Obama re-election unlikely to shift space policy

Washington DC
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Although the outcome of the US presidential elections is likely to leave space policy largely unchanged, jockeying in Congress has already begun for influential positions.

Failed Republican challenger Mitt Romney's space policies were largely opaque. His stance was mostly limited to calling for a strengthening of the US position in space and criticising Barack Obama's handling of the sector. Romney may have had concrete plans for a resurgent US spaceflight programme, but if he did, these were kept very close to his chest.

That said, President Obama was also silent; indeed, he shared even less during the campaign. And while his policies implemented as president speak for themselves, NASA has been criticised for lacking a clear focus or direction.

Such criticisms are justified, but the Obama administration has at least initiated two major projects: the James Webb Space Telescope, a technically impressive and impressively over-budget flagship mission; and the Space Launch System (SLS), an enormous launch vehicle.

Obama initially resisted SLS, but Congress passed a law making its construction mandatory. While not necessarily negative, it does commit the US to launching certain types of mission, mainly crewed flights with an eye to landings on other planets. It also restricts money for other launch vehicles, including the commercial crew integrated capability (CCiCap) programme under which Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX are developing competing innovative low Earth orbit (LEO) transportation capabilities.

The remaining budget is enough for small missions launching relatively modest spacecraft. Small craft, though, can reap big rewards. A Mars lander, Insight - not nearly as complex or comprehensive as the Mars Science Laboratory, a rover the size of a car that landed successfully and is slowly making its way across the Martian surface -is being designed to fall to Mars and take seismic readings.

Rumours have also been bouncing around the space community about a new space station to be placed at a Lagrange point, allowing it to orbit the sun in a stable position relative to the Earth and moon. Such a station would be inexpensive compared with a moon landing, which requires designing a specialised lander for several billion dollars, but would make missions to the moon or bodies beyond significantly easier by serving as a fuel and logistics depot.

Although the make-up of Congress shifted very little following the results of the 6 November polls - the Democrats remain in control of the Senate, and Republicans the House of Representatives - changes are coming to the committees and subcommittees that are crucial to setting next NASA's course.

Membership of the groups is likely to change, although the outcome of this is as yet unclear. Positions on the relevant committees - science, space and technology in the House; commerce, science and transportation in the Senate - are not usually among the most sought-after, and nor are their members especially influential.

The House, with all its members up for re-election every two years, is, predictably, the most dynamic. The committee chairman, Texas Republican Ralph Hall, was re-elected but must step down from his chairmanship under House rules, and four would-be successors have thrown their hats into the ring as of the time of writing. The contenders have all been involved in legislating spaceflight policy, albeit to varying degrees, and all profess a serious interest in the subject. Tipped as favourites for the position are Representatives Dana Rohrabacher of California and James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, both of whom have significant experience in space policy. Rohrabacher in particular, a moderate Republican, is considered highly knowledgeable and a champion of the CCiCap programme.

"They have very different personalities," says John Logsdon, a professor of space policy at George Washington University. "Sensenbrenner has been chair of the space subcommittee and was head of the whole committee at one point. [Rohrabacher] is well-known as an advocate of increased private-sector engagement, and paid a lot of attention to space as an issue. So either one of them would bring a fair degree of knowledge to the committee with regards to the space programme."

Another possibility is Lamar Smith, another Texas incumbent. Despite holding a position on the committee and its relevant subcommittee, Smith is not well-known in space circles, and his possible priorities as chair are largely unclear.

In the Senate, the largest movement is the retirement of ranking Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, a vocal and influential legislator who is retiring from her Texas office. While Hutchison was known largely as a moderate, the new ranking member, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, is a polar opposite.

"Senator DeMint is a strong fiscal conservative, not a champion of NASA and spaceflight," says Jim Muncy, founder of Polispace, a space policy firm based in Washington, DC. "Not to say he isn't pro-space, but he doesn't have the Johnson Space Center in his state. That will be different."