Before stepping up to the polls, see how the 2016 presidential candidates shape-up when it comes to NASA and space exploration.
Senator Ted Cruz
Ted Cruz (R-Texas) strongly supports NASA… so long as it’s not turning its gaze towards Earth.
In a January 14, 2015 press release shortly after his appointment as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness, Cruz announced:
“Our space program marks the frontier of future technologies for defense, communications, transportation and more, and our mindset should be focused on NASA’s primary mission: exploring space and developing the wealth of new technologies that stem from its exploration.”
In line with this view, Cruz strongly supports NASA’s SLS/Orion program that he considers “critical to our medium- and long-term ability to explore space.” As Chairman, his prioritization likely manifested in Congress’s decision to commit $2 billion to the SLS/Orion program in the 2016 fiscal year- $640 million more than was requested by Obama!
On the flip side, Cruz is a staunch opponent of NASA’s involvement with Earth Science research. In a March 12, 2015 hearing with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, Cruz accused NASA of deviating from its “core purpose” by allocating a “disproportionate amount of federal funds to the Earth Science program.” In response, Cruz led the charge to slash over $300 million from Earth science funding.
Unfortunately, Cruz’s claim is not rooted in historic or practical grounds. In NASA’s founding charter, the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, remote sensing of the Earth environment to collect scientific measurements and observations is specifically identified:
“[A key function of the administration will be to] arrange for participation by the scientific community in planning scientific measurements and observations to be made through use of aeronautical and space vehicles, and conduct or arrange for the conduct of such measurements and observation”
As Bolden noted during the hearing, such data collection through remote sensing has “allowed us to understand our planet far better than we ever did before.” Through satellite networks, we have gained insight into everything from global climate and glacial trends to aquifer depletion in Texas. Stripping NASA of this role would stunt an invaluable pipeline of scientific innovation and discovery.
Senator Marco Rubio
Overall, Rubio (R-Florida) seems to genuinely support NASA and America’s space ambitions. However, he has supported significant cuts to NASA funding.
In a press release following the successful New Horizons Pluto fly-by, Rubio noted:
“Space exploration is and has always been an important venture for our country. It opens the door for an unparalleled level of innovation, research and understanding. By investing in our nation’s brightest scientists and ambitious endeavors, we can accomplish ground-breaking space missions like this probe visit to Pluto.”
In 2015, Rubio, along with four other Senators, introduced the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. This act, which was praised by industry members such as SpaceX and Planetary Resources, extends ISS operations to 2024, allows US citizens to own resources in space and requires space tourists to fly at their own risk (among other provisions).
“Throughout our entire economy, we need to eliminate unnecessary regulations that cost too much and make it harder for American innovators to create jobs. The reforms included here make it easier for our innovators to return Americans to suborbital space and will help the American space industry continue pushing further into space than ever before.”
Interestingly, Rubio has advocated to cut NASA funding on several occasions. In 2013, Rubio sponsored an ill-fated amendment to the NASA authorization bill in the full Senate Commerce Committee that would have kept NASA funding at sequester levels through 2014. At the time, Charlie Bolden warned that “[these cuts] will potentially impact JWST, it will definitely impact SLS [and Orion], it will devastate commercial crew and cargo.” Today, Rubio echoes Cruz’s desire to cut Earth Science funding.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Trump has flip-flopped on the issue of space exploration. In 2012, Trump criticized Obama for reducing NASA funding:
This tune has changed since joining the campaign trail. During a rally in Hampton New Hampshire, Trump responded to a 10-year old’s inquiry:
“In the old days, it [NASA] was great. Right now, we have bigger problems, you understand that. We have to fix our potholes. We don’t exactly have a lot of money.”
“I love NASA…I love what it represents, I love what it stands for, and I hope that someday in the not-too-distant future, we can get that going… Honestly, I think [man’s desire to land on Mars] is wonderful; But I want to rebuild our infrastructure first, ok?”
Throughout the current campaign cycle, Trump’s primary appeal to voters is his directness and populist aura. His argument that increasing funding for NASA would leave less in the pot for infrastructure seems consistent with his platform.
Space does not appear to be on Clinton’s radar.
During her 2008 campaign, Clinton’s website stated:
“Hillary is committed to a space exploration program that involves robust human spaceflight to complete the Space Station and later human missions, expanded robotic spaceflight probes of our solar system leading to future human exploration, and enhanced space science activities.”
During her current campaign, Clinton has yet to take an official stance on NASA or the value space exploration. When pressed on the issue during a July 2015 town hall meeting in Dover, NH, she assured her audience:
“I really, really do support the space program… We have had lots of businesses spin off from NASA research. We have had the benefit of that research going into the public domain so that it could be used not just for academic research purposes but for commercial research purposes. I believe it is one of America’s advantages.”
From a funding standpoint, positions such as these are nice, but so long as space isn’t an explicit bullet-point in her platform, these sorts of quips don’t provide much to reassure space-enthusiasts. Thus, we pass her, but only just.
Senator Bernie Sanders
Though Bernie (D-VT) has not said much regarding space exploration, his voting record suggests that NASA is a low funding priority. According to Votesmart.org, Sanders voted to decrease federal spending on NASA and space exploration in 1996, 2000 and 2012.
In an Ask Me Anything (AMA) Reddit thread, Sanders answered the inquiry “What, if anything, will convince you to provide more funding to NASA in the future?”
“I am supportive of NASA not only because of the excitement of space exploration, but because of all the additional side benefits we receive from research in that area. Sometimes, and frankly I don’t remember all of those votes, one is put in a position of having to make very very difficult choices about whether you vote to provide food for hungry kids or health care for people who have none and other programs. But, in general, I do support increasing NASA funding.”
Like Clinton, the rhetoric doesn’t do much to convince, given the absence of physical demonstrations of support for NASA. In Sanders’ case, his voting record is troubling and thus he is ranked the lowest of the candidates discussed.
Author’s note: Governor John Kasich (R-OH) was omitted from this analysis because he has made no official statements regarding his position on space nor has he mentioned it as part of his platform.