Marco Rubio had the perfect stage last month to talk about space policy, had he wanted to. A Feb. 27 campaign stop in Huntsville, Alabama, brought the Florida senator, running for the Republican presidential nomination, to the city’s U.S. Space and Rocket Center. The backdrop for his campaign rally was a full-sized shuttle model, complete with external tank and solid rocket boosters.
Rubio, though, let the opportunity pass him by, offering only generalities about space. “This setting is fantastic. It’s a reminder of what great countries do,” he said of the shuttle behind him, saying little more about space in the remainder of the half-hour speech.
Neither Rubio nor any of the other remaining presidential candidates in either party have said much about space in this campaign. That’s been aggravating to some space advocates, who want to know what the candidates might do — particularly what programs they will keep or cancel — if elected this November.
Others, though, are just fine with the lack of specifics. “To some extent, the purpose of this is not to have space become a big presidential issue,” said Elliot Pulham, chief executive of the Space Foundation, at a March 4 press conference at the National Press Club in Washington.
The “this” he was referring to was a white paper, titled “Ensuring U.S. Leadership in Space,” that a coalition of 13 space organizations released at the event. The five-page paper, intended as a background paper for candidates, discusses the importance of space and offers some policy recommendations.
The organizations didn’t break much policy ground with the paper, though. The paper’s theme is one of stability: it’s peppered with words like “predictable,” “maintains” and “continued.” It endorses development of both the Space Launch System and NASA’s commercial crew program, two efforts that have often been pitted against one another in the past.
It’s too soon, Pulham suggested, to know if the white paper has influenced any candidate’s thinking about space. “At this point, the staff who have received these have expressed gratitude and interest,” he said.
But why not encourage space to become a bigger issue in the campaign? Perhaps it’s the fear of what might go wrong. “I would be perfectly happy if nobody on the campaign trail said anything stupid about space,” Pulham said.
Pulham didn’t elaborate on what might constitute “stupid,” but one need only recall the 2012 campaign, when Newt Gingrich gave a space policy speech in Florida that, at one point, invoked the possibility of statehood for lunar settlements. Any discussions about the overall merits of his plan were lost in the jokes and ridicule that followed.
In addition, the 2012 campaign was relatively tame and predictable compared to the ongoing race for the White House. Pulham may have a point: it may be best for space to keep a low profile for the time being, even if means passing on some opportunities like the one in Huntsville.