campaign desk

Obama’s NASA Plan Gets Little Play

Most reporters miss intersection of science, education in the campaign
November 29, 2007

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.

Is manned spaceflight really necessary, however, especially if it costs an exorbitant amount of money that could be used to help things like inner-city schools? Phrased like this, the obvious answer is: no way. But consider the frontier spirit and all that it has done to give the United States a sense of purpose and gauge of progress. This might seem a bit effete, but there is a tangible measure of this idea – just look at the wave of proud and animated news coverage that accompanied the Sputnik anniversary. Some of this touched on the moon-to-Mars program, but questions about its legitimacy are still unresolved. The project has received limited coverage over the last two years, but not enough. The Boston Globe wrote an editorial in June 2006, for example, which argued that unmanned space exploration is currently more fruitful and much cheaper (think Hubble). More importantly, the editors decried cuts in NASA’s budget that placed exploration above science. Why send an astronaut to the moon when investing in a satellite can provide more useful information about Earth’s solar radiation, cloud cover, precipitation patterns, atmospheric water vapor, and soil moisture? The Economist made similar observations in a detailed article/analysis from 2005. On the other hand, the Times-Picayune in Louisiana (where the moon-to-Mars program’s flight crew vehicle is being built) editorialized last summer that, “Despite its retro vibe, the Constellation program is about the future, not only of the space program but also of New Orleans.” Clinton made a related comment about the economic and academic pitfalls of abandoning manned space flight: it could lead to a “brain drain” where lack of experience thwarts future training and leadership.

Unfortunately, reporters have not capitalized on these rare moments to make more of this story. To his credit, MSNBC’s science editor, Alan Boyle, covered Kaufman’s tracks on Monday, noting the unique intersection of science and education on the campaign trail. Whatever the best approach to the next stage of space exploration may be, however, we are certainly never going to find it until more journalists start mulling over the different options, and at the same time, pressing candidates to talk about which of those options they would favor as president.

Sign up for CJR's daily email
Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.