Vying for swing-state voters, Pence pushes space program in Florida

With 29 votes in the Electoral College, Florida is the largest swing state in play on Election Day.

Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/AP
Republican vice presidential candidate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, speaks Monday during a campaign stop in Maitland, Fla., where the candidates are vying for swing-state voters ahead of next week's election.

Seeking to sweeten the deal for swing-state voters ahead of next week's election, Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence toured Florida on Monday with a message tailored to an audience whose livelihood depends heavily on federal investment.

"Our space program needs new leadership and a new vision," Mr. Pence told a crowd at the Space Coast Convention Center in Cocoa, a short drive from Kennedy Space Center, as Florida Today reported. "We cannot afford to fall further behind in space exploration or technology."

His words could strike a chord with locals whose immediate economic surroundings have been intertwined for decades with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Those surroundings have suffered in recent years with President George W. Bush's 2004 directive to retire the space shuttle program, which flew its final mission in 2011, and with President Obama's controversial plans, unveiled in 2010, to dismantle the Constellation program, which had sought to take astronauts back to the moon then ultimately on to Mars. [Editor’s note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated whose directive retired the space shuttle program.]

But the emotional appeal of Pence's words could carry farther still, perhaps tapping into a core component of the Sunshine State's identity, says Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

"Oranges and the space program are two symbols of Florida that Floridians are very proud of, and they’ve been saddened by each of them experiencing some bad times," Dr. MacManus tells The Christian Science Monitor.

In a state known for tourism and agriculture, the space program brings high-tech positions and manufacturing jobs as well, a fact welcomed by the state's business leaders, MacManus explains.

"For people who are interested in the diversifying of Florida’s economy, the space program has always been a big boost to that," she says, noting that the space program has come up only recently in the campaign.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said just last week that NASA should face less restrictions and return to its focus on space exploration, according to remarks on his website prepared for delivery to a Florida audience.

It remains unclear whether any Floridian who is not already planning to cast a ballot in next week's election could be spurred into action by Pence's words, but the candidate has good reason to drive Republican voter turnout in any way he can. Florida's 29 votes in the Electoral College make it the largest swing state in play.

That's why Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who was touring the state Tuesday, has focused on the most important issues as ranked by Millennials and minority voters, MacManus explains. Each candidate is appealing to his or her base.

After the US space shuttle program shut down in 2011, the only way for American astronauts to reach even the International Space Station was through Russia, at a cost of $71 million per seat (and is expected to rise to nearly $82 million) An American rode with astronauts from Russia and Japan as recently as Sunday, when they landed safely in Kazakhstan in a Soyuz capsule.

Dan Acker, a former NASA contractor during the Gemini and Apollo programs, said Pence's comments resonated with him and that he says it's "ridiculous" that the US relies on Russia to put astronauts in space, as Florida Today reported. But others contend this international cooperation is evidence of strong US leadership.

"We do a very good job of creating collaborative environments for people to come together. I think the US having a consistent, visionary long-term articulated policy of what we think is important in space is very beneficial for the international community, and that's what people look to us for," Sandra Magnus, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), based in Reston, Va., tells the Monitor.

Dr. Magnus, who flew missions herself as an astronaut in 2002 and on the final shuttle flight in 2011, says there has always been an "attention span" problem when politicians elected for two, four, or six years at a time are tasked with handling the decades-long planning any space program requires. That's not partisan issue, she says. What's more, stakeholders in the industry remain overwhelmingly optimistic.

"If you talk to almost any entity with communities involved in space, a lot of us are very excited about the momentum that we currently have," says Magnus, who oversees a professional society with more than 30,000 members, mostly Americans with about 20 percent from other countries.

Even while India and other developing nations make strides in space programs of their own, the United States is still the biggest spender in this category, according to the World Economic Forum. NASA's 2016 budget was $19 billion, while the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says that if defense spending is included, the total US space budget rises to about $40 billion. As a share of its gross domestic product (GDP), the United States is outspent only slightly by Russia, which dedicated only 1/4 of 1 percent of its GDP to its space program in 2013.

While more than 17,400 civil servants were employed directly by NASA in 2012, nearly 350,000 full-time employees worked in positions dependent upon the US government space program, according to the OECD.

And while US government organizations saw a 2.8 percent decline in space program employees between 2009 and 2012, commercial companies saw a 10-percent increase, meaning Florida and almost every other state has seen a net increase in full-time equivalent employment in this sector, according to the US Department of Commerce Bureau of Industry and Security.

Perhaps these macro-level trends will mollify voters at the precinct level next week, perhaps not.

When Pence spoke Monday at the Maitland Civic Center outside Orlando, he addressed a more mainstream Republican audience in an area that supported Marco Rubio during the primaries, as The Orlando Sentinel reported. Accordingly, those in attendance expressed more interest in a Republican victory than one for Mr. Trump.

Nancy Bowser, a resident of nearby Apopka, told the Sentinel that she thinks Pence is "wonderful."

"I think he eventually will become president – one way or another," she said.

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