The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

When asked whether he would support a human mission to Mars in a recent debate, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee essentially took a pass. (credit: Mike Huckabee for President)

Why doesn’t the buck stop here?

When it comes to making major space policy decisions, whose decision is it? Just where does the buck stop? And why can presidential candidates say it’s not at their desk and not get criticized for it?

In the Republican presidential debate last week, CNN made the unusual choice (for a mainstream mass media outlet) of asking a question about a manned Mars mission. To wit, a member of the Mars Society, Steve Nielson, asked the assembled contenders if any of them would commit to a manned mission to Mars. The response was predictable. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee gave a vague answer, stating that “Whether we ought to go to Mars is not a decision that I would want to make,” and then going on to recite the tired old “but space is good because of spinoffs” line so as to avoid taking any controversial stance.

The question also went to Tom Tancredo, who flatly refused to support increased NASA funding or a manned Mars mission, and then the next question was asked.

But Huckabee’s statement, while essentially little more than a throwaway line, raises an important question. It is indicative of a disturbing attitude toward space exploration—or lack thereof—among current presidential candidates and the general public. While essentially an off-the-cuff remark, the very fact that he has probably not devoted much thought to the topic of Mars exploration probably means that he had no reason to offer anything but his honest opinion on the topic.

Just where does the buck stop?

Most obviously, Huckabee’s response—and the decision by the major candidates not to distance themselves from that view—reflects an almost total apathy toward space exploration by most of the major presidential candidates. But it is worth asking: just what, exactly, is Huckabee thinking with his wording? If not the president of the United States, then just who is finally going to make a commitment to a major expansion of the exploration of space? Just where does the buck stop?

On one hand, Huckabee’s response is reasonable. Committing to a Mars mission is a big decision: it would be a program stretching over at many administrations and many Congressional budgets, costing many billions of dollars. This is not something that is typically supported for the first time at a presidential debate.

Huckabee’s response—and the decision by the major candidates not to distance themselves from that view—reflects an almost total apathy toward space exploration by most of the major presidential candidates.

But being president is largely about making decisions. Why is it that Huckabee is willing to make decisions regarding whether to go to war, whether to ask Congress to raise or cut taxes, or whether to permit stem cell research, but not those decisions relating to spaceflight? All of these issues surely affect the average person much more in the short term than space exploration—and get infinitely more media attention. In this view, Huckabee’s blasé attitude toward committing to a manned Mars mission is simply not very rational, given the position that he is running for.

Certainly the decision to send astronauts to Mars carries none of the political baggage attached to it that the other decisions have. It has far less audible debates than those surrounding gay marriage or abortions. The amount of money spent is infinitesimal —and over a much longer time—than what will be spent on the decisions that Huckabee actually would make.

Is Huckabee seriously saying that he would take responsibility for going to war—or deciding not to—but that he would not commit a research agency to a major new program? That is exactly what his statement would imply. The rationale that he does want to make this decision because it’s somehow beyond the purview of the responsibility of the president is obviously rather ridiculous.

Rather than merely being an out-of-hand remark, Huckabee’s statement represents a disturbing refusal to take responsibility for advancing space exploration and science in the United States, something that should be within the realm of the President’s office. If not at the President of the United States, then just where does the buck stop?

However, despite Hucakbee’s exceedingly poor choice of words, the reason Huckabee made his statement was obviously not because he has a fear of making decisions. His answer is, of course, code for “I would decide not to support a Mars mission by failing to support one actively,” which for space exploration is tantamount to actively deciding against supporting spaceflight. For the President to hold NASA’s budget flat for a few years would be enough to nix a Mars mission for another 10 or 15 years. But why does this escape attention in the media?

A fringe issue?

It is unbelievable that someone running for president of the United States could say he would not want to make a decision, on almost any issue—except spaceflight, apparently. If Huckabee had said that he did not want to be the one to make a decision on withdrawing from Iraq, or on whether to enforce immigration laws, he would of course have been ridiculed in the media to no end. So what makes spaceflight different?

There is a widespread perception that space is a fringe issue. Interestingly, this is actually not the case. Nationwide polling conducted by the National Science Foundation (NSF) since 1979 (the NSF Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology) reveal that the proportion of the US public that considers themselves “very well informed” or “moderately well informed” about spaceflight is comparable to those informed about those issues considered more mainstream, like national defense.

