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Cruz vs O’Rourke race puts NASA’s future on the Texas ballot


The space program has not become an issue in the race for the U.S. Senate in Texas between the incumbent, Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican, and his opponent, Rep. Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke, the Democratic challenger.

One reason is that space policy is not a partisan issue on the same level as, say, immigration, taxes, and gun rights. The second reason is that O’Rourke, as far as can be determined, has not expressed an opinion one way or the other about NASA, President Trump’s plan to return to the moon, or even the proposal for a Space Force. Repeated inquiries to the O’Rourke campaign have been met with silence.

{mosads}Still, since Cruz is the chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Space and Competitiveness, a look at his role in helping to shape space policy is worth an examination as we near the midterm election. 

When Republicans took the Senate in the 2014 midterm election, Cruz became the subcommittee chairmanship that oversees NASA. The Verge weighed in with concerns that the senator is a climate change skeptic, noting NASA’s role in climate and Earth science. Cruz has often stated that space exploration should be NASA’s primary mandate.

Cruz’s first major effort in shaping space policy was not about space exploration or Earth science, but rather commercial space. The senator was the primary senate sponsor of the Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, which passed in November of that year. The bill contained numerous provisions that clarified and simplified regulations for space launch companies such as SpaceX, ULA, and Blue Origin. However, Title IV of the act has the potential to reverberate through the rest of the 21st century and beyond. 

The title states, simply, that miners of space resources have the right to own the product of their enterprises and to profit from them. The provision, though controversial in some circles, is seen as codifying as a matter of American law the right of American companies to mine the moon and asteroids. The space mining section neatly gets around the part of the Outer Space Treaty that prohibits national sovereignty of territory on celestial bodies. Cruz and his supporters can point to the precedent of the Apollo moon rocks. Even though the United States never claimed places like Tranquility Base as its territory, its ownership of the moon rocks has been internationally recognized.

Cruz has also had a major effect on the ultimate fate of the International Space Station. The Trump administration would like to relieve itself of the burden of operating the ISS by 2024, likely by commercializing it. Wary of a “space gap” concerning human occupancy of low Earth orbit, Cruz has sponsored the Space Frontier Act of 2018, which will extend the operation of the ISS to 2030. The provision does not prohibit the commercialization of the space station but does mandate that it continue to operate whether by NASA and its international partners or by a commercial vendor.

Cruz has also emphasized that Mars rather than the moon be the focus of American space exploration efforts. According to Space Policy Online, while Cruz seems to accept that the moon is a necessary precursor for missions to Mars, he has also stated that efforts to return to Earth’s nearest neighbor should not “distract” NASA from landing humans on Mars by the 2030s. Cruz has not spoken openly about the commercial and scientific advantages of returning to the moon or the use of lunar water to make rocket fuel for deep-space missions, such as voyages to Mars.

It should be noted that while Cruz is a fierce partisan on issues such as health care, immigration, and gun rights, he has managed to deftly reach across the aisle with regard to space policy. The only instance in which bipartisanship broke down was during the confirmation of Jim Bridenstine for NASA administrator, which Cruz supported, while the entire Senate Democratic caucus opposed the nomination.

The Senate race in Texas will decide whether Cruz will continue to be an influential space policy player or not. Some excitement surrounding O’Rourke’s candidacy verges on “Betomania” and he huge influx of campaign cash from Hollywood and northeastern liberal donors. But the question is likely moot, as Cruz remains comfortably ahead of his Democratic opponent in recent polls and is likely to win reelection handily.

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”

Tags 2022 midterm elections climate science Donald Trump Jim Bridenstine Mark R. Whittington NASA Senate Space exploration Ted Cruz

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