Published November 06, 2012
The outcome of the 2012 presidential election is unlikely to have a profound impact on the future direction of American spaceflight and exploration, experts say.
While Republican candidate Mitt Romney has revealed few details about his space plans, a Romney Administration probably wouldn't dramatically alter the path NASA is currently pursuing under President Barack Obama, according to some observers.
"There are unlikely, as a result of the election, to be seismic changes," said space policy expert John Logsdon, a professor emeritus at George Washington University.
The status quo
In 2010, President Obama directed NASA to work toward getting astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, then on to the vicinity of Mars by the mid-2030s. [Gallery: President Obama and NASA]
To reach these deep-space destinations, the agency is developing a huge rocket called the Space Launch System and a crew capsule called Orion. NASA hopes the SLS-Orion combo will begin launching astronauts by late 2021.
The Obama Administration has also encouraged NASA to hand over crew and cargo activities in low-Earth orbit (LEO) to private American companies. The aim is to fill the void left by the 2011 retirement of the space shuttle program, which was set in motion by President George W. Bush back in 2004.
NASA has doled out a total of $1.4 billion in the past two years to firms developing crewed vehicles. The agency wants at least two crewed commercial spaceships to be up and running by 2017; until then, the United States will remain dependent on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to provide this orbital taxi service.
The progress has been faster on the cargo front, with California-based SpaceX completing the first of 12 contracted supply flights to the International Space Station with its robotic Dragon capsule last month. NASA has also inked a resupply deal with Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp., which aims to launch a demonstration mission to the orbiting lab in the coming months.
Romney's campaign team released a space policy paper in late September. The eight-page document pledges to ensure that the United States remains the world leader in space exploration and space capabilities.
But Romney and running mate Paul Ryan, a congressman from Wisconsin, offer few details about how they would accomplish their broad, overarching goals. Specifics will be drawn up later, after the election, they say.
"He will bring together all the stakeholders — from NASA, from the Air Force, from our leading universities, and from commercial enterprises — to set goals, identify missions, and define a pathway forward that is guided, coherent, and worthy of our great nation," the Romney policy paper reads.
So it's tough to know for sure how a Romney Adminstration would affect NASA's current path. But Logsdon doesn't foresee huge shifts, noting that Romney appears to support the effort to develop private astronaut taxis for journeys to and from LEO. [Special Report: The Private Space Taxi Race]
"The Romney campaign paper did endorse commercial crew," Logsdon told SPACE.com.
The people advising Romney on space — including former NASA chief Mike Griffin and Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University — have historically been committed to space exploration, Logsdon added.
"So I wouldn't see a dramatic turning away from beyond-LEO planning," Logsdon said.
Money, money, money
It's probably safe to assume that NASA's budget — which stands at $17.7 billion in the proposed 2013 federal budget — would not go up in a Romney Administration.
"A strong and successful NASA does not require more funding, it needs clearer priorities," Romney's policy paper states.
But given the nation's debt issues, NASA funding is unlikely to rise significantly in the near future under President Obama either, Logsdon and others say. As a result, the agency's activities may be similarly constrained no matter who wins the election.
"I suspect the realities of the budget would mean that there isn't going to be a lot of difference between them," said physicist Lawrence Krauss, director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University and the author of the best-selling book "A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing" (Free Press, 2012).
Krauss is a founding board member of Science Debate 2012, a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that attempts to get political candidates to discuss science and science policy.
All this isn't to say that America's space future would be identical under Romney and Obama. Obama is more likely to support pure science missions, Krauss said, especially Earth-observation efforts that could help diagnose the effects of climate change.
"The Obama Administration has consistently understood the science, especially regarding Earth monitoring, more than the Republicans," Krauss told SPACE.com.
It's also possible — perhaps even likely — that a President Romney would ask NASA to refocus its near-term manned spaceflight activities away from asteroids and back to the moon.
Getting humans back to the moon was NASA's goal under the Bush-era Constellation program, which aimed to put more bootprints in the lunar dirt by 2020. But Obama cancelled Constellation after a review panel found the program to be significantly overbudget, underfunded and behind schedule.
Pace and Griffin have been enthusiastic about the moon as a destination for human exploration, so they may help counsel Romney in that direction.
"You could reason by past priorities that they'd give increased emphasis to the moon as opposed to asteroids," Logsdon said. "But beyond that I don't think you can say a whole lot."
But such a shift may not be too jarring for NASA, as the agency is already thinking about a manned moon mission now under President Obama using the SLS and Orion.
"We just recently delivered a comprehensive report to Congress outlining our destinations, which makes clear that SLS will go way beyond low-Earth orbit to explore the expansive space around the Earth-moon system, near-Earth asteroids, the moon, and ultimately, Mars," NASA deputy chief Lori Garver said at a conference in September.
"Let me say that again: We're going back to the moon, attempting a first-ever mission to send humans to an asteroid and actively developing a plan to take Americans to Mars," Garver added.