The Final Frontier : McCain and Obama Reach Toward the Stars

Do McCain and Obama’s voting history support their Science Debate answers about space?

Question 11: Space Policy

Space, what President Kennedy called “the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked,” has always been the greatest measure of America’s prestige. Other countries have democracy, other countries have nuclear weapons, but no other country has a flag on the Moon.

So it is no surprise that both candidates propose ambitious space policies in their Science Debate 2008 answers. Talking about the grandiose themes space travel evokes makes a candidate sound very presidential, while at the same time, failing to deliver on space related campaign promises doesn’t really anger the majority of voters. It’s win-win for lofty rhetoric, but does anything in their record hint that their promises of a beefed up space program are for real? The answer is both yes and no.

“The problem is, Senators don’t really get to vote on this,” said Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute, “there are space issues in the Defense appropriation and authorization bills, and in the NASA appropriation and authorization bills, but space has not been a major legislative issue for either candidate.”

Congress does not have much say in US space policy. Traditionally, the executive branch dictates space policy; with the President setting the agenda, and the Vice President enforces that policy as the Chairman of the Board of NASA.

While looking at their legislative record cannot support any of the specific recommendations proposed by either candidate in their Science Debate answers, one key vote does support the broad belief in the importance of space expressed by both candidates.

The Iran North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act governs both the exportation and importation of sensitive technical data, including space technology, between the US and other countries. The bill includes Russia, and would prohibit NASA collaboration with the Russian Space agency were it not for a special exemption granted by Congress.

In an extraordinary stroke of happenstance, this year’s vote to renew the exemption came both shortly after Russia’s invasion of the Republic of Georgia and while NASA needed a contract from Russia to provide transportation to the International Space Station during the gap between the retirement of the shuttle and the rollout of NASA’s replacement.

The Senate harbored little good will for Russia after it invaded a sovereign democracy and ally of the US. McCain was already hawkish towards Russia, and Obama looked to burnish his commander-in-chief image by taking a hard anti-Russia stance. Yet despite that, both candidates put the space program first. Obama and McCain not only voted to renew the exemption, but also helped rally support for the bill.

Pace believes that both candidates’ infatuation with NASA results from space policy sitting at the intersection of foreign relations and economics. With McCain interested in foreign policy but needing to brush up on economics, and with Obama being strong on economics but needing to show off foreign policy chops, space policy was a natural fit for both.

Next, we look at the candidates’ plans to increase scientific integrity. That’s right; politicians want to teach other people about integrity. Should be an interesting class.

After a year of winnowing down questions from 38,000 scientists and citizens, Science Debate 2008 sent 14 covering health, research, the environment and science to the presidential candidates. Both Senator McCain and Senator Obama answered the questions, and their answers can be read here. However, it’s easy for a politician to make promises, so _PopSci investigated both senator’s voting records to see if their history matched up with their promises for the future. Each day for the next two weeks we’ll present an analysis of the candidate’s voting records as compared with their answers to the ScienceDebate2008 questions. You can follow the entire series at popsci.com/election, where you can also sign up for an RSS feed._

Discuss these topics, and others, in the Popsci.com Elections Forum