“Under My Watch, NASA Will Inspire the World Again” – Barack Obama

And you know what? I believe him.

Obama vows to make NASA a priority (NASA/AP)
Obama vows to make NASA a priority (NASA/AP)

In only three days, the USA will take to the polls and vote in their next president. Presently, Sen. Barack Obama (Democrat) is holding the lead in the opinion polls, in front of Sen. John McCain (Republican). Opinion polls, although indicative of the current mood of voters, are by no means fool-proof, this election could go either way.

This is the first US election I have been in the country for, and from what I’ve seen and heard from both leading candidates have been worrying yet significant. It is no secret that the US is suffering every “crisis” in the book (housing crisis, credit crisis, economic crisis, health care crisis…), but the one election issue that is key in my mind is the growing space exploration crisis. Whilst this may be low on the list of national priorities at the moment, the next few years will be critical to the international balance of space exploration dominance for decades to come. The next few years, if unchecked, could be the most challenging period NASA has ever faced.

The US space agency needs to be nurtured and led by a strong president and vice-president who understands the position of building a powerful position in space exploration. In my view, there’s only two men up to the task

I’ve always been both captivated and confused by US politics. In the UK, although we have our fair share of mud slinging, there is an overriding feeling of respect for “the other side” during election campaigns. We’ve had our low points, such as the Tory personal attack “New Labour, New Danger” campaign against Tony Blair during the 1997 General Elections, but generally our deeply British (“reserved” or “stuffy” – you choose) behaviour, kept in check with strict rules on the code of conduct, insure the guise of “openness” and “fairness” is preserved. I say “guise” because behind the scenes there is the inevitable shady deals and back-stabbing. This is politics after all.

Contrast this with the US election campaigns, I can’t help but side with the Obama-Biden camp. In my personal opinion the McCain-Palin campaign is so deeply flawed, I wouldn’t be able to trust another Republican term in office. All I’ve heard from the Republican candidates are outlandish (and desperate) attempts to discredit “that one.” This isn’t politics, this is a war of mistruths and misquotes that Barack Obama and Joe Biden have easily dealt with, using dignified logic.

As for the presidential debates, I’ve never seen so much question dodging by the Republican candidate – it would seem that both McCain’s and Palin’s approach is to tug at the heartstrings of the voting public, making you like them (thereby sidestepping the real issues and trying to ignore the inconstancies in their campaign). Sorry M&P, it hasn’t worked (or, more accurately, I hope it hasn’t worked).

What to do with NASA?
As for Obama’s stance with NASA, I think he is looking at the bigger picture as far as the value of space exploration is concerned. The following is taken from Obama’s list of issues he intends to confront:

It is essential to maintain U.S. leadership in space. President Bush set forth a bold mission for NASA, but failed to provide the leadership and funding to see it through. As a result, in 2010, the United States will face a five-year gap in the ability to send astronauts to the International Space Station. An Obama administration will restore America’s leadership in space science:

  • Establish a robust program for human and robotic exploration that preserves our space workforce, engages international allies and draws on expertise in the private sector.
  • Close the gap in NASA access to lower earth orbit and better utilize the International Space Station.
  • Strengthen NASA’s missions in space science, weather, climate research, and aeronautical research.
  • Develop a new generation of space vehicles to replace the Space Shuttle scheduled to retire in 2010.
  • Improve NASA’s educational outreach and programs that promote spin-off consumer technologies.

Whilst making the right noises about supporting NASA, John McCain’s economic policy could spell disaster for the way in which the agency is funded. NASA spending is likely to be frozen if it doesn’t produce results. This in itself could cripple the space agency, only amplifying the current issues NASA is having. McCain appears to support the Constellation program, pretty much in line with President Bush’s manned vision of the exploration of the Moon and Mars. However, it seems that NASA won’t fulfil its goals under a McCain office, so it seems a little too optimistic that Constellation will ever get the funding it needs.

Interestingly, Obama puts much more emphasis on immediate access to space. After the Shuttle is retired in 2010, there could be the very real situation in that the US will not be able to send astronauts into space. All going well, Constellation will be completed by 2014-2015, but what can be done in the mean time? Obama, rather than focusing on the long-term goal of getting man back to the Moon and Mars, he is looking at the more realistic target of getting Constellation completed ASAP to simply get the US back into space. There is little point in thinking up lofty goals of getting to the Moon when the finances are already stretched to simply get the Ares I off the ground.

In my view, Obama’s policy is more realistic. I’d love to see us walking on the Moon sooner rather than later, but if the money isn’t there, I’d rather see more activity in the small robotic science missions than seeing the manned exploration of space fail on its first hurdle. The US economy is going through a hard enough time to simply stay afloat (no thanks to the long military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan), I’m not sure a sustained lunar campaign will be politically viable for a Democratic or Republican President.

Fruit flies and projectors
For me, the most worrying thing about the possibility of a McCain/Palin government is their obvious lack of understanding of science. We live in a 21st century world filled with the most advanced technology to probe all the way from the very small to the very big. Surely the leaders of the world’s only superpower will need to have the most comprehensive education on all science-related technologies and techniques? Evidently not.

Sarah Palin on “Intelligent Design” (Creationism):

Teach both [creationism and evolution]. You know, don’t be afraid of information.

Healthy debate is so important and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both. Growing up with being so privileged and blessed to be given a lot of information on, on both sides of the subject—creationism and evolution.

It’s been a healthy foundation for me. But don’t be afraid of information and let kids debate both sides.

– Sarah Palin – quoted from Reality Base

If that didn’t frighten you (and it should have done), here is the proud “hockey mom’s” hilarious views on fruit fly research:

Where does a lot of that earmark money end up anyway? […] You’ve heard about some of these pet projects, they really don’t make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.

– Sarah Palin – quoted from The Moderate Voice

And if you didn’t believe what you were reading, you can hear her say it herself (note the humour in her voice, does she actually have nominee vice-presidential advisers?):

I could continue on with Palin, but it’s really not fair. She seriously has no clue what she is talking about. If she seriously believes there is a “creationism/evolution debate” and fruit flies are funny, then what the hell would she make of a space program (she knows the US has one, right?). It’s painful.

Although I believe John McCain has a whole universe-worth more experience than his running mate (or should I say “dragging-mate” – she certainly isn’t helping his campaign much), he isn’t immune from a lack of understanding.

McCain recently accused Obama of voting on a “pork barrel” project in his home-state of Illinois. “He [Obama] voted for… $3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois,” he triumphantly said.

Hmmm. For a start, Obama did not vote on this, he requested it. Secondly, it wasn’t an “overhead projector,” it was a state-of-the-art planetarium projection system for the failing 40-year old system the Adler Planetarium currently has. As Nancy Atkinson points out in her Universe Today article on the subject, planetariums are an essential educational tool:

Over 110 million people around the world visit planetariums every year! They are important learning and teaching tools that encourage a science-literate population, and have inspired young people to become astronomers and astronauts, and aspire to many other science-related occupations as well.

Nancy Atkinson, Universe Today

In conclusion?
From what I’ve read and heard, I believe Obama is the best option not only for US space exploration, but for the country as a whole. But don’t take my word for it, read about what both candidates have to say. After all, no matter what any naysayer may say, your vote is important. Know the issues and vote accordingly.

I wonder who will be elected on Tuesday, and I very much hope that it is this guy who is about to take the reigns:

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