More than 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy challenged the United States to land an American on the moon before the end of the decade. That challenge shaped the ensuing NASA missions and set a precedent for the role of presidential leadership in space exploration.
Today, as Americans evaluate the candidates for their next president, they also have the opportunity to evaluate the future of the US space program. A recent project coordinated by ScienceDebate.org posed 20 questions about scientific and space policy to the four major presidential candidates. Across the board, the candidates' responses thus far have suggested their policies would support space exploration.
Until now, the candidates have been fairly closemouthed about their space policies, although experts say that their interests in the program likely reflect their broader platforms. The current state of flux, experts say, could provide an ideal opportunity for voters to make their own priorities known.
“In times of transition like this,” says Jason Callahan, the Planetary Society’s Space Policy Advisor, “these are the opportunities that citizens have the most impact on what politicians do.”
Although Kennedy’s lunar challenge was groundbreaking when he issued it in 1961, NASA’s present mission is so much more. While President Obama’s administration has not prioritized NASA, letting the space program take a backseat in White House science policy to clean energy innovation, NASA’s current projects span the gamut from robotic probes of the solar system to scientific experimentation on Mars.
“Fifty years after the creation of NASA, our goal is no longer just a destination to reach,” said President Obama in 2010. “Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn and operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time, ultimately in ways that are more sustainable and even indefinite.”
Today, NASA contracts with private companies such as Elon Musk's SpaceX and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin for deliveries to the International Space Station and for innovations in spaceflight technology. Private contractors are exploring ways for astronauts to live and work outside of the bosom of Earth’s atmosphere.
Perhaps the space agency’s most exciting aim involves a crewed mission to Mars. Although the Government Accountability Office expressed concerns about NASA’s Mars readiness last month, NASA has scheduled test flights for a future Mars mission throughout the next decade and a half. The space agency hopes to land a crew on Mars in the 2030s.
Although the four major presidential candidates may struggle to find common ground on issues from immigration to taxation, the ScienceDebate.org questions, crowdsourced via dozens of research organizations that represent more than 10 million scientists and engineers, about the future of the space program provoked similar reactions across the board, with the Democratic, Republican, and Green Party candidates expressing interest in continuing space research in the future. (The Libertarian candidate, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, has yet to respond.)
In her response, Green Party candidate Jill Stein indicated the role that space exploration can and does play in uniting countries across the globe, and advocated for peaceful approaches to space innovation.
Democratic nominee and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed her party’s traditional support for space exploration, saying that America’s interest and investment in space is emblematic of the country’s pioneering spirit.
“I will work with Congress to ensure that NASA has the leadership, funding and operational flexibility necessary to work in new ways with industry, placing emphasis on inventing and employing new technologies and efficiencies to get more bang for the buck while creating jobs and growing the American economy,” said Mrs. Clinton.
A Clinton presidency, she said, would see a national space program engaged in planetary monitoring, more robot exploration, and further collaboration with industry.
While Republican challenger Donald Trump’s response to the same question was less detailed, like Clinton, Mr. Trump also emphasized the potential benefits of a robust space program.
“A strong space program will encourage our children to seek STEM educational outcomes and will bring millions of jobs and trillions of dollars in investment to this country,” said Trump. “The cascading effects of a vibrant space program are legion and can have a positive, constructive impact on the pride and direction of this country.”
In general, says Mr. Callahan, Trump’s interest in space seems to rest mostly in human exploration projects, whereas Clinton’s emphasis has been on scientific experimentation.
NASA’s funding isn’t entirely dependent on the White House; funding and budgetary decisions must be approved by Congress. In all likelihood, NASA would carry on its investment in both scientific projects and human exploration and engineering programs, regardless of who is in office.
And, as Callahan tells the Monitor, it might not even matter anyway.
“No matter who wins the election, nobody is going to Mars in the next four years. Not even the next eight years, although we do need to start building a program now if we want to go later,” he says. “In the end, none of the candidates are going to put much emphasis during the election on a program that will long outlast their own term in office.”