduate study and hands-on training to develop 30,000 teachers a year, providing additional teachers in math and science. In addition, Obama will devote $100 million a year to Professional Development Schools to help new teachers, or veteran teacher needing to hone their skills, learn from professionals in the field. Professional Development Schools will partner universities with school sites that exhibit state-of-the-art practices and train new teachers in the classrooms of expert teachers while they are completing coursework.
Enhanced Science Instruction: Barack Obama will work with governors to create flexible and workable systems for the states to achieve the goal of ensuring all children have access to strong a science curriculum at all grade levels. Obama will also support state efforts to make science education a priority at the pre-K level.
Improve and Prioritize Science Assessments: Science assessments need to do more than test facts and concepts. They need to use a range of measures to test inquiry and higher-order thinking skills including inference, logic, data analysis and interpretation, forming questions, and communication. Barack Obama will work with governors and educators to ensure that state assessments measure these skills.
This is actually a lot more to work with than the McCain statement, though I note that even when it appears on the Obama campaign site, the original reference is not from the campaign, but NASAWatch's news site, SpaceRef! I am forced to wonder why this position paper has not been posted by the campaign. Okay, enough political snarkiness. I'll now consider the statement itself.
The first paragraph is much like a lot of the McCain statement: motherhood and eyewash, "Space is good," blah blah blah.
Obama's first priority: Develop the Next-Generation of Space Vehicles. The statement includes Orion and Ares I, not Ares V, the heavy-lift cargo launch vehicle that would enable lunar exploration. As I noted in my analysis of McCain's piece, what campaigns choose to include matters. Of course what they don't include matters, too.
Next: Complete the International Space Station. This is a continuation of Bush's Vision for Space Exploration as well. Good.
Next: "Continue Unmanned Missions... Barack Obama is committed to a bold array of robotic missions that will expand our knowledge of the solar system and lay the foundations for further manned exploration." Most of the statement addresses existing robotic missions; the campaign carefully pays homage to science missions of the past and missions currently in action, but no statement is made mentioning future, planned, or new programs.
Next: Support Scientific Research. This seems to be focused mostly on spinoff research. NASA is doing this now. No problem. The statement also notes that "Over the last three decades, federal funding for the physical, mathematical and engineering sciences has declined at a time when other countries are substantially increasing their own research budgets." However, as I noted by my posting on Wednesday, the NSF is looking to get at 14% increase in its budget for 2009. Obama's statement here might become OBE (government talk for "overcome by events").
Next: Maintain Surveillance to Strengthen National Security. This is in line, more or less, with McCain's belief in using space assets to support national defense. Fine and dandy. However, I must take issue with these points: "Orbiting surveillance satellites provide a vital way to ensure compliance with non-proliferation treaties and monitor emerging threats." Satellites cannot easily detect underground nuclear facilities, such as Iraq and Iran have built.
Next: Keep Weapons out of Space. This is mostly a statement of intent for us, not something Obama can hope to enforce on other countries, as the Chinese ASAT test proves. He can stop further development of U.S. capabilities if he wants, but it's nice to know that we at least have the capability now. A great deal of fuss was made about the U.S. National Space Policy when it came out, with some folks saying that Bush was advocating war in space. Hardly. What the policy does say is:
- The United States considers space systems to have the rights of passage through and operations in space without interference. Consistent with this principle, the United States will view purposeful interference with its space systems as an infringement on its rights;
- The United States considers space capabilities -- including the ground and space segments and supporting links -- vital to its national interests. Consistent with this policy, the United States will: preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space; dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing
capabilities intended to do so; take those actions necessary to protect its space capabilities; respond to interference; and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests;
In plain Chicago English: "We'll leave you alone as long as you leave us alone. Somebody messes with us, we're gonna mess with them."
Next: Strengthen Math and Science Education. The remainder of the space statement is dedicated to this point, so I'll have to dissect it a little more deeply. "Barack Obama will make math and science education a national priority, and provide our schools with the tools to educate 21st-Century learners." This is roughly the statement Obama used as his defense when challenged on his cutting-Constellation-to-fund-education proposal. Obama believes in getting kids the math and science education first. No argument with that--they need it. However, space advocates like me would also say, "If you cut the space program, you eliminate one of the things that gets kids interested in math and science in the first place."
"Recruit High-Quality Math and Science Teachers." The statement then goes on to propose a scholarship program for teachers (cost unknown) and a $100 million fund for professional development for teachers. That would pay for about one third to one quarter of the price of the Mars Rovers, which to date have logged over 1,600 days' worth of mission time (1,510 days or more longer than their intended mission length). These missions have provided thousands of images and untold numbers of "teaching moments" for sufficiently interested educators.
"Obama will also support state efforts to make science education a priority at the pre-K level." Again, this sounds like a proposal to spend more money. The U.S. now spends the third-most per primary and secondary school student in the industrialized world, behind only Luxembourg and Switzerland, but ranks 17th in math and science scores. More money is not necessarily the answer.
"Improve and Prioritize Science Assessments: Science assessments need to do more than test facts and concepts. They need to use a range of measures to test inquiry and higher-order thinking skills including inference, logic, data analysis and interpretation, forming questions, and communication." This is a complaint I've heard from a couple of science teachers. Kids are being drilled on how to pass tests, not necessarily think creatively, practically, or logically. Eliminating reliance on testing would also require dismantling a lot of the education bureaucracy, including the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act. Far be it for me to complain about that, but I wish Obama luck in de-emphasizing the Scantron test while taking on the educational bureaucracy and teachers' unions.
Bottom line: Despite the earlier space-for-education comment, there is not a lot here that is new. Indeed, when it comes to space policy, a lot of Obama's statement here is a status quo follow-on to the Bush presidency's policies and doesn't differ much from McCain's. However, a few differences did strike me:
- Obama would continue executing one half to two-thirds of the Vision for Space Exploration: finish ISS, retire the Shuttle, build Ares I/Orion. The question of Ares V development and human exploration is left wide open.
- A strong emphasis on Earth Science, in connection with climate change analysis.
- No mention of what will happen with NASA's overall budget, and a definite sign that an Obama administration would do some sort of intensive review of NASA's programs and priorities before proceeding any further.
- Some lip service is paid to national defense, but not without a little posturing about weapons in space.
- Like McCain, there is little to no reference here to commercial space or space tourism. One might wonder why, though perhaps for different reasons than one might wonder about McCain's exclusion of these topics.
If you are deducing from my comments that I am not a fan of Obama, you are deducing correctly. I have a lot of issues with him, the first one being that I don't think he has the experience necessary to be Commander in Chief of the DC Chamber of Commerce, much less the United States of America. I have tried to be fair with his policy statements and have noted where I agree or have no objection to them. However, that Constellation-for-education trade statement is still out there, and will make advocates like me leery of him until he actually shows his cards.
Bottom Line on the Two Major Parties' Candidates' Space Polices: Coming from a very parochial view of the space business (i.e., a supporter of the Ares Projects and Constellation), I would say that the only difference between McCain and Obama is going to be the size of the cut they'd get--anywhere from $0 to infinity and beyond.