There is a widespread perception that space is a fringe issue. Interestingly, this is actually not the case.

In 2001, 55 percent of those polled by the NSF considered themselves very well or moderately well informed about space exploration, compared with 58 percent for “international and foreign policy issues” and 63 percent for “military and defense policy” (with similar breakdowns of “very well” and “moderately well informed” people within each group). Among those who are “very well informed” about space exploration, the NSF data indicates that about 70 percent feel that the benefits of space exploration were greater than the costs. These numbers have been fairly consistent since the poll started in 1979. Clearly space exploration is not a fringe issue if one is not willing to consider military policy a fringe issue, at least in terms of the percentage of the public that is interested in the topic.

The real problem: outreach and vision

Thus, the real problem is fundamentally one of outreach. The interest is there, but NASA and other advocates for spaceflight are not doing a sufficiently strong job of convincing the public that, yes, manned exploration of Mars is worth undertaking; no, space exploration is not a fringe issue. Like Nixon’s infamous “silent majority”, the interest is there, but if no one kindles that spark of the public enthusiasm for spaceflight, we will be stuck stagnating as we have been for decades. This problem is addressed in Bob Mahoney’s superb article, “Space for Improvement” (part 1 and part 2, The Space Review, February 5 and 12, 2007).

As Mahoney points out, arguments like Huckabee’s, about how space exploration is good because GPS improves our lives carry about as much weight and meaning, and make as much sense, as if Huckabee were to say that he doesn’t want to decide to use the military, because armies decrease peace, and world peace is good. Fundamentally, in order to support the expansion of space exploration, those who have some level of interest in space exploration must be engaged on an emotional level, not just persuaded by spinoff arguments, or even “manifest destiny” intellectual arguments (both of which may be valid).

The fact that this is not done is what allows a candidate for President of the United States to dismiss a question about exploring a new world by saying we should send Hillary Clinton there. It is not because no one cares, so he can make a joke out of it. The interest is there, but it lies fallow. Outreach is the key.

In the end, the public—those who set the agenda by voting—don’t care whether the Ares 1 uses J-2Xs or SSME derivatives, or what kind of propellant the CEV uses. Most people have never heard of either of these vehicles. They care about the emotional impact of space exploration—the excitement of doing something new and wonderful—and that is what needs to be presented to the public.

Back to the debate

So what do we learn from this? To go back to the debate, we can come away with some important conclusions. First, while the wording of Huckabee’s throwaway line is, at best, questionable—the President doesn’t want to make decisions?—this is not really the underlying problem.

Instead, the perception that the public is generally apathetic—the same perception that allows Huckabee to turn the question of Mars exploration into a throwaway joke about Hillary Clinton—is what needs to be altered, by energizing the large base of those interested in spaceflight with effective outreach.

For this reason, asking questions about Mars exploration in a debate is not especially useful; given the perception that does exist that space is some silly side issue, it’s not reasonable to expect candidates to offer much more than negative comments of little weight before moving on to the next issue.

The space enthusiast community needs to stop bickering over funding choices or engine selections and band together to convince the public at large that taking the very first step on this journey—a mission to Mars—is indeed very cool stuff.

My intention is not to single out Mike Huckabee. It’s just that he’s made one of the only comments about space exploration in the entire campaign, and as we’ve discussed, it was more notable for its glibness and brevity than for what he actually said. Frankly, none of the candidates have said much of anything about space, except for Barack Obama, who wants to heavily cut Constellation, and Clinton, who says she would continue to fund it. But this very lack of statements is what we need to fix through the sort of outreach discussed by Bob Mahoney.

When I read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books, as many readers here probably have, I was enthralled by the expansive galactic civilization described in it; occurring about 20,000 years from now, it features a galaxy filled by 25 million colonized human worlds. The most accurate way I can describe the emotional impact of this idea is as really cool stuff.

The debate question was a signal that most people do not consciously think this way at present. If we ever want to build a spacefaring civilization, then we need to take this signal, from a short question on a CNN/YouTube debate, and use it to galvanize those of us who do care about space exploration to vastly expand the quality of our outreach. The space enthusiast community needs to stop bickering over funding choices or engine selections and band together to convince the public at large that taking the very first step on this journey—a mission to Mars—is indeed very cool stuff. If we do this right, then maybe four years from now, at the next debate, space exploration will not be dismissed again.