We know how John McCain and Barack Obama are polling in the red states, the blue states, Europe, the Middle East, China and around the world. But how are the presidential candidates polling on Mars?
Red Planet policy turns out to be one of the areas in which McCain and Obama present bright, clear policy differences. In short, McCain supports the vision for space exploration that President Bush articulated in 2004, which committed NASA to returning human beings to the moon by 2020, with a vaguely defined ambition to send astronauts on to Mars before 2050. This vision has since coalesced into NASA's Constellation program, intended, among other things, to replace the retiring space shuttle. And the Democratic contender? Earlier this year, in a 15-page position paper detailing his ideas for education, Obama sneaked in the following line at the end: "The early education plan will be paid for by delaying the NASA Constellation program for five years."
Who's right? There's something to be said for pulling the plug on Constellation. The space agency should take a fresh look at its goals and practices, possibly even giving up its role as a driver in human space exploration and becoming a paying passenger on vehicles built and operated by foreign and private-sector organizations. This would leave NASA with more funds for the robotic exploration that has brought such vast rewards on a relatively small budget (and without risk to life and limb).