By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 23, 2007
The major presidential candidates pummel each other daily on issues ranging from the Iraq war to health care. But when it comes to President Bush's ambitious initiative to send humans back to the moon and on to Mars, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is all but alone in staking out a formal position -- and it's one that lends support to key aspects of the president's effort.
She initially outlined the need for a "robust" human spaceflight program last month during a Washington speech on science policy, despite being broadly critical of the Bush administration's record on scientific issues.
The question of future manned space exploration took on greater prominence this week when Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) made clear that he is not enamored with NASA's effort to build a new spacecraft to take astronauts to the moon and beyond.
In a position paper on education unveiled in New Hampshire, Clinton's rival advocated delaying for five years the program to build the new multibillion-dollar Constellation spacecraft and using the savings to fund a variety of education initiatives.
Asked for a response, Clinton spokesman Isaac Baker said, "Senator Clinton does not support delaying the Constellation program and intends to maintain American leadership in space exploration."
The Republican National Committee also criticized Obama. Spokesman Danny Diaz said in a statement: "It is ironic that Barack Obama's plan to help our children reach for the stars is financed in part by slashing a program that helps us learn about those very same stars."
But Republican presidential candidates have also been less than effusive about the Bush space initiative.
When asked about their candidates' positions on the moon-Mars project, a spokeswoman for Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) did not respond, while one for former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said, "I'm not sure anything is out there on this subject."
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's campaign responded by providing an article from the Florida Today newspaper that said: "During the first campaign visit to the Space Coast by a 2008 presidential candidate, Republican Mitt Romney said he supports Bush's vision for space exploration and has no reason yet to propose a new direction."
Former senator John Edwards (N.C.), who is vying with Clinton and Obama for the Democratic nomination, said in a statement: "We need a balanced space and aeronautics program. We need to support solar system exploration as an important goal for our human and robotic programs, but only as one goal among several."
Except for Clinton's, none of the official campaign Web sites appears to mention NASA or human space exploration specifically.
After NASA's three space shuttles are retired in late 2010, the United States will have no spacecraft capable of launching astronauts into orbit -- although the international space station will be reaching completion at that time. American officials have made plans to pay Russia to supply the space station, with the possibility that a private American company or the French Ariane spacecraft may also play a role.
The Constellation program was proposed by Bush in 2004 as a way to return Americans to space. His plan envisions the establishment of a settlement on the moon, in part to prepare for the lengthy voyage to Mars.
The plan, which is similar to one proposed by his father when he was president, was embraced by many in the space community as a worthy successor to the shuttle and space station, which are often described as expensive underachievers. Congress has generally supported plans for a new spacecraft, although Bush has not asked for additional money to pay for it, and some believe that NASA's many successful unmanned science missions will inevitably be shortchanged to pay for Constellation.
Contracts have been let to build several key components of the new launch system, and NASA has put together an elaborate timetable for building, testing and launching the spacecraft by 2015.
In her Oct. 4 policy statement on a range of scientific issues, Clinton said she "is committed to a space exploration program that involves robust human spaceflight to complete the Space Station and later human missions, expanded robotic spaceflight probes of our solar system leading to future human exploration, and enhanced space science activities."
She also said that in pursuing next-generation programs, she will "capitalize on the expertise of the current shuttle program workforce and will not allow a repeat of the 'brain drain' that occurred between the Apollo and shuttle missions."
But the same day, Clinton somewhat muted her support for an aggressive human space exploration program by telling a New York Times reporter that travel to Mars "excites people," adding that she is "more focused on nearer-term goals I think are achievable." She also said the Bush administration has shortchanged NASA's earth science and aeronautics programs, and that they need to be expanded.
She promised to "restore a national commitment" to unfettered and ambitious scientific research and exploration.
While the current moon-Mars mission was proposed by Bush, manned space exploration had its first great presidential champion in John F. Kennedy, a Democrat. Bush's plan for a new generation of spacecraft that can fly to the moon and perhaps to Mars got broad bipartisan support when it was approved by Congress in 2005.