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The Houston Chronicle October 18, 2004

Space can wait until after Nov. 2

Candidates both say they support NASA, but other issues come first

By Patty Reinert

WASHINGTON - When it comes to the Nov. 2 presidential election, one thing is very clear: This race is not about space.

Sure, in the aftermath of the Columbia shuttle accident, President Bush began his election year with a trip to NASA headquarters here to lay out a bold initiative for sending robotic and human explorers back to the moon and on to Mars.

And who could forget Democratic challenger John Kerry donning the NASA-issued mint-green "bunny suit" and crawling around space shuttle Discovery at Kennedy Space Center in July?

Out of mind, out of sight

But with the war in Iraq, job losses at home and concerns about health care and education weighing heavily on the minds of voters, space exploration seems, well, out there. Neither candidate has mentioned it much, and virtually no one is complaining.

"That's really not surprising when you think of all the things the country is facing right now," said George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society, which endorses neither candidate.

"Space should not be politicized, and we're trying to remind people that space is not the domain of one party," he said. " ... We're all keeping our fingers crossed that no matter who gets elected, NASA is going back out there and exploring the universe."

'Stay the course'

Last week, after Bush and Kerry had completed their final televised debate, representatives of the campaigns squared off in a "space debate" in Washington. Each campaign assured space industry executives that their candidate is the space guy.

Frank Sietzen, a former space journalist who co-wrote a book about Bush's space policy and now campaigns for the president, defended Bush's plan. It calls for getting the grounded shuttle fleet flying again, completing construction on the international space station and pushing on for the moon and Mars.

"It's a great plan, and it's gaining momentum. For the last decade, people have been whining and yammering about the lack of a space vision," Sietzen said. "Well, now we have a vision. Stay the course ... now is not the time to retreat."

Lori Garver, a former NASA official and current space consultant, countered that Kerry is a strong advocate for science and technology development and a supporter of continued space exploration.

The difference between the candidates, she said, is that Kerry would balance NASA's priorities to make sure the space agency doesn't sacrifice aeronautics research, earth science or the repair of the Hubble Space Telescope to accomplish its lofty and costly exploration goals.

Shortly after Bush announced his moon-Mars plan in January, NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe decided to scrap a planned shuttle mission to fix the beloved Hubble, the space telescope that has rewritten astronomy textbooks. After an outcry from lawmakers, scientists and the public, NASA relented and is now developing a robotic mission to try to extend the telescope's life.

Never an election issue

Besides, she said, Bush has been so quiet about his space goals in the past few months that many wonder if he's truly committed. She noted that another four years of Bush leadership would mean "we'll keep talking about the moon and Mars and never go there."

But Sietzen said Bush's commitment is solid, and while the Republican Congress has failed to pass the president's budget for NASA, lawmakers and the public are supportive.

Sietzen attacked Kerry's voting record in the Senate, reading off a list of infractions, including the senator's votes in the early 1990s to cut funding for the international space station or to scrap it altogether.

Space analyst John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org said people in the space industry are interested in the candidates' views on space exploration, but most voters could care less.

"It's never been an election issue, and this year is no different," he said.

And regardless of who wins in November, Pike said, he doesn't expect NASA to be high on the White House's agenda.

"Whoever is elected is going to have their hands full on a lot of other issues," he said."There are a lot of fish to fry."


Copyright 2004, Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau