To see how often speakers at the Democratic National Convention brought up the idea of reaching the Moon, you would have thought they were talking about Florida. Who can forget Ted Kennedy, grand old man of the Democratic Party, telