Will Space Play in the 2016 US Election?

It might be only March of 2015, but the race (slog?) is on to be the next president of the United States. Only 589 days to go! It’s a race that some believe will cost the nation upwards of five billion dollars; that’s about 7.5 Mars missions for those of you out there counting. The campaign, though, is more than just a vehicle for terrible campaign ads and embarrassing debate gaffes; it’s also one of the few opportunities for the country to have a discussion about its  national priorities in the coming years. So, what are the chances that the exploration of space will be in that discussion?

Scientific research is a low priority for most Americans. Credit: Pew Research Center
Scientific research is a low priority for most Americans. Credit: Pew Research Center

On the surface, the odds don’t seem that favorable. Back in January, the Pew Research Center surveyed Americans to determine which issues citizens felt their leaders should be prioritizing. Space exploration wasn’t called out as its own topic, but of the 23 possibilities considered by Pew, “scientific research” was ranked third-to-last, representing a priority for just over half of Democrats and a third of Republicans. The margin of error for the smallest subgroup was 6.1 percentage points. The poll shows that the public is as concerned as ever with the perennial “big issues”: the War on Terror, the economy and jobs, and social services like education and Social Security. These will undoubtedly dominate the national conversation and leave little room for discussion of our scientific priorities. And, even if science does see the light of day during the campaign, politicians tend to look for places of disagreement. As NASA remains one of the government agencies most favored by citizens, it’s not likely to stir up much trouble here either.

Peer a little closer, though, and many potential candidates have strong ties to the space exploration industry. Headlining this group is the only high-profile contender to have officially declared himself: Senator Ted Cruz (R, TX). Sen. Cruz is the new chairman of the Space, Science, and Competitiveness subcommittee, the Senate body which oversees NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Joining him on the subcommittee is another likely presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R, FL). Florida, of course, is home to Kennedy Space Center, the launch complex for most US space activities. The economic impact of the so-called “Space Coast” puts space exploration at the forefront of Florida politicians’ minds and the state was also formerly lead by yet another likely Republican presidential candidate, Gov. Jeb Bush.

On the Democratic side, the picture remains much murkier. With no one so far willing to declare themselves running while former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remains on the fence, the need for speculation is much higher. But, both Secretary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden ran campaigns in 2008, offering us a glimpse at how space might play in their future endeavors. Then-Senator Biden had little to say on space during his campaign, although he did advocate for working with China as an equal partner, a view that might still draw some criticism today. Then-Senator Clinton spoke more broadly on her views for space, but it never truly entered the mainstream of the debate.

Disagreement between Democrats and Republicans is highest among scientific issues. Credit: Pew Research Center
Disagreement between Democrats and Republicans is highest among scientific issues. Credit: Pew Research Center

Even if space exploration doesn’t become a central issue of the coming campaign, it could well leak in from another direction: climate change. NASA is at the forefront of climate science research and considers it a core tenet of its research mandate. During the 2008 campaign, Clinton supported the expansion of NASA’s Earth observing program. Earlier this month, Sen. Cruz took the opposite position, suggesting to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden that the agency focus more on exploring outer space and less on studying the Earth. With climate change likely to become a flashpoint during the campaign (the Pew poll discussed above shows climate science research is a priority for 54% of Democrats, but just 15% of Republicans), NASA and the NSF might find themselves dragged into the larger fight.

Finally, what about all the candidates down the ballot? Will space exploration be important in House, Senate, and gubernatorial races? What about the myriad of local and state elections? The answer here is probably a more definitive “no.” Unlike most other issues, space exploration is one that resides virtually solely at the federal level. With the possible exception of a few space-heavy regions like Florida and Texas, issues like education, unemployment, and taxation are far more likely to dominate the conversation.

If there’s one truth about elections, however, it’s that you never really know if something will be important until it happens. With that in mind, we’ll continue to keep an eye on the coming races to see if outer space become a down-to-Earth issue!

8 Replies to “Will Space Play in the 2016 US Election?”

  1. A critical question is what is the future of the Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) once the next president takes office. My bet is that ARM will quickly fade into the sunset, and NASA will be redirected (again!), most likely back to a more sensible goal of a human base on the moon.

