McCain Hopes We Like Stupid: Space Policy edition

(Warning:  A Palin-free politics/science post follows!):

As a way to get back after a summer holiday into one of this blogs main strands, how about a bit of an examination of what the two major candidates for President think about the appropriate approach to space exploration for the United States?

The issue is not the most important of science initiatives the Feds are involved in, IMHO, (basic research funding and support for graduate education top it by far, in my priority list, as do a number of applied areas in which the government is the lead or sole meaningful funder.)  But it does go to how both men think, and it also addresses one of the sillier MSM and GOP memes — that Obama is a pretty speaker with no substance, no specifics.

So — as Werner Wolf would say….let’s go to the videotape.

The short form: McCain wants to spend a lot of money on manned space, with a view to getting humans first back to the moon, and then on to Mars, on something like the original Bush timetable. Obama largely agrees with the manned space initiatives first articulated under Bush but emphasizes robotic space science, new vehicle development, and earth monitoring systems, not to mention the need for international collaboration far more than McCain.

For the details — check out McCain’s space policy statement here, and Obama’s here.

Now for the blogger’s gloss: McCain’s approach to this issue is instructive on several fronts, none of which should give those interested in the future of an American presence in space much comfort.

First, there is the mail-it-in quality of the McCain issue presentation: a few paragraphs of windy rhetoric followed by bullet points. For example — read this:

Senator McCain understands the importance of investments in key industries such as space to the future of our national security, environmental sustainability, economic competitiveness, and national pride as a technological leader.

I’m glad McCain’s campaign thinks he understands important stuff. I’d be more inclined to believe it if the claim were followed by anything other than a bare list of the things that be might affected by investments in space. Maybe this is my elitism ™ showing, but this kind of stuff is pure boilerplate, the kind of thing you get out of congressmen’s offices when some senior aide shouts down the chain “we need a position on sea turtles…” or whatever. OK for the representative from somewhere or other, but not so good for someone who will actually have authority over NASA.

There could be a simple explanation for this kind of slipshod stuff: the folks over in McCain-land may understand that it doesn’t matter what the campaign promises now for anything that fall under the discretionary spending side of the federal budget.

Lots of people have by now pointed out that putting together McCain’s tax policy, his commitments to a balanced budget (though if you believe in that as a “commitment” I refer you to the fate of similar promises made by George W. Bush), and his support of military spending, there is nothing left– and I mean nothing — for most of the rest of what the government currently pays for. My version of this can be found here.

(There is another possible way out of this budget trap for McCain. He could slash Social Security and Medicaid. I’m not saying he will; but if in fact he were to deliver on the stuff he says he will do, there really aren’t many choices: raise taxes a bunch or cut spending out of the big ticket items. In other words…don’t hold your breath).

Quick Obama break. Compare his policy statement to McCain’s. It is a fairly high level, aspirational document too — that’s the genre after all. But point by point, where McCain has a single, “trust me” promise, Obama lays out some specific goals he expects to reach. For example, on an area close to my heart, NASA’s great observatories, here’s Obama’s paragraph:

Supporting Space-Based Observatories: Platforms like the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra XRay Observatory, the Gamma Ray Observatory, and the Spitzer Space Telescope have yielded some of the greatest scientific discoveries of the last century. Obama is committed to a bold new set of such platforms and programs to expand our knowledge of the cosmos.

That is, compared to the McCain aspirational graph above, even in the “mom and apple pie” section of the policy statement, Obama shows that someone on his staff knows not just that NASA does big expensive stuff (McCain’s point) but that expensive stuff has paid for specific missions that have accomplished important and well known science.  Who’s the windy, pretty speaker here?

In any event, don’t take my word for it. Read both campaign’s statements and judge for yourself.

Back to the third point, the buried lede of this post.

This is what McCain has to say about his decision to pursue human space exploration:

Although the general view in the research community is that human exploration is not an efficient way to increase scientific discoveries given the expense and logistical limitations, the role of manned space flight goes well beyond the issue of scientific discovery and is reflection of national power and pride.

Here’s Obama on the same subject:

Human spaceflight is important to America’s political, economic, technological, and scientific leadership.

McCain says, in essence, that expert opinion is irrelevant. In essence, the quote above says “I know this is a stupid way to spend money, but I’m going to do it anyway because it makes me feel good (and it shows I carry a big stick).”

Obama, by contrast, says, without disdain for anyone, that human space exploration produces a number of benefits, including but not limited to its scientific value.

You could argue that McCain gives a justification for his choice with the reference to national pride and power.   But drilling down one more level still doesn’t rebound to McCain’s credit, IMHO:  his reason for ignoring the experts is emotional:  pride and power are abstract, feel-good goals, not actual, definable outcomes.

To repeat, contrast that with Obama’s claim that focusing resources is a means to address a number of particular ends:  enhancing economic and technological development, as well as giving the US a political tool with which to engage other nations ( if you don’t know what this is about, think about the intensive diplomacy that goes into organizing foreign astronauts on the space shuttle or cooperation on the international aspect of the ISS).

The differences are kinda subtle — but the point is that words uttered by Presidents or potential presidents matter.  McCain’s emphasis on just the topline of feeling and force does not give me much comfort

And the difference in affect offers at least a small window on both men and both potential Presidencies, I think. McCain in his space policy statements — one rather minor corner of the President’s responsibilities, to be sure — gives a hint about his (or his circle’s) mind works:  check off a constituency, say as little as possible, and ignore rather than address criticism that you don’t like.

Obama’s rhetoric, the way he frames his choice offers an affirmative argument for his policy choices, and at least some detail (far more than McCain) about the specific expectations, the content of those policies.

Which kind of mind, which kind of judgment would you rather have in a President?

(You can see the actual space policy proposals from John McCain in all their richly executed detail below the jump.  I can’t pull the Obama details from the PDF file that is my source for this comparison.  Here’s the link again if you want to check out.  If you do, you’ll find that in comparison with the thin gruel below, Obama’s policy positions begin on page two of a six + page document, and, notably includes and education component to go with the mission and tech/economic development ideas included within the policy.)

Image: Caspar David Friedrich, Two Men Contemplating the Moon,” 1819.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.


As President, John McCain will —

  • Ensure that space exploration is top priority and that the U.S. remains a leader;
  • Commit to funding the NASA Constellation program to ensure it has the resources it needs to begin a new era of human space exploration.
  • Review and explore all options to ensure U.S. access to space by minimizing the gap between the termination of the Space Shuttle and the availability of its replacement vehicle;
  • Ensure the national space workforce is maintained and fully utilized; Complete construction of the ISS National Laboratory;
  • Seek to maximize the research capability and commercialization possibilities of the ISS National Laboratory;
  • Maintain infrastructure investments in Earth-monitoring satellites and support systems;
  • Seek to maintain the nation’s space infrastructure;
  • Prevent wasteful earmarks from diverting precious resources from critical scientific research;
  • and Ensure adequate investments in aeronautics research.
Explore posts in the same categories: McCain, Obama, Politics, Science Policy, Space

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One Comment on “McCain Hopes We Like Stupid: Space Policy edition”

  1. jeremy Says:

    Great article, I wish everyone could write something as informed as this.

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