The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, America's civilian space agency, has always been a political football.
Founded in 1958 to meet national objectives at the dawn of the Space Age by a Republican president (Eisenhower), and greatly expanded by Democratic presidents (Kennedy and Johnson), NASA has accomplished amazing feats; it has also had been at fault for three, highly publicized tragedies.
In 2008, both presidential candidates U.S. Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama have stated their positions on space exploration - perhaps not surprisingly, both candidates appear to support America's space efforts. In fact, both candidates have pledged their support for the agency's daring Moon-Mars exploration goal. "Obama and McCain have promised, in principle, to provide the billions (of dollars) it will take to build new spacecraft, establish a permanent Moon base, and propel astronauts to the rusty, intriguing surface of Mars," wrote Ohio-based science writer John Mangels. "But President Obama or President McCain may have trouble delivering on those campaign promises. The space program is facing big technical and political challenges, and NASA, perennially underfunded by Bush even after he launched his ambitious exploration plan in 2004, will have to compete for additional money during a time of war and recession."
As of last weekend, it's clear that the $700 billion federal bailout of the financial mess will dry up money for space exploration (and other national goals). Once again, like it was back in the 1970s, space exploration will be the loser to a national financial debacle.
"The uncertainties and issues surrounding the country's civilian space policy are at a very high level," said space analyst John Logsdon of the National Air and Space Museum. Logsdon was former NASA historian and space policy wonk. "The next president could have the same long-term impact on NASA and the nation's space goals as John Kennedy and Richard Nixon." (For the record, no president acts alone when it comes to NASA - Congress is a major player, for good or ill. President Nixon downsized NASA opting for the shuttle program instead of an expanded Apollo lunar and Mars program. Vietnam-era debts got in the way. Presidents Ford and Carter were also lackluster in supporting space ventures during the agency's moribund days.)
NASA's biggest task ahead is retiring the aging shuttle fleet, now planned for 2010. The new, Apollo-like Orion spacecraft will replace the shuttles. The Orion will service the space station and also be capable of interplanetary missions, but when the ship will be ready to fly is uncertain.
"Obama is a recent Constellation convert," Mangels said. "He (followed McCain's lead and) reversed his stance (first saying) that the program ought to be put on hold five years to pay for education reforms. And while McCain sounds supportive of NASA, he also has said that as president he would freeze discretionary spending, which presumably would affect the space agency."
The future for America in space is indeed troubling. Renewed rumblings with Russia after its recent invasion of Georgia will likely endanger our use of Soyuz spacecraft in an effort to bridge the long gap between the last shuttle flight and the maiden flight of the Orion.
Without additional funds, keeping the space shuttles flying would force NASA to funnel funds away from Orion thus delaying the new spacecraft's completion by years.
Meanwhile, China, Russia, Japan, and Europe plan aggressive space missions with the Moon and Mars as their targets. With a rapidly declining science-education infrastructure in the U.S., the new Space Race may leave our nation in the dust of history - permanently.
What's in the Sky: During the early evening of Oct. 4, the crescent Moon appears low in the southwest sky. Venus, our sister planet, is to the right. Both will appear hanging above the horizon. The planet Jupiter also joins the gang and is to the upper left of the Moon.
Lou Varricchio, M.Sc., was a NASA science writer. He is currently part of the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program in Vermont.