OPINION: Tone down the political rhetoric around space issues
The partisan divide in America is deep and frightening. There seems to be little, if any civil discourse between the two prevailing political ideologies of the day—liberal and conservative. And since President Obama canceled the Constellation Program, many on the right have attempted to claim the space platform as their own.
What they don’t realize is that they are sabotaging their own efforts. It is generally assumed that if a person supports a particular portion of a given political agenda, then he supports the entire platform. For example, if a person defends President Obama’s economic record, it is assumed that he therefore supports all that Obama, and indeed the entire Democratic Party stand for. Likewise, if a person defended George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, it is assumed that he stands for everything the Republican and Conservative platform stands for. Debate becomes virtually impossible when a single stance on a single issue inevitably results in being called a “right-wing fascist Confederate nut,” or a “godless left-wing Commie hippy drug-taking liberal.”
The nice thing about space is that it need not degenerate into such mindless talking-point arguments. Space is one thing Americans can come together on. Neil Armstrong planted the American flag on the Moon, not the elephant or the donkey. The Apollo Moon missions, the space shuttle, the smiling faces of such national heroes as John Glenn and Alan Shepard, these are points of pride for everyone in this country. They are America’s legacy. The thundering image of a manned rocket launch, though not uniquely American, is certainly a symbol of our country’s greatness. And the image of men walking on the Moon is still so far uniquely American.
Space has always received widespread bipartisan support, if not adequate funding. Even in the wake of the Challenger disaster, the space shuttle program has never been in serious danger of being canceled; only George W. Bush (a Republican) ordered that the shuttle be retired, and then only so that its successor could be developed. When Barack Obama canceled the Constellation program, he met with widespread resistance on both sides of the aisle.
Democrats and Republicans alike worked hard to find a way to salvage America’s presence in space. Faced with this broad outrage, Obama was forced to resurrect the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, now called the Multipurpose Crew Vehicle, and to name at least some sort of destination for NASA; in this case an asteroid. Instead of the shuttle-derived Ares rockets, Orion will use the Space Launch System (SLS), which essentially combines the Ares I and Ares V into a single, huge rocket comparable to the Saturn V.
It’s not a very inspiring mission—if the word “mission” applies. We’ve gone from a bold program “to the Moon, Mars, and beyond” to one that even the ever-effervescent Charlie Duke decried: “I don’t even know what the new plan is.” It hard to argue with those who say Obama is trying to destroy the manned space program. His supporters say that with private industry providing flights to the ISS, NASA funds will be freed up to send missions beyond low Earth orbit. But with cost overruns, delays, design flaws, and the lack of a specific destination or function, the future does not look bright for Orion/SLS. But either way, it would be wiser to evaluate the situation based on facts rather than partisan emotionalism.
It’s possible that Mr. Obama does care about the space program, but has received poor advice and it’s too late to back away from what is clearly in hindsight the wrong decision. It’s possible he’s not trying to destroy the space program, but that it simply isn’t one of his priorities. Perhaps his approach to space issues simply reflects the country’s lack of interest.
Democrats might be hard-pressed to admit that sometimes Republicans know what they’re doing; Republicans would no doubt be irked at the suggestion that Democrats actually do love America and want to do the right thing for our country. But progress will only be made if we can tone down the shouting match and find common ground. Space is that common ground. Yes, the Democrats have had Barney Frank and Walter Mondale, steadfast opponents of all things space—but the Republicans have had Mitt Romney and Richard Nixon, certainly not friends of the space program. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush paid lip service to space activities–Clinton supported the ISS and was a self-proclaimed space enthusiast, but dissolved the National Space Council, and although Bush ordered the Constellation program, did not budget to accommodate it.
In today’s political climate, the perception of the politicians, radio talk show hosts, and the most vocal activists is that people tend to align themselves with everything on their party’s ticket. In the real world, of course, people’s opinions vary from issue to issue, but stereotypically, Conservative Republicans always favor low taxes for the wealthy, a strong military, no gay marriage, and no abortion, while Liberal Democrats always favor big government, entitlement programs, and environmental regulations.
Of course, individuals aren’t really like that, but the media has polarized those issues, and through them the politicians have received the message that each party has its unshakeable platforms. What one party supports the other must oppose and vice versa. A new president must erase his predecessor’s legacy. The perception of a party’s platform decides a candidate’s ticket. That is where it becomes dangerous for space to become a partisan issue. If Democratic candidates come to perceive, rightly or wrongly, that the Democratic mandate is to end space exploration, then it shall be so. This cannot be a good thing, and Republicans need to bear this in mind.
The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not, necessarily reflect those of The SpaceFlight Group
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.