Until very recently, space policy has been a non-partisan issue. Even when politicians were divided on space-policy issues, that disagreement rarely aligned with party lines. Unfortunately, that has changed in the last few years.
One organization seems determined to throw fuel on the political fire.
The Space Frontier Foundation has branded Republicans “the Party of Big Government Space.” That description is not entirely unfair. Many Republicans (Representative Frank Wolf of Virginia, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, and Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama are notable examples) have championed expensive new NASA programs such as the Space Launch System.
It is important to note, however, that many Democrats (such as Senator Bill Nelson of Florida) are also onboard with SLS. Not that long ago, the Space Frontier Foundation itself was calling on NASA to cancel Ares I and concentrate on development of Ares V (the Space Launch System by any other name). Having gotten what it asked for, the SFF suddenly changed its mind.
In this case, though, the Space Frontier Foundation is not criticizing Republicans for supporting SLS. The GOP political platform, which is the target of SFF’s ire, does not call for SLS or any other specific project. Instead, it consists entirely of inoffensive, feel-good statements about space (as one might expect from a party platform.)
This lack of specificity is, in fact, the source of the SFF’s anger. According to the SFF press release, the GOP “has nothing but hackneyed praise for NASA, and doesn’t even mention the increasing role of the private sector.”
True, the GOP platform does not mention the role of the private sector, either to praise or criticize it. Neither does the Democratic platform. As NASA Watch points out, the DNC platform is even less specific, limiting mention of space to a single sentence: “President Obama has charted a new mission for NASA to lead us to a future that builds on America’s legacy of innovation and exploration.”
Whether through coordination or coincidence, the SFF press release appeared at almost exactly the same time as a similarly-themed press release by the Obama campaign, in which the campaign’s Florida Press Secretary Eric Jotkoff “called out Romney” for having “No Clear Vision for NASA.” Like the GOP platform, the Obama press release failed to mention an increasing role for the private sector, but the Space Frontier Foundation has not seen fit to criticize Jotkoff.
It’s not apparent that any statement by a GOP candidate could satisfy the Space Frontier Foundation. In 2011 and again in 2012, Newt Gingrich called for a national commitment to establish a lunar settlement, with the private sector playing the lead role. The Space Frontier Foundation actually liked the idea. In January 2012, it published a statement saying it was “encouraged by increasing support for space settlement.” Even so, it could not resist taking a partisan swipe at the candidate. The SFF’s Keep the Promise project manager (i.e., political lobbyist) Aaron Oesterle went out of his way to say, “I disagree with Speaker Gingrich on far too many issues to ever endorse him.”
Even while supporting Gingrich’s policy, the “nonpartisan” Space Frontier Foundation leadership could not find a single spokesman who was supportive of or even neutral toward the Gingrich campaign. That seems especially odd since the SFF’s Founder, James Muncy, once worked on Gingrich’s staff. A back-handed attack is a strange way to try to influence a politician.
It is consistent, however, with the political strategy created by the Space Frontier Foundation’s long-time chairman Bob Werb.
Bob Werb is a New York real-estate developer who was a strong Obama supporter in 2008. Federal Election Commission records show that Werb donated $2300 (just under the legal limit for individual contributions) to the Obama campaign, while his wife donated another $2300. In July 2007, the SFF held its annual NewSpace Conference in Washington, DC. At that time, Werb told various individuals that his strategy was to “reach out to Progressives” and “make space a Democratic issue.”
The short-term consequences of that strategy appear to be positive for commercial space companies, at least those involved in commercial resupply of the International Space Station. Unfortunately, the strategy of making commercial space a Democratic issue has produced a predictable backlash that makes it very difficult for GOP politicians to get behind it. This backlash has resulted in loss of support for innovative pro-commercial programs such as Centennial Challenges and Commercial ReUsable Suborbital Research, which the SFF cares less about. Those programs were noncontroversial in the past.
This situation is unfortunate. The commercial space movement is not strong enough that it can afford active hostility from either political party, nor is there any reason for it. It also seems inappropriate for a 501(c)3 to tilt so heavily to one side. We can only hope that the Space Frontier Foundation will steer a more responsible path in the future and that other pro-space organizations will avoid making the same mistakes.