Written by Oliver Sirrell
By the time Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton are sworn into the White House on January 20, 2017, it will have almost been 50 years to the day since the USA experienced its first space tragedy.
Apollo 1 went up in flames on January 27, 1967 when faulty wires created a spark in the pure oxygen environment of the space shuttle. This meant that the fire spread rapidly, killing astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee who had no escape route.
NASA were nationally embarrassed by this fateful event. Government inquiries were held to determine why the space institution got it so wrong and at the time it was thought that the deaths of the three astronauts would hinder US space travel significantly, delaying the next step in the mission to the moon by as much as a year.
Yet by July 1969, America was there. Neil Armstrong and then Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon just two and a half years after their former colleagues lost their lives, completing a frenzied race to beat the Soviet Union to Earth’s nearest neighbour.
The Americans could do this largely due to John F Kennedy’s policy to reach the moon ‘by the end of the decade’, a promise which was reinforced by the increasing of NASA’s budget by 500% from 1961-1964 and incessant patriotic rhetoric throughout Kennedy’s short tenure as President. Lyndon B Johnson and Richard Nixon, a Democrat and a Republican, also heavily endorsed the mission to the moon and it was during the latter’s Presidency that Armstrong uttered those famous words.
Fast forward 47 years and the incumbent President Barack Obama has this week re-iterated his 2010 ambition of reaching and settling on Mars by the middle of the 2030s, something he says “represents an essential part of (America’s) character — curiosity and exploration, innovation and ingenuity, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and doing it before anybody else.”
Yet these were the words of an outgoing President, not of an incoming one. Obama is already popular enough, as indicated by his current 52% favourability score – but these comments may have enhanced his approval ratings further. So is talk of space exploration something Clinton and Trump can gain from as well, or is it further down their list of priorities?
Unsurprisingly, in an election which has been shrouded by Clinton’s email controversies, Donald Trump’s comments about women and immigrants and now Hurricane Matthew, talk of space exploration has been as sporadic as one might think.
Trump slated Barack Obama back in 2012 when the President started proposing cuts of up to 20% to NASA’s planetary sciences division, tweeting:
It is very sad to see what @BarackObama has done with NASA. He has gutted the program and made us dependent on the Russians.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 27, 2012
Trump’s presence in Florida is large given that he owns numerous properties in the area, so it is perhaps expected of him to promote space exploration because of the huge financial boosts shuttle launches gave to Florida via tourism income throughout the space race and onwards. In a Reddit ‘ask me anything’ in July Trump gave a positive response when asked for his thoughts on space travel, saying, “Honestly I think NASA is wonderful! America has always led the world in space exploration”, suggesting that the Republican may revitalise Florida’s and NASA’s prospects. Clinton, meanwhile, offered a similarly positive response in 2015 when she said, “I really, really do support the space program. I would like to see us continue explore space.”
Venture back further, though, past the positive if insubstantial rhetoric and it is apparent that both Clinton’s and Trump’s parties are more interested in space exploration than the candidates themselves. A Democratic source gave a more enthused answer on space exploration, claiming ‘we will strengthen support for NASA and work in partnership with the international scientific community to launch new missions to space (if Clinton wins)’.
Clinton, however, has infamously distanced herself from NASA on at least four different occasions, dating back as far as 1992 and as recently as 2012 because of their 1960s policy on female astronauts. Clinton has recalled in speeches how she was told in a correspondence from NASA that, after asking as a young teenager how she could be involved with the exciting space programme talked up during Kennedy’s reign, NASA would not be accepting female astronauts.
Nowadays NASA’s astronaut programme is made up of 50% men and 50% women, but much of the presidential debate has revolved around gender equality and Clinton becoming the first female President of the United States so it would be out of character for her to now profess her love for NASA. Although with the mission to Mars now on the agenda, she has taken more of an interest in NASA’s objectives, including UFO theories and meteorite identification. In 2015 she stated “I think we’re just at the beginning of trying to understand what a black hole is? Why is it there? What is in it? What does it mean for us? We should, on a security basis, be mapping the meteorites and the meteors and all the other things that people worry about. There’s just a lot for us to keep learning. I think it’s a good investment.”
The Republicans issued a similar statement to the Democrats at their National Convention in July claiming America ‘must sustain our pre-eminence in space’, a statement which directly contradicted the comments Mr Trump made regarding his views on the space programme in November 2015. Speaking at a rally in New Hampshire the TV personality and entrepreneur said “You know, in the old days, it was great. Right now, we have bigger problems. You understand that? We’ve got to fix our potholes. You know, we don’t exactly have a lot of money.” These remarks were then echoed in a speech in August in Florida when the candidate said; “Look what’s happened with your employment (Floridians lost thousands of jobs in 2011 when the space shuttle fleet was retired). Look what’s happened with our whole history of space and leadership. Look what’s going on, folks. We’re like a Third World nation.” Space travel is not going to high on the list of worries for the ordinary voter, as Trump clearly understands.
However, speaking at an event with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Trump declared, “I think there needs to be a growing partnership between the government and the private sector as we continue to explore space. There seems to be tremendous overlap of interests so it seems logical to go forward together.” The idea of a collaboration between public and privately owned space institutes seems like something Trump would be open to and something that could be a possibility given the highly ambitious timeline on Elon Musk’s SpaceX project. The mission aims to send an unmanned shuttle to Mars in 2018 with a manned operation following six years later, the ultimate goal being to inhabit Mars with one million humans within the next 50-100 years. Musk’s plans are thorough and intricate but it may be that like with other previous failed independent space assignments, they may fall short without NASA support.
In contrast Clinton thinks that deep space exploration is something, “only the government can support”, hinting that her plans for colonising on Mars would mean a continuation of Obama’s and NASA’s current plan. This involves a ‘multi-step approach’. NASA has already completed phase one, using data from an 11 month mission performed by two International Space Station astronauts regarding long stays in space. Subsequently they plan to test the capabilities of their spacecraft around the moon and nearby asteroids, which Hillary Clinton would oversee while in the Oval Office, assuming this route to Mars is sustained. NASA missions to Mars would start by 2030 but attempts at colonising would be undertaken as a ‘group effort’ involving private companies as NASA officials have said, unless Ms. Clinton decides to re-invest into space discovery heavily if elected.
The space exploration issue is not a pivotal subject heading into this election and there are undoubtedly more important topics at hand in America such as Black Lives Matter, inequality, immigration and security fears and they will deservedly be at the forefront of the discourse come November 8th. This may allow private companies like SpaceX and Mars One to get a head start on NASA and the US government in the mission to Mars, but once in the Oval Office, it may be that either Clinton or Trump uses the Red Planet as a tool for popularity in their inaugural months as the Commander In Chief.