Discuss as:

Space vs. education?

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's education policy is causing a stir … but not all in a good way. Advocates for space exploration are noting with dismay that he'd take billions of dollars from NASA to pay for the educational programs he'd like to expand.

The shift from exploration to education came last week when Obama talked up his $18 billion education plan during a New Hampshire campaign swing. Actually, the reference to NASA comes at the end of a 15-page document laying out the details behind the plan (PDF file):

"The early education plan will be paid for by delaying the NASA Constellation Program for five years, using purchase cards and the 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. ..."

The Constellation Program is NASA's $104 billion effort to send astronauts back to the moon in the 2018-2020 time frame, as an initial step toward wider space exploration and settlement. Although the policy paper doesn't lay out the figures, our own First Read political blog said Obama would keep Constellation on a $500 million-per-year maintenance diet during the five-year delay - with the implication that the timeline would be shifted to 2023-2025 for the first 21st-century moon landing.

The first years of an Obama administration would be particularly critical for NASA, because that's the time frame during which the shuttle fleet is due to retire. The schedule already calls for the space agency to hitch rides into orbit on other people's spaceships for up to four years, and if Obama follows through that gap could go for years longer - even assuming that Constellation goes into hurry-up mode if and when the budgetary spigots are opened wider.

USA Today quoted the Illinois senator as defending his plan to put NASA's vision on hold: "We're not going to have the engineers and the scientists to continue space exploration if we don't have kids who are able to read, write and compute," he said.

Over the long Thanksgiving weekend, space activists have had a lot of time to chew over Obama's views - and as you might expect, it's not to their taste.

"That would be very destructive," rocket scientist Robert Zubrin, the president of the Mars Society, told me today. "There's so much more we could do for education by having a visionary space program than by just throwing it away into the educational bureaucracy."

If anything, the focus of the Constellation Program should be shifted to a more ambitious goal of Martian exploration, Zubrin said. (What else would you expect?)

"That would send a message to every young person, saying 'learn your math and science, and you can be part of this important new challenge,'" he said.

My space-blogging brethren took a similar tack:

  • Rand Simberg's Transterrestrial Musings: "NASA's money is not well spent, but I'd rather see a policy debate on how it could be spent to get better results in terms of NASA's charter, than whether or not they should have it."
  • Clark Lindsey's RLV and Space Transport News: "I would prefer that a President Obama offer a smarter manned program rather [than] a minimized manned program."
  • Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides at Wired Science: "Such a delay would result in a loss of capability as the workforce with the knowledge to build spacecraft will not be around when you want to hire them in 2020, and there will be few to train any students coming out of the education pipeline."
  • Ferris Valyn at the Daily Kos: "Project Constellation ... is full of problems, so much so that I would seriously recommend starting over with a new plan (ideally one that embraces the New Space industry). And that may be the senator's position, but he hasn't yet fully fleshed it out. The other alternative is that perhaps he is actively trying to get rid of manned spaceflight."

Jeff Foust's Space Politics blog rounds up reaction from various quarters of the political spectrum - and even better, notes the other presidential candidates' positions on space policy (or lack thereof). So far, Hillary Clinton has said the most on the subject, and is generally supportive of the current approach to human spaceflight (for good or ill). Other candidates have made less specific statements of support, leaving Obama standing apart as the only candidate to take a shot at NASA's budget.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? In the comments section below, tell me which candidate will do the right thing when it comes to space policy, on the military side as well as the civilian side (and even the UFO side).