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Looking at Mars

McCain is onboard for Bush's space mission; Obama may be more down to earth.

July 23, 2008

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).

But where your taxes are concerned, nothing is ever simple. Bush's 2004 vision, announced shortly after the landings of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars, brought with it a surge of interest in robotic science in the inner solar system -- which could be promoted, accurately or not, as the necessary prep work for human exploration. The bulk of NASA funding still goes to human exploration and thus tends to end up in Texas, Florida, Louisiana and Alabama. But Los Angeles County could be an ancillary beneficiary of Constellation, because the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is the most important player in robotic planetary exploration.

Fiscal realities and NASA's commitment to keeping its $17-billion budget flat already seem to be putting a limit on Constellation, but Bush's, and now McCain's, vision nicely balances realism and ambition. Yet it's Obama who is sounding like the more realistic, market-oriented candidate. His campaign said recently that Obama hopes to enhance NASA's role "in confronting the challenges we face here on Earth, including global climate change" and "to reach out and include international partners and engage the private sector to increase NASA's reach and provide real public economic benefits for the nation."

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