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constructing the underdog, part ix: space
or, if the space program isn't your bag, there's a bit about foreign policy at the end
by jeffrey d. walker

This article is part of a series intended to foster open discussions on the issues as we get set to elect the next President of the United States. See more info about the concept here. You're invited to add your two cents by joining the discussion. And in case you might be wondering, I'm saying nothing about the vice-president could-bes. It's the first name on the ticket who'll do the job, so stay focused.

I wanted to be an astronaut as kid. Of course, I thought it would be more like Star Wars or Buck Rodgers, and when I learned it was not like that, my interest abated. Thankfully, space travel goes on without me. But what will happen under our next president?

McCain confirms his commitment to the space program on his website, but it's hardly a ringing endorsement. He indicates that NASA is in a "mission-rut", and adds that "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."

I want to repeat that last part: "National power and pride." When I re-read McCain's space statement in writing this article, it struck me that McCain's policy on space sounded a lot like his stance on the war: America must emerge victorious!

Think I'm kidding? Again, from the website: "In 1971, when the Nixon Administration was looking at canceling the Apollo program and not approving the development of the Space Shuttle - then Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director Casper Weinberger stated that such a policy: "would be confirming in some respects a belief that I fear is gaining credence at home and abroad: That our best years are behind us, that we are turning inward, reducing our defense commitments, and voluntarily starting to give up our super-power status and our desire to maintain world superiority." Three and a half decades later this seems equally valid, if not more so given the increased number of countries that are making significant investments in space."

Indeed, in the bullet-point section at the end, McCain's first point is to "Ensure that space exploration is top priority and that the U.S. remains a leader".

"Top Priority"

Obama's statement on the space program was quite similar to McCain's with one exception: long distance human space travel. As part of Obama's $18 billion dollar a year education plan, "The early education plan will be paid for by delaying the NASA Constellation Program for five years, using purchase cards and negotiating power of the government to reduce costs of standardized procurement, auctioning surplus federal property, and reducing the erroneous payments identified by the Government Accountability Office, and closing the CEO pay deductibility loophole." Many have attacked this statement, asserting that Obama will be dropping all NASA funding, leaving the agency to wither on the vine for five years, and probably destroying its ability to recover after such a pause. And, were that the case, it might be true. However, it's been reported that those budget cuts were meant to refer to delaying only manned space flights beyond the earth's orbit (to the moon and beyond), favoring unmanned long-range missions for the short term, and limiting manned space travel to our planet's orbit, developing the next generation of space vehicles, and completing the international space station. As such, though some conservative bloggers attempt to whip Obama with his statement within the Education policy, his plan for NASA is not so dissimilar from McCain's.

When I sat back and stopped looking at the slight differences, what surprised me was that I got the same nationalistic sense from both. Obama, like McCain, "believes that the United States needs a strong space program to maintain its superiority not only in space, but also here on earth in the realms of education, technology, and national security". As a whole, though perhaps not as chest-thumpingly American in its undertone as McCain's statement, Obama's statement nonetheless has a discernible thread of patriotism woven through it, conveying a determination that America be at the forefront of space exploration.

And not that I think we should not be leaders, but I get this sense that Obama and McCain are trying to win something here; like there can be a space "winner."

I reflected on this point for a while. (For a long while last month, in fact, when I was first writing this story, but was having trouble finishing it, and then got horribly sidetracked by a religious experience). It wasn't until I ran across an article in the "Opinion" section of the Wall Street Journal, published on September 10, 2008, entitled, "The Foreign Policy Difference" that I was able to draw a conclusion. In that piece, the writer portrays McCain favorably as sort of an America-first nationalist, "not eager to be loved by foreigners," contrasted against Obama who, as he puts it, "... proceeds from the notion of American guilt", insinuating that Obama's foreign policies favoring diplomacy are inherently flawed. The writer implies that part of this is due to an age difference in the candidates.

While I don't agree with the commentary overall, the age issue presented by the writer proved to me to be the best explanation of why McCain and Obama have similar positions on the space program.

If you're under 43, like I am, you probably have no recollection of The Apollo Program. It was declared by Kennedy that America would go to the moon, and less than a decade later, we did. American was competing with the U.S.S.R. to get there, and the whole thing was dubbed the Space Race . But, the quote in McCain's statement holds great truth: the Apollo program was basically the most exciting time in American space flight, not only because of the moon landings, etc., but because it occurred against the backdrop of the cold war, too.

