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Presidential Candidates Ambivalent On US Space Policy So Far

Next Week's Florida Primary Forces The Issue

Until now, US space policy has been a yawner on the presidential campaign trail. The prevailing wisdom is that the issue is not important to voters nationally, and that the downside risk of saying something unpopular outweighs any benefit in discussing specific policy.

However, next Tuesday is primary day in Florida, and NASA is a big part of the state economy. And so, begrudgingly, the candidates are giving up vague hints about how space exploration would be treated in their administrations.

Florida Today reports that among the Democrats, Hillary Clinton was first to go on record supporting a "robust human spaceflight" program, although she was less sure of the value of going to the moon or Mars on a specific timetable, which is the underlying premise of the Constellation program.

Barack Obama -- who had previously proposed mothballing Constellation for five years to divert the money to education programs -- must have talked to someone about what it would cost to restart that program after a layoff. He's since softened his opposition.

On the GOP side, Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney remained vague on NASA's funding or future direction. Back in August, he said of the space program, "Our future is driven in large measure by our investments in technology and innovation and learning, and that's what the space program is."

Florida is considered a must-win for Rudy Giuliani. He has called the five-year gap between the shuttle fleet's retirement in 2010 and the Orion program's start in 2015 "unacceptable," similar to Obama's new position on the Democrat side. Neither, so far, has offered ideas for closing that gap.

Republican Mike Huckabee says only that the space program should be expanded, but says he wouldn't want to make a decision on whether US astronauts should be sent to Mars.

The paper quotes Howard McCurdy, a science policy expert and public administration professor at American University in Washington, who says this year's compressed primary election season has squeezed discussion of policy out of the campaign.

"Everyone is transfixed by who's in the lead and who won last week, and we really haven't got around to talking about issues," McCurdy said. Or, in other words, there will be time to talk about going to Mars after you find out if you're going to Pennsylvania Avenue.

FMI: www.nasa.gov

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