Surrogates for President Barack Obama and Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney are doing their best to distinguish their candidates on space-policy issues, but grim budget reality has forced both parties into supporting the U.S. space program that evolved in the past four years.

The handwriting was on the wall when Obama took office, and he quickly established a review panel headed by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine to certify that the George W. Bush administration's Constellation program was “unsustainable . . . perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources.”

At that point things got messy. The Obama-administration call for a shift to commercial human spaceflight and an open-ended “push” for technology to enable unspecified exploration missions ran into a buzz saw of competing Capitol Hill constituent interests and White House power plays.

The upshot is today's compromise policy that combines commercial human spaceflight with the government's deep-space Orion crew vehicle and the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS). Technology spending is reduced from Obama's original wish list, and is now more tightly focused on destination-driven exploration.

Obama set his preferred destination—a near-Earth asteroid—under congressional pressure to target NASA spending somewhere. The target date—2025—is extremely notional as the budget pressure continues. Both parties are pretty much boxed in as a result, unable to advocate more dramatic shifts in U.S. space policy. That leaves how well the candidates say they will manage the hybrid civil space program for the next four years as essentially the major space-policy issue for the campaign.

Neither candidate is making space policy a big deal this year, leaving the discussion to the same set of experts who have traded jobs in keeping with partisan shifts in White House control over the past two decades or more. For Obama that means NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and his deputy, Lori Garver. Romney's space position has been drafted by a panel of advisers that includes former Administrator Michael Griffin and White House space officials from the two Bush administrations.

“We have watched with dismay as President Obama dismantled the structure that was guiding both the government and commercial space sectors, while providing no purpose or vision or mission,” the Romney advisers wrote in a joint letter in January. “This failure of leadership has thrust the space program into disarray and triggered a dangerous erosion of our technical workforce and capabilities.”

Garver, who ran NASA's policy shop under President Bill Clinton and played a key role in setting Obama's space policy, addressed the Republican charge in a Sept. 11 California speech.

“Nothing could be further from the truth, and those who perpetuate that myth only hurt our entire industry—and undermine our nation's goals, at this critical time, period,” she says. “The truth is we have an ambitious series of deep-space destinations we plan to explore, and are hard at work developing the hardware—and the technologies—to get us there.”

The Obama campaign issued a list of administration accomplishments along those lines in Florida, where the loss of jobs at Kennedy Space Center with the retirement of the shuttle and the scuttling of the “unsustainable” Constellation program is a threat to the president's reelection support in the critical “I-4 corridor” across the middle of the state. Included were the addition of two space shuttle flights, extending International Space Station funding from 2015 until 2020, and “supporting development of the next-generation space vehicle.” All are steps that eased the jobs impact in Florida.

Also listed: starting a commercial human spaceflight industry and—citing the landing in August of the Curiosity Mars rover—“continued investments in deep-space exploration.”

“We're successfully undertaking missions that other nations can only dream about, unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit of American industry to do what it does best and investing in game-changing technology that will revolutionize space travel and life on Earth,” Garver said in her speech on Sept. 11. “The best days of our space program are ahead of us. And have no doubt; America's space program is better off than it was four years ago.”

Certainly the Obama campaign's commercial human spaceflight claim is valid (AW&ST Oct. 1, p. 38). The rest of the claims also are true on the surface. But it is a stretch for Obama to take credit for the heavy-lift Space Launch System, which was forced on him by Congress and is sometimes referred to as the “Senate Launch System” by its critics. Indeed, Bolden credited Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) with forcing Jacob Lew, Obama's then-budget director, to clear the way for work on the SLS to begin (AW&ST Sept. 19, 2011, p. 47).

And planetary scientists in the U.S. are still struggling to understand why the administration dropped top-level funding for their key priority—a Mars sample-return mission—after NASA spent three years planning a series of joint missions with the European Space Agency to spread the expense (AW&ST Oct. 1, p. 36).

In its own white paper issued Sept. 22, the Romney space-advisory team promised “clearer priorities” for NASA, with “a balance of pragmatic and top-priority science with inspirational and groundbreaking exploration,” but stressed that “strong and successful NASA does not require more funding.”

Other Romney “space priorities” called out in the campaign document include “partnering internationally,” “revitalizing industry” by easing trade restrictions that hamper U.S. aerospace exports, and “embracing a robust role for commercial space.”

“Mitt Romney recognizes the exciting opportunity that the commercial space industry offers for technological innovation and commerce,” the white paper states. “He will establish a clear framework that ensures NASA serves as a constructive partner for private sector initiatives.”

Of course, like Obama before him, Romney has no strong personal background in civil space, and voters must decide if they can take him at his word.

“America's capabilities are eroding, and with each passing year will become more difficult to rebuild,” he stated in the Sept. 22 campaign documents. “I will reverse this course and set a clear road map for space exploration.”