Thursday, August 4, 2016

A Third World Candidate

Click the arrow to watch a Falcon 9 landing from an onboard camera. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

One could make a living off documenting all the fibs spewed by Donald Trump — in fact, many have — so there's no need for me to endlessly write about what comes out of his mouth.

The Republican presidential nominee was in Florida yesterday, up the road from the Space Coast in Daytona Beach, where he touched on the U.S. space program.

According to Ars Technica and other sources, Trump compared the U.S. space program to “a third world nation.”

"By the way, look at your space program, look at what's going on there," he said. "Somebody just asked me backstage, 'Mr. Trump, will you get involved in the space program?' Look what's happened with your employment. Look what's happened with our whole history of space and leadership. Look what's going on folks. We're like a third world nation."

I wonder how many third-world nations have commercial companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance developing reusable rockets. SpaceX has landed a rocket five times now — two on land, three at sea. Blue Origin has launched and landed four times its New Shepard suborbital booster. ULA's Vulcan rocket design would be partially reusable, recovering the first stage engines after launch.

NASA is the managing partner of the International Space Station. Two commercial cargo ships deliver payload to the ISS, the SpaceX Dragon and the Orbital ATK Cygnus. By the end of the decade, Sierra Nevada Corporation will add the Dream Chaser spaceplane to the fleet. SpaceX and Boeing are in the middle of uncrewed flight tests for their commerical crew vehicles, with the first SpaceX crewed test flight on paper scheduled for August 2017.

In 2012, Roscosmos General Director Vladimir Popovkin and cosmonaut Gennady Padalka warned that Russia's space program was falling behind the United States. Popovkin told a group of students in a public meeting, “We will become uncompetitive in the next three or four years if we don’t take urgent measures.”

In November 2015, Trump told a ten-year old child that he'd rather spend NASA money on potholes. In a May 2016 written response to a questionnaire from Aerospace America, Trump replied, “What we spend on NASA should be appropriate for what we are asking them to do. ... Our first priority is to restore a strong economic base to this country. Then, we can have a discussion about spending.”

Trump's space absurdities are nothing new to local Republican politics.

During last month's Republican National Convention, retired astronaut Eileen Collins misled attendees and viewers by claiming that the U.S. is somehow an also-ran in global space affairs. In February, she falsely claimed in congressional testimony that the 2010 decision to cancel the botched Constellation program was made “behind closed doors” and called NASA's leadership “cowardly.”

In March 2011, Space Coast congresswoman Sandy Adams falsely claimed that “the Obama Administration's budget willingly ceded that leadership to China, Russia and India — countries that understand the importance of human space exploration. We cannot continue to accept this administration's assault on American exceptionalism and world leadership.”

Later that month, Rep. Bill Posey — the current Space Coast representative — uttered equally absurd remarks on the House floor:

By ceding our leadership to other nations such as China, Russia, and India we would be literally giving them the ultimate military high ground.

China and Russia have announced plans to colonize the Moon — they are not going there to collect and study rocks like we did.

Here we are more than five years later, and none of those countries has an active Moon colonization program.

In the reality-based world, yesterday the Federal Aviation Administration approved a request by Moon Express to launch a commercial spacecraft/lander to the Moon. According to a Moon Express press kit, the company hopes to launch its payload in 2017.

NASA and SpaceX have announced a joint mission to Mars in 2018. Called Red Dragon, the program would send an uncrewed version of the SpaceX Dragon capsule to a soft landing on Mars.

Where are the commercial programs in other nations sending spacecraft beyond Earth orbit?

Click the arrow to watch Newt Gingrich deliver his space policy speech in Cocoa, Florida on January 25, 2012. Video source: Florida Today.

To his credit, 2012 Republican presidential Newt Gingrich delivered a speech in Cocoa, Florida where he proposed a commercial competition to create a moon base. In February 2010, Gingrich and retired Republican congressman Robert Walker endorsed President Obama's strategy to commercialize space access. Rival candidate Mitt Romney mocked Gingrich's space proposal, saying he would fire anyone who came to him with a moon base proposal.

Romney won the Florida Republican primary, 46.4% to 31.9% for Gingrich. Romney, of course, went on to win the Republican nomination before losing to Obama in November 2012.

Gingrich is now a Trump ally and reportedly was on Trump's short list for a vice-presidential running mate. As of this writing, Gingrich still stands by Trump although he has distanced himself from the candidate's statements about Arizona senator John McCain.

On the Democrat side of the ledger, the Hillary Clinton campaign has said little about space, other than an oft-told story about dreaming as a child to be an astronaut. Retired astronaut Mark Kelly spoke at the Democratic National Convention, but he was in the company of his wife Rep. Gabrielle Giffords to endorse Clinton and urge gun control measures.

Most of the public cares little about the U.S. space program. Comments like Mr. Trump's might pander to a small segment of the voter populace but, to those generally uninformed about the U.S. space program, they only do harm. Not that he cares much about that.

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