I'm old enough to remember the U.S.S.R. as an "enemy" of America, and can grasp a little of the gravity of the U.S.A. / U.S.S.R. dichotomy, but I'll admit that it usually conjures up fewer pictures of bombs in my head, and more conjures up scenes from Rocky IV:

Using this as my muse, I contemplated the impact of growing up American, watching America and it's last great enemy empire competing to get to the moon. Both Obama and McCain grew up during the Apollo Program, and saw the whole thing. Considering this, it's no wonder that space exploration to them is a symbol of American pride.

That's for people approximately 43 and up. For those if us younger, we're closer to thinking of Star Wars or Buck Rogers.

We don't consider America to be in a competition for space with the rest of the world for space. Ultimately, any and all benefits learned or found in space will be shared by all earthlings. There isn't an actual benefit in considering who plants a flag on Mars first, or which country gets a viable civilian space travel company going sooner. In the end, there's enough Tang to go around for everyone. Case in point, America and Russia, the two formal rivals, along with a couple handfuls of other countries, all cooperate in the International Space Station (ISS). What dominance do we really expect given this level of teamwork?

I may be showing my age, but I think that either candidate posturing that America should be "#1 in space" is needlessly beating the nationalist drum. I don't I agree with the conclusions that the writer of "The Foreign Policy Difference", but if his portrayals of Obama and McCain as collaborator and separatist, respectively in terms of their foreign policy strategy are true, then I can only think of Rocky IV where he says, "If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change."

But what do you think?


A practicing attorney and semi-professional musician, Walker writes for his own amusement, for the sake of opinion, to garner a couple of laughs, and to perhaps provoke a question or two, but otherwise, he doesn't think it'll amount to much.

more about jeffrey d. walker


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rob costello
9.17.08 @ 1:32p

Hey, Jeff. While I agree with your personal sentiment 100%, I think you miss the critical subtext inherent in the two candidates' position statements. Space, specifically near-earth orbit, is commoditized. Just turn on your TV or call your buddy in Shanghai and you partake in a highly competitive orbital economy. Space has also been highly militarized. The U.S. has deployed space based weapons, defensive capabilities and spy satellites for years. Ronald Reagan helped to bankrupt the Soviet Union by threatening them with a ridiculously expensive space based weapons platform they could not hope to rival. For a more recent example, I would cite China’s big missle launch of January, 2007 when they destroyed one of their own satellites just to prove to the world (i.e., America) that they could defend their interests in space. ( http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/6289519.stm) So when McCain and Obama talk about space and space “exploration” in nationalistic terms (and specifically when McCain mentions “national power and pride”), they mean that they are cognizant of the need to defend our valuable national interests in space. NASA does the exploration thing well, but that’s just the smiley face we put on our comprehensive national space program, which involves massive private corporate investment and the various systems deployed by the military in the name of national security. While we may be able to work with the Russians and others on scientific missions, when it comes to protecting the celestial real estate floating right above our heads, we’re as territorial as a cadre of gangbangers.


russ carr
9.19.08 @ 8:45a

I think it's going to take something transcendentally awesome to encourage national interest in the space program ever again. After GWB tried to get his JFK on, did you hear the collective gasps of awe? No? Me neither.

Kennedy spoke from a position of incredible strength: we were coming out of the hyperindustrial 50s, with a whole generation of WW2 vets that rolled into the burgeoning military-industrial complex courtesy of a GI Bill-funded college education. While just about every other (industrialized) country in the world was finally getting over getting the snot bombed out of 'em, we were soaring. Unstoppable.

Well, we all know what the past half dozen years have been like here in the U.S.; we're still in the throes of economic turmoil, foreign policy morasses and pretty dismal national morale. Quite different from 1961. Trying to give the nation a cheerful "Buck up, America!" rah-rah program like returning to the moon or heading to Mars would be rhetorical suicide for either candidate; we've got to salve our real problems first, and I'm sure they understand that.

Now, if a case could be built that NASA research can and does assist the nation in achieving energy independence, I'm sure you'd see a more marked embrace of the space program.

I agree with Cap Weinberger's statement wholeheartedly. To surrender pursuit of the kind of incredible goals and projects that typify NASA would be a diminishing of national pride, and that's a bad thing. BUT: there is no reason why we cannot immediately pursue incredible goals and projects that are more immediately beneficial to our citizenry and our national security. Let's get our house in order, with a push in engineering, technology and economic growth. With our nation intact as a stable "launch platform" again, the moon and Mars suddenly wouldn't seem nearly so far away.

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