In an age of hyper-partisanship in U.S. politics, it is tempting to categorize every federal government initiative as promoted by one of the two major political parties. NASA has long benefited from being generally nonpartisan, mostly supported and sometimes criticized by members of both parties.
An area of frustration has been the lack of stability in NASA human space exploration direction and budget, especially the decision to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), that is, to a celestial destination beyond an orbiting space station. Presidential administrations sometimes shift direction by creating a new NASA human spaceflight policy, and Congress shapes the policy’s actual form with budget allocation and approval.
It can be tempting to oversimplify the politics of NASA human spaceflight destinations beyond LEO. Some look at the surface level of recent history and conclude Republicans prefer returning NASA astronauts to the Moon and Democrats prefer sending NASA astronauts to Mars. This oversimplification goes nowhere in reality.
Vice President Mike Pence last week announced a shift in NASA human spaceflight policy. NASA under the Democratic Barack Obama administration long focused on a #JourneyToMars with a stop-along-the-way to cis-lunar space (the space between Earth and the Moon). These plans potentially included astronauts orbiting the Moon, but didn’t include astronauts landing on the Moon. The Republican Donald Trump administration shifted policy to include humans landing on the surface on the Moon prior to continuing on to Mars, similar to the policies under the Republican Bush 41 and Bush 43 administrations.
Is it fair to conclude Republican presidents favor returning humans to the Moon on the way to Mars and Democratic presidents prefer skipping human lunar landings in favor of focusing on Mars? Analysis of presidential space policy initiatives supports the former, but the latter is more complex.
Mars has been a NASA human destination "horizon goal" for decades, even during the Apollo era when the U.S. was focused on sending astronauts to the Moon. Post-Apollo, the first clear national space policy focus on human destinations beyond LEO came from President George H. W. Bush who established the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) in 1989. The direction was to return humans to the Moon, then send them to Mars. The SEI did not last long in the Bill Clinton administration. The plan was resurrected under the George W. Bush administration in the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) in 2004, which morphed into the Constellation Program.
Although Constellation was canceled during the Obama Administration, Congress kept much of the program alive by resurrecting the Orion crew capsule and evolving Constellation’s new Ares vehicles into the Space Launch System. President Obama’s 2010 space policy speech directed NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid and then on to Mars, bypassing the Moon. Even so, NASA’s focus initially remained on sending humans to the Moon, only evolving to a cis-lunar space destination three years into the Obama administration. With Vice President Pence’s speech last week, the focus again shifted to return astronauts to the Moon and then on to Mars under the Trump administration.
To summarize, the three Republican presidents since 1989 directed NASA to return humans to the Moon and then on to Mars. One Democratic president directed NASA to send humans to an asteroid in cis-lunar space then on to Mars. One Democratic president preferred not to focus on humans beyond LEO. We can conclude recent Republican presidents prefer a Moon-first approach on the way to Mars, but we can’t make a sweeping generalization of recent Democratic presidents’ preferences.
Can a similar Moon or Mars bias be seen in Congress? We examined 15 members of Congress with strong space ties, 14 active and one (Senator Barbara Mikulski) who retired at the start of 2017. Of these 15 members of Congress, 6 are Senators and 9 are House Representatives. Six are Democrats and 9 are Republicans. We analyzed public statements and sponsored legislation, but for the purposes of this writing, we did not conduct deep dives or analyze voting records.
Nine of the 15 members of Congress support sending NASA astronauts to the Moon as well as Mars. Some strongly support these destinations, such as Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL 8th District) who authored the RE-asserting American Leadership in (REAL) Space Act, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK 1st District) who is President Trump’s nominee for NASA Administrator and author of the American Space Renaissance Act, Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA 7th District), and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX 21st District).
Many strongly support NASA’s development of the Space Launch System and Orion vehicles and therefore support both Moon and Mars destinations seemingly by default, such as Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX 36th District), and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL 5th District).
Some issued no strong statements in support of any particular destination for NASA astronauts beyond LEO, such as Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA).
One Republican, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA 48th District), expressed strong support in returning NASA astronauts to the Moon during the Constellation program, but stopped short in supporting NASA astronauts to Mars, preferring to support incremental progress with commercial company public-private partnerships and a lunar settlement.
Two Democrats strongly support sending NASA astronauts to Mars without expressing support for the Moon. Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO 7th District) campaigns for NASA to send humans to Mars by 2033. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX 30th District) expressed support for a flexible plan to send NASA astronauts to Mars. Although she supports private lunar activities and protecting historic Apollo sites on the Moon, we have not found evidence of her support to return NASA astronauts to the Moon.
Focusing on those three members of Congress with NASA human spaceflight destination preferences, it’s tempting to generalize a Republican preference for the Moon and a Democratic preference for Mars. However, these preferences likely have more to do with the specific member of Congress and less to do with their party affiliation. Looking at the big picture, 12 of the 15 members of congress (80%) support both Moon and Mars destinations or expressed no direct statement of support for either.
It would be to NASA’s detriment for the space community to artificially politicize national space policies. NASA’s bipartisan support allows budgets and legislation to pass and allows progress to be made in NASA human spaceflight at times when partisan politics stalls progress elsewhere. Individuals may disagree on the best way to advance NASA human spaceflight beyond LEO, but resorting to party labels and partisan politics is disingenuous and harmful. We thank presidential administrations and members of Congress for their continued support for NASA human spaceflight across the aisle.