Thursday, July 24, 2008

John McCain on Space Issues

Darlene the Science Cheerleader pointed me to the this link about space on the John McCain campaign site and wanted my thoughts on what it might mean. Campaign statements are often deliberately murky until the candidate is in office. First of all, since space is not a high-priority item in anyone's campaign, the McCain statement is short enough to be quoted here in full:

America's Space Program

"Let us now embark upon this great journey into the stars to find whatever may await us." -John McCain

John McCain is a strong supporter of NASA and the space program. He is proud to have sponsored legislation authorizing funding consistent with the President's vision for the space program, which includes a return of astronauts to the Moon in preparation for a manned mission to Mars. He believes support for a continued US presence in space is of major importance to America's future innovation and security. He has also been a staunch advocate for ensuring that NASA funding is accompanied by proper management and oversight to ensure that the taxpayers receive the maximum return on their investment. John McCain believes curiosity and a drive to explore have always been quintessential American traits. This has been most evident in the space program, for which he will continue his strong support.

Fortunately, because the statement is so brief, the McCain camp's emphases are easy to spot:

  • Keeping the U.S. Space Exploration Policy (a.k.a. the Vision for Space Exploration or VSE) funded. The fact that he called out the VSE by name is a hopeful sign for those of us who support the Constellation Program, which is responsible for executing it.
  • "A continued American presence in space is of major importance to America's future innovation and security." This could refer to scientific exploration, technology development, and/or satellites dedicated to national defense. Most likely his emphasis is on the last two, with "innovation" being another way of saying technological development, which, in turn, supports U.S. leadership abroad and national defense. This is a typically McCainish issue, as he is very much a "national defense guy" in the Senate. A cautionary note is in order here, though: an "American presence in space" need not require human beings.
  • "ensuring that NASA funding is accompanied by proper management and oversight to ensure that the taxpayers receive the maximum return on their investment." This, too, is a standard McCain issue. He is a big advocate of government accountability and (where necessary) closer congressional oversight of government agencies. The "maximum return on investment" line is interesting, as I'll explain below.

The rest of the words are motherhood and apple pie eyewash. They are nearly content-free except to say, "Space is good." Bottom line, if you were to go only by this campaign statement, you might be led to believe that the bullets above represented the whole of McCain's attitudes toward space.


The content above needs to be balanced against other statements Senator McCain or his staff have made. Two particular instances come to mind:

  • The statements his staffer made at the 2008 ISDC, which I summarize here, and Jeff Foust analyzes here, here, and here. Floyd Deschamps, McCain's representative at a debate on space policy, made it quite clear that Senator McCain was concerned about global warming/climate change, and that this might equate to more funding of NASA's Earth Science programs.
  • McCain is committed to balancing the federal budget by 2013. Given the increasing size of the "non-discretionary" federal budget--Social Security, Medicare, interest on the debt--that means cuts to everything else are on the table, and NASA's budget is very discretionary. It is also an easy and highly visible target, despite its miniscule portion of the budget. Again: NASA gets seven-tenths of 1 percent of the federal budget.

And quite frankly, for space policy geeks like me, there are way too many unanswered questions in the McCain space policy statement. I wouldn't exactly call the paragraph above a policy, more like a statement of intent. For instance:

  • What will be done about the human spaceflight "gap" after the Shuttle is retired? How will he propose that the U.S. access the International Space Station? Will he continue to support COTS? Obtaining access to ISS via international partners? Or will he extend our contract with the Russians?

    (Policy Wonk Note: Extending the Soyuz flights seems unlikely, as McCain co-authored the 1992 Iran-Iraq Arms Non-Proliferation Act. Why should this matter? In short, the agreement to buy Soyuz flights to ISS only runs through 2011. After that, we might stop doing business with Russia because they continue to provide Iran with technical assistance in building nuclear reactors and (conceivably) nuclear weapons.)
  • It seems clear that McCain will continue to support the Constellation Program, but at what pace of development? Will he shift gears if SpaceX gets its act together and flies cargo to the ISS before Orion gets there? Will he commit to start serious development work on the Ares V cargo launch vehicle in 2011? What provisions for private sector participation and development is he prepared to make when we start building an outpost on the Moon? Constellation has a potentially long run ahead of it. Much like the Truman Doctrine, stating the policy is not enough, it will require long-term follow-up by many more presidents to come.
  • What will be done with ISS itself? Right now, the station is due to be completed by 2010. America has no way to access ISS from the time Shuttle retires until 2015, at the earliest, when Ares I/Orion come online. Funding for ISS is scheduled to end in 2016-2017, meaning the U.S. would get only about two years' worth of direct, productive use out of the station. This issue must be addressed.
  • Will McCain do anything to support personal spaceflight/space tourism and the "NewSpace" community's efforts to break the NASA/Lockheed/Boeing dominance of the field, or will he just keep his hands off and let nature take its course?
  • What will be done about planetary and space sciences--the new telescopes, orbiters, and landers NASA has planned--James Webb Space Telescope, Mars Sample Return, Kepler, etc.?
  • What about funding for aeronautics? This is an especially big issue in Congress, as nearly all 50 states have aerospace contractors, subcontractors, and third-tier suppliers. Boeing also has some serious lobbyists. Consider the recent dustup over the award of some Air Force tankers to Northrop Grumman and EADS--these guys have clout and money to spread around. A lot of the U.S. trade deficit is offset by Boeing's commercial and military aircraft, and those aircraft remain among the world's finest thanks to investments in aviation technologies at NASA field centers (especially Glenn, Dryden, and Langley). That part of the NASA budget cannot be ignored.
  • Finally, what will be done with the NASA budget overall? Will it only keep pace with inflation? Will it be cut? Will it be increased? The last two questions are especially interesting, because they will teach us a lot about how McCain will lead--like a President, or like a Senator. Presidential thinking requires one to make priorities and to target increases (or cuts) that match those priorities. Senatorial thinking tends to spread the wealth (or pain) equally or proportionally to keep everyone equally happy (or not).

That's why McCain's statement about making sure "the taxpayers receive the maximum return on their investment" is so interesting. Maximizing one's return on investment implies a targeted approach to spending. In that case, there will be a definite shift in the shape of the budgetary "pie slices" within NASA. For good or ill, some programs' fortunes will improve while others would be cut.

To make a long explanation longer, I still have a lot of unanswered questions about McCain's space policy statement, and much that I must try to interpret based on other statements McCain has made elsewhere. Given the low priority of space in general, I'd say that folks in the industry will still be playing "wait and see" well into McCain's (or Obama's) first year in office.

I'll take on Obama's space policy approach tomorrow.

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