2016 Election Insight: Space Just Doesn’t Matter in this Election

For many in the space advocacy community, claiming, even in this election cycle, that space policy issues do not matter is tantamount to heresy.

Well, I guess I’m the heretic.

Under normal political circumstances a candidate’s view on space policy would, and should, matter; but even then, its importance is dwarfed by more urgent issues like the economy, foreign and defense policy, and matters such as Social Security, Medicare, and education. Even this claim is heretical for a number of space advocates — and again, I’m that heretic.

The reality in this election cycle, however, is that space does not matter. Calls for candidates to declare their views or reveal policy prescriptions on the future of American space activities is not only a desperate attempt to bolster the political importance of space, it completely misses the point of what this election is about.

These are not normal political circumstances, and the very character of the political landscape in the United States is shifting under our very feet, for better or worse.

A number of current and former candidates, such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, have provided policy outlines for national security space; others such as Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton have expressed the usual platitudes that NASA and space exploration are great things that America should continue to do and be fantastic at. Beyond this, however, there is silence.

Bernie Sanders has many policy pledges on his campaign website, but space is nowhere to be seen. Donald Trump barely provides any details about any policy issue — with the exception of building walls — let alone about space. When asked, Trump did say that he believes America needs to focus on fixing “potholes” before concentrating on the national space program.

Similarly, and perhaps more importantly, outside of the relatively small community of passionate and committed space advocates, the vast majority of the electorate does not care what a candidate thinks about space policy. If they did, they would have told the candidates by now. They haven’t, and they are not likely to do so.

Why is this? First, this election cycle has seen the culmination, on both the left and right, of voter frustration with the political and economic establishments in Washington and on Wall Street. This election is not about whose policies are the most plausible on this or that issue; it is a referendum on those whom we have usually entrusted to make policy.

Some might argue that mainstream candidates such as Clinton and John Kasich are typical, status quo candidates for their respective political parties. But, in this election, these mainstream candidates are being forced to tack hard left and right in attempts to mollify and accommodate the formerly fringe movements now led by Sanders and Trump. In order to either accommodate or stave off the far reaches of both parties, more mainstream candidates have greater, more fundamental issues to contend with than space policy.

In light of this referendum on political and economic elites, space policy is viewed as a quixotic distraction. While the very establishment that has ruled this country for decades is under the microscope of detailed public scrutiny, space really does not matter. Furthermore, and possibly frustratingly for mainstream politicians, space policy cannot be used as a means to deflect the palpable anger and cynicism of the electorate.

Even if candidates felt they could offer up something substantial, the issues facing current space policy are complex enough to defy simple policy prescriptions. On one hand, there is a widely acknowledged crisis in America’s human space program that requires more political courage to solve that most candidates might prefer to avoid, while on the other hand matters like space science and the future of particular programs are too esoteric for easy consideration. On national security space, when political attention is paid to it at all, the stakes are likely to become politically charged (and not in a good way) in the coming years as threats to U.S. satellites increase and its responses to those threats could become more sensitive and controversial.

Faced with these issues, candidates and their advisers are likely to keep their powder dry — and their policy options open — avoiding specific commitments that could haunt them if they are elected.

As the political winnowing process in both parties continues, it is possible that the eventual nominees will ultimately issue some platitudinous and general space policy statement that tells us nothing much at all. And, even then, given the wider political stakes in this coming election, such policy statements will not matter at all.

In the interests of my professional standing among my fellow space policy wonks, I do acknowledge, of course, that personally and professionally, I believe that space policy is important. I even believe that, in some cases, space policy issues are vitally important to the well being of the United States.

I also believe, though, that the space advocacy community does itself, politicians, and the wider public a disservice when it posits space as an end in itself, rather than as a plausible means to ends that serve the greater good, and when it seeks to privilege space issues above — and, frankly, out of proportion to — more important policy issues or more urgent political imperatives.

This is a criticism that I have long leveled at the space advocacy community, even under normal political circumstances. In this current political cycle, however, this fundamental flaw seems all the more problematic.

Politicians seem to understand what space advocates do not get, space just doesn’t matter in this political climate.

John B. Sheldon is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, chairman and president of ThorGroup GmbH, and publisher of SpaceWatch Middle East. The views expressed here are his own.