CNN's John Zarrella shares his insights into what's going on with politics and the space program:
Newt Gingrich got a lot of mileage out of his comments on building a moon colony by 2020. Whether you think that should get him a one-way ticket to the moon on the first flight or you believe his vision is an inspiration, he did accomplish one big thing.
Gingrich got the conversation started. What kind of space program do we want? What kind can we afford? Had Gingrich not said what he said, the space program might have been totally ignored, as it has been so often in the past.
But it came up at the CNN debate Thursday night in Jacksonville. And it came up again Friday afternoon.
A group of leaders in America’s space program wrote an open letter in support of Mitt Romney. They blasted the Obama administration: “We have watched with dismay as President Obama dismantled the structure that was guiding both the government and commercial space sectors, while providing no purpose or vision or mission.”
Then, they anointed Romney as the candidate best suited to get the program back on track, writing, “We support Mitt’s candidacy and believe that his approach to space policy will produce results instead of empty promises.”
Those who signed this letter are not lightweights. On the list are two former astronauts: Bob Crippen, who flew the first space shuttle, and Gene Cernan, who was the last man on the moon. Michael Griffin, a former NASA administrator, is also on the list.
Folks within NASA won’t, of course, say anything publicly about the candidates. It wouldn’t be prudent to criticize someone who might end up holding your purse strings. The way it was put to me by a NASA insider is that they are watching with “cautious curiosity.”
Folks at the space agency also say they can’t afford to hit the restart button again. “That’s a very real worry,” says John Matson, associate editor for Scientific American. “If every administration has a different vision and direction then nothing is gonna happen.”
That is pretty much exactly what’s happened in recent decades. For a while, both Bush presidents talked of getting humans back to the moon and on to Mars. Of course, that went away, as it was deemed way too costly. Then the shuttle would be replaced by the Ares rocket. You remember that one? We in the media called it affectionately “the lawn dart.” It would take astronauts to the space station and an Ares-on-steroids version could go to the moon. That, too, went away.
Now, there is a supposed flexible path that this administration is following that maybe sends astronauts to an asteroid and eventually Mars using a new heavy lift rocket yet to be designed or built. So, when you say NASA is “wandering in the desert of space,” as Cernan told me once, it’s not all on the agency. There’s plenty of blame to go around.
Matson says that one big criticism of the Obama space plan is “the flexible path doesn’t carry firm timelines. A lot of people worry we’re not gonna get anywhere.”
Now, I don’t think anyone is naïve enough to believe this space conversation will last after the candidates leave Florida. Maybe it will come up in Alabama and Texas, but not likely to the degree it has come up here, where thousands of jobs were lost when the shuttle program shut down.
Perhaps the most important thing in this entire space conversation has less to do with going to the moon or Mars and far more what you get out of it. Al Worden, who was command module pilot on Apollo 15, says it’s really about advancing technology. Worden says he thinks Gingrich gets it: “Who’s going to develop the future technology that’s needed if not through the space program? What kind of motivation do kids have without the space program?”
One of the quickest ways to become a second-rate nation lagging behind in technology, people like Worden and Cernan say, is to do away with space exploration.
The fact of the matter is, you can have all the big ideas you want if you’ve got the money. Right now, NASA is barely scraping by. Its $18 billion budget is about half of 1% of the federal budget. Apollo was about 4%. Matson says, “I’d be pretty shocked if he (Gingrich) even remotely put the kinds of money up that JFK did.”
But if he wants to go to the moon he might have to. It’s not likely commercial companies will pave the way. They need a reason for going, a return on the investment. How many years has it been since we landed on the moon? No one has been back since, at least not that we know of!
Anyway, they may be pandering for votes. But at least candidates are talking about space. That’s a start.