With a few notable exceptions, journalists missed an opportunity to rip into a rare intersection of education and science on the campaign trail last week. It should be noted, penitently, that this column also appears a bit late, and usually I let missed stories slide after a week or so. But this is one of those instances when the press really fumbled a chance to get more out of the candidates.
The event in question was a speech that Barack Obama made in New Hampshire last Tuesday laying out his $18 billion education plan. Actually, the speech drew fairly widespread coverage - No Child Left Behind, and all. Only The Washington Post’s Marc Kaufman, however, expanded upon a little-noticed item at the end of Obama’s plan. In a note on fiscal responsibility, the senator says he would delay NASA’s controversial moon-to-Mars program five years in order to fund education initiatives. Kaufman took this inconspicuous item and, quite astutely, wove it into a larger article about candidates’ positions (mostly a lack thereof) on a crucial element in the future of American space exploration.
The reason that journalists could have done more with this story is that it amounts to a double whammy. It explores two underreported subjects at once: the moon-to-Mars program, and candidates’ platforms on science beyond climate and energy. The moon-to-Mars project, otherwise known as the Constellation program, is the Bush administration’s plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 with, specifically, an eye toward eventually sending them even farther. At an estimated cost of around $100 billion, many critics think that NASA has its head up a black hole on this one. They argue that Bush’s “vision” for space is exploration for exploration’s sake with little focus on the kind of scientific inquiries that could benefit human beings in the here and now.
It’s not that the moon-to-Mars program is as important as energy or education, which get much more play from politicians and the press, but reporters should be out there testing candidates. Journalists have a responsibility to push them beyond their tried and true talking points and search out the limits of their knowledge. Kaufman wrote in the Post that, “Except for Clinton’s, none of the official campaign Web sites appears to mention NASA or human space exploration specifically.” That’s still the case, and it shouldn’t be. Clinton made a smart move when she used the fiftieth anniversary of the Sputnik satellite launch this fall to announce that she would end the Republican “war on science.” Among other things, the New York senator said that she supports continuing manned space exploration and, seemingly, the Constellation program.