By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
Sen. Barack Obama has detailed a comprehensive space plan that includes $2 billion in new funding to reinvigorate NASA and a promise to make space exploration and science a significantly higher priority if he is elected president.
Campaigning in Florida yesterday, Sen. John McCain responded by telling business leaders that Obama has changed his position on some key questions of NASA funding in recent months and should not be trusted to support the program.
While Obama's ambitious plan embraces President Bush's 2004 "vision" to send astronauts to the moon by 2020 and later to Mars -- a plan McCain co-sponsored in the Senate -- the Democratic presidential candidate said the administration's "poor planning and inadequate funding" have undermined the effort and jeopardized U.S. leadership in space.
In particular, he criticized administration policies that will lead to a five-year period after 2010 when "the United States will have to depend on foreign rockets and spacecraft to send Americans to orbit" -- even to the largely U.S.-funded $100 billion international space station.
"As president, I'll make our space program a priority again by devoting the attention and resources needed to not only inspire the world with feats of exploration but also improve life here on Earth," Obama said.
His plan also calls for reestablishing the National Aeronautics and Space Council to coordinate all civilian, commercial and military space programs; the body was in place in earlier decades but disbanded in 1992. As a signal that NASA will be a higher priority for him, Obama said the council would report directly to the president.
McCain did not directly address Obama's proposals, released on Sunday, but did emphasize that the Democrat had earlier opposed full funding for the NASA program to build a new generation of spacecraft to replace the shuttle by 2015. Obama's position has shifted since last winter, and he now says the replacement Constellation spaceship program is essential both for space exploration and for encouraging students in science and math.
"Sometimes it is difficult to know what a politician will actually do once in office, because they say different things at different times to different people," McCain said in a closed-door meeting of business leaders in Cocoa Beach. "This is a particular problem when a candidate has a short, thin record on the issues, as in the case of Senator Obama. Let me say, just in case Senator Obama does decide to return to his original plan of cutting NASA funding -- I oppose such cuts."
He also said: "I will ensure that space exploration remains a top priority and that the U.S. continues to lead the world in this field."
In a Democratic Party campaign call after McCain spoke, former NASA associate administrator Lori Garver said that while the Republican candidate now voices support for NASA, his voting record has been far less enthusiastic.
She said McCain spoke against a bill introduced last year that would give NASA $1 billion to make up for costs incurred after the Columbia disaster -- money that would have gone specifically to speeding development of the Constellation program.
"It's very interesting to see McCain now paint himself as a strong supporter of NASA," she said. "When he could have stepped up to support the program, he has not done that. He has no general respect for our community."
Garver acknowledged that Obama's positions on NASA have evolved since the primaries, but she said McCain's NASA advocacy has changed as well.
Although McCain has said continued U.S. space superiority is essential, he has also said that as president he would freeze all discretionary spending -- and NASA, with a budget of about $17.5 billion, is generally considered in that category. McCain has spoken in mostly general terms about NASA.
In an earlier interview, McCain campaign spokesman Taylor Griffin said the candidate firmly supports building a new generation of U.S. spacecraft and would fund the program as needed. He also said McCain would conduct "an overall review early in the administration of where NASA's money is spent to determine an appropriate plan of action."
Obama's campaign said the additional NASA funds would be paid for by rolling back congressional earmarks to what they were in 1994, and by using the newly formed advisory council to potentially re-allocate space funding.
Among the more expensive proposals is Obama's plan to flying an additional shuttle mission to bring a $1.5 billion particle detector to the station. NASA dropped plans to ferry up the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer after the Columbia disaster, even though the instrument is one of the most expensive ever built and was funded by a group of international governments and universities.
Under current NASA plans, the last shuttle mission will fly in summer of 2010, and the three-spacecraft fleet will be retired after that. The aging shuttles are expensive to maintain and operate, and under current budgets NASA will not have funds to build the new Constellation spacecraft unless the shuttle is grounded.
The Constellation won't be ready until 2015 at the earliest, however, creating the five-year gap when the United States will be largely dependent on Russian Soyuz transportation. NASA and the Russian space agency have worked closely and generally well together in recent years, but many are concerned that Russian military actions in Georgia will change that relationship.