    1. While building a base on the Moon might be more sensible than ARM (and there are definitely two sides to that question), I wonder if it’s better to continue a less-than-perfect plan for the sake of actually completing something rather than redirect NASA once more…

  2. Ohhhhh how I hate to see science being politicized! With the dumbing down of America in science – example: Hours of UFO crap on, of all things the History Channel, over just the past weekend – and SOOO much mis-information out there, things are looking less and less hopeful for any kind of sensible research funding. Think I’m wrong? Just look into the leadership positions of the republican controlled House and Senate science committees. They are being loaded with people who deny evolution! Deny any role of mankind in global warming! And more. It’s as if we were re-entering the dark ages and I am disgusted and fed up.

    1. So in your mind there is global warming brought on by man. That explains everything. True science would need the hypothesis be tested over and over again and the math to actually support the theory be sound. Any of the tiniest flaws will complete negate the hypothesis. So far, the fact that plants thrive better in a carbine dioxide rich atmosphere suggests the planet has the ability to stabilize any heating caused by man. Therefore, global warming can’t be caused by man.

  3. “Disagreement between Democrats and Republicans is highest among scientific issues.”

    No, science is on the fifth place in that list. And NASA seems to be unusually bipartisan.
    The political proposal to use government force to abolish industry, energy, transports, agriculture and of course all space flight in an attempt to change the temperature of Earth, is NOT a scientific proposal. It is the political proposal to end human being.

    1. “The political proposal to use government force to abolish industry, energy, transports, agriculture and of course all space flight in an attempt to change the temperature of Earth”

      Is this a joke or are you that delusional? Or do you live in a dystopian parallel universe created by a pulp scifi author? …Oh wait… I know; you’re GROSSLY exaggerating (to a RIDICULOUS extreme) to make some sort of silly point about the “Global Warming Conspiracy”. Please… do go on…

      PS: The SECOND list is upside down with the smaller issues displayed at the top and the initial list is not. Or did you “get” that as well and are just correcting the author about where scientific research falls in a literal/nit-picking sense just to be a dick? Or did you not pay enough attention to the article you’re commenting on to notice which would mean you’re making bold statements based on headlines and skimming which makes you a little, “Troll-ey”?

      1. Well, fact is that global temperature hasn’t increased at all during the last two decades. Despite of exponentially increasing CO2 emissions. Increased CO2 is very very good for everything alive on Earth. And the Earth is indeed greening thanks to humans burning fossil fuels. Are you a IPCC-denier who denies these facts which they have reported? Are you naive a tabloid-believer who believes anything your TV channel tells you?

        Sure more CO2 physically increases the retains more of the sunshine. But a climate might be a bit more complex than that, so we shouldn’t invest trillions of dollars in such wild loose speculations. Now that the IPCC has measured that temperatures haven’t increased at all since the late 1990’s, do you feel any urge at all to adjust your panic-Soviet state of mind, to a reality based rationality, or don’t you care at all?

        Now that all science has proven that increased CO2-emissions only has had good consequences, more wildlife, more harvest per acre, and no temperature shifts at all. Don’t you, even in the face of all these facts which IPCC has collected during decades, don’t you have any moral or pragmatic valuation at all regarding the POLITICAL decision to immediately abolish all space flight, abolish industry, energy, transportation and agriculture?

        I don’t have any beliefs or denials on this issue. But I know that the Soviet style policy decision to abolish all space flight, abolish all energy, abolishing all transportation and abolishing all agriculture will kill each and every human being. Including you. And then the Earth will freeze over again, just to make your cadavre extra happy.

        Rocket launchers emit “greenhouse gasses”, so of course all rockets is the first thing which will be abolished by the anti-human, anti-life, anti-wealth, anti-science doomsday climate panic crowd (in best 2012 style) will accomplish if they take power.

      2. Can you even imagine what a climate panic believer, someone which has been utterly fooled by the unfounded claims that the doomsday is near everyday the last 30 years, and who digs deep in the soil with his hand in order to try to find another carrot to eat. With the lifestyle he tries to enforce upon everyone else, using government violence against you.

        What do you think that this climate-panic animal thinks about hundreds of tons of “chemicals” being tanked into a big tower which burns it all at once? The first and most prominent point of the schedule of the climate panicists, is to immediately abolish all kinds of space flight.

        When NASA officially endorses the political propaganda panic of the 0 (zero) degrees change in temperature during the last 2+ decades, doomsday, NASA officially declares its own will to die.

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