Sanders NASA plan is definitely Earth first

Sanders NASA plan is definitely Earth first
© Greg Nash

NASA and, more specifically, the Artemis return-to-the-moon program, has not yet become a partisan political issue for the 2020 presidential election. That might change if Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden wins DC primary Biden wins Montana primary Biden wins New Mexico primary MORE (I-Vt.) becomes the Democratic nominee.

For those people who care about the Artemis program’s potential — to benefit the United States and the world — a Sanders presidency would be a gut punch.

“Bernie supports NASA’s mission and is generally in favor of increasing funding for NASA, but only after the needs of Americans on Earth are met first,” his campaign website states.

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Taking his agenda into context, the statement can be roughly translated into: Under a Sanders presidency, no space exploration will take place.

Sanders has some very ambitious plans to meet the needs of Americans on Earth first. His version of the Green New Deal, the plan to address climate change by remaking the American economy, is estimated to cost $16.4 trillion. “Medicare for all,” the Sanders plan to nationalize the American health-care system, would cost roughly $32.6 trillion over the first 10 years of its implementation.

Clearly, the imposition of such a vast obligation to the federal budget would likely preclude even the relatively modest increases of funding NASA would need to get Americans back to the moon and on to Mars. At best, the space agency would become a climate-change agency, such as proposed by Lori Garver, former deputy administrator of NASA.

Do not look to the private sector to take humans beyond low-Earth orbit under a Sanders presidency. The immense taxes that the Green New Deal and Medicare for all would need would fall heaviest on firms such as SpaceX and Blue Origin. Little money would be left over to fund private space exploration. 

Since President TrumpDonald John TrumpFormer employees critique EPA under Trump in new report Fired State Department watchdog says Pompeo aide attempted to 'bully' him over investigations Virginia senator calls for Barr to resign over order to clear protests MORE warmly supports investments in space, a Sanders nomination for president by the Democratic Party would set up space exploration as a partisan issue. Even if, as is likely, Trump were to win the argument, the development would be a tragedy. 

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NASA Administrator Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineSpace dominance by way of Texas SpaceX launches first manned space flight from US in nearly a decade The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Twitter says Trump violates rules with 'shooting' threat MORE’s political vision for the Artemis program is to make support for the return to the moon bipartisan. In other words, in a perfect world, both Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzRosenstein takes fire from Republicans in heated testimony Clyburn: Cowed GOP ascribes 'mystical powers' to Trump GOP senators dodge on treatment of White House protesters MORE (R-Texas) and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi scoffs at comparison between Trump and Churchill: 'I think they're hallucinating' Republicans stand by Esper after public break with Trump Pelosi joins protests against George Floyd's death outside Capitol MORE (D-Calif.) would favor putting “the first woman and the next man” on the lunar surface by 2024. Bridenstine, by all accounts, is making good progress toward that goal. Even Nancy Pelosi has expressed support for the Artemis program. She is said to be quite enthusiastic about a woman exploring the moon’s surface.

A Sanders nomination has every potential to blow up that emerging consensus. If Trump and Sanders start to argue about the benefits of space exploration versus the Green New Deal, Republicans and Democrats would retreat to their corners and fight it out. Bipartisan support for space exploration would have to be rebuilt all over again after a Trump reelection. A Sanders election would mean the end of yet another plan to send humans to deep space, perhaps this time forever.

Ideally, deep space exploration should have the same political support as the International Space Station. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the space station project endured numerous Democratic attempts to kill it. Now, the argument concerning ISS is not whether it should exist, but how long it should keep functioning. Bridenstine’s goal is for the same attitude to exist for Artemis. 

Sanders, incidentally, does not like the idea of “militarizing space,” i.e. the Space Force. “Bernie is against militarizing space and wants to prioritize domestic spending,” according to his campaign

However, Russia and China are already militarizing space, creating weapons systems to strike at America’s space assets. Sanders would likely end the effort to create a United States Space Force, making a space version of Pearl Harbor more likely. An enemy strike on American GPS, communications, and reconnaissance satellites would wreck the American military’s ability to wage war and the American economy to function. America might not survive as a functioning civilization.

The other Democratic candidates should take note and resist the temptation to attack Trump’s space policy just because they loathe the president. Some things are too important to be part of a political war.

Mark R. 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.”