Clinton, Trump appear lost on space policy

Presidential campaigns are always in search of elusive swing-state votes and valuable donor pools. Adopting a coherent space policy would deliver on both. Last week’s explosion of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and a satellite that held Facebook’s dreams of African Internet coverage presented the perfect opportunity. Yet Americans heard nothing from Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

The loss of an unmanned rocket is hardly noteworthy — nearly 10 percent of space launches fail — but the dramatic video of the explosion dominated the Internet, because Americans love a good explosion and are fascinated by the prospect of commercial space travel. Some 50 years after “Star Trek” premiered, our faith in humankind’s bright future among the stars, the allure of space still crosses boundaries of politics, class and race. While John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan both wielded the powerful leverage of this positive shared vision, our current presidential candidates foolishly eschew it in favor of intractable and divisive issues.

Americans understand that our space dollars are well spent: 68 percent of us hold a favorable view of NASA (just 17 percent unfavorable). The Space Race gave us the Internet and a plethora of other astoundingly valuable technological contributions from solar power to medical telemetry. The annual economic returns from the Global Positioning System satellite constellation outweigh our combined civilian and military space spending. Yet NASA’s 0.45 percent of the federal budget is in decline.

Space is cool: My students turn down offers at Google to work for less at SpaceX and, because it is promising, venture capitalists invest serious money in new space firms. Americans admire entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk (SpaceX), Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic) and Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin). Though each of their space firms has suffered vehicle losses, they’ve not paused in their quest to get us into space. SpaceX, based in Hawthorne (Los Angeles County), employs 5,000 people and has recaptured the commercial launch market that the U.S. had abandoned to foreign competitors.

An image from a webcam from NASA'S Kennedy Space Center, shortly after a reported explosion at a SpaceX launch site Thursday morning. (NASA) Photo: NASA, TNS
Photo: NASA, TNS

An image from a webcam from NASA’S Kennedy Space Center, shortly after a reported explosion at a SpaceX launch site Thursday morning. (NASA)

Sadly, our presidential candidates haven’t boarded this rocket. Aerospace America magazine offered the candidates a forum to share their aerospace policies. The Clinton campaign did not participate. Trump’s responses were short, generic and uninformed. (Bernie Sanders’ were detailed and well informed.) Neither major candidate’s “issues” page mentions space.

Googling “Clinton space policy” reveals a vacuum. Clinton once answered a town hall question with, “I really, really do support the space program.” She’s also committed to finding the truth about UFOs, but it’s totally unclear where she might send our astronauts. The Democratic Party platform contains a single paragraph vaguely promising support for exploration but ignores commercial space activities, something President Obama firmly supports.

(FILES) This file photo taken on April 06, 2016 shows Space X's Falcon 9 rocket lifting off with an unmanned Dragon cargo craft from the launch platform in Cape Canaveral, Florida. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded on September 1, 2016, on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida during a test, destroying it and its payload, the private space firm said. "Per standard procedure, the pad was clear and there were no injuries," SpaceX said in a statement. / AFP PHOTO / BRUCE WEAVERBRUCE WEAVER/AFP/Getty Images Photo: BRUCE WEAVER, AFP/Getty Images
Photo: BRUCE WEAVER, AFP/Getty Images

(FILES) This file photo taken on April 06, 2016 shows Space X’s Falcon 9 rocket lifting off with an unmanned Dragon cargo craft from the launch platform in Cape Canaveral, Florida. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded on September 1, 2016, on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida during a test, destroying it and its payload, the private space firm said. “Per standard procedure, the pad was clear and there were no injuries,” SpaceX said in a statement. / AFP PHOTO / BRUCE WEAVERBRUCE WEAVER/AFP/Getty Images

Searching “Trump space policy” produces mysterious signals. The GOP candidate offered, “Honestly, I think NASA is wonderful!” but also “Right now, we have bigger problems. … We have to fix our potholes.” He has compared America’s status in space to that of “a third-world nation” but also remarked, “Space is actually being taken over privately, which is great.” The Republican Party platform briefly supports public-private space partnerships.

Clearly backing the commercial space industry and boldly committing to concrete public space exploration goals would score votes in Florida and raise dollars in California. I encourage the candidates to channel Kennedy or Reagan and speak boldly on a topic that voters and billionaires both love.

Greg Autry, an assistant professor of business with the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Southern California, researches commercial spaceflight.