Saturday, October 25th, 2014

Space policy keeps rocketing to prominence

NASA chief Charles Bolden prompted a firestorm with comments he made on Al-Jazeera

Though the economy, overseas wars, health care reform and an oil spill have taken up much of President Barack Obama's time -- and sucked up most of the media oxygen -- space policy has been a quietly simmering issue for the administration.

When Obama released his proposed budget in February, he said that NASA would cancel Constellation, the successor system for the space shuttle, after the space agency had already spent $9 billion on the program. In the meantime, Obama offered an alternative road map for human space exploration over the next decade or more.

This change in priorities immediately prompted a backlash among lawmakers, companies and constituents dependent on Constellation and the plans that NASA had for it, including in the pivotal electoral state of Florida.

Then came a blogosphere and cable-news brushfire stemming from an interview that NASA chief Charles Bolden gave to the Arabic-language television network Al-Jazeera. In the interview, which aired June 30, 2010, Bolden was asked why he was in the Middle East. He noted that he was there around the anniversary of President Obama's 2009 speech in Cairo vowing a new beginning in U.S. relations with the Muslim world.

Bolden next listed the "three things" he says Obama charged him to do, including, "perhaps foremost," engaging much more with dominantly Muslim nations and getting "more people who can contribute to the things that we do," citing as past examples Russian and Japanese contributions to the International Space Station. "There is much to be gained by drawing in the contributions that are possible from the Muslim nations," he says.

Putting an emphasis on NASA's outreach to the Middle East drew howls of derision in some quarters. Our state affiliate, PolitiFact Texas, looked at one response to Bolden's comments, by Texas free-market activist Michael Sullivan, who spiced up a July 19 Twitter post on the 41st anniversary of Apollo 11 entering lunar orbit by adding: "NASA dir says main mission is Muslim outreach."

PolitiFact Texas concluded that Bolden did indeed make a comment along those lines, but that the tweet presents an exaggerated view of what transpired. It rated the comment Half True.

Meanwhile, we also added two space-related updates to the Obameter, PolitiFact's project to track the 500-plus campaign promises made by then-candidate Obama.

One is Obama's promise that, if elected, he would revive a disbanded, interdepartmental body known as the National Aeronautics and Space Council that once guided space policy. In several major space-policy reports, this idea was never broached, leading space policy experts to conclude that the idea is all but dead. So we rated it a Promise Broken.

The other is Obama's promise that as president, he would "restore U.S. leadership on space issues by seeking a code of conduct for space-faring nations, including a worldwide ban on weapons to interfere with satellites and a ban on testing anti-satellite weapons. Initiating and stating a willingness to participate in a regime protecting access to space will help the United States return to a position of leadership in promoting global stability."

On June 28, 2010, the administration released a document titled, "National Space Policy of the United States of America." In it, the administration says that it wants to seek an international code for space-faring nations but took a more deterrence-based approach to combating weapons in space than the promise, which favored an outright ban. Because of this change, we rated it a Compromise.

We'll continue posting additional Obameter items on space policy as they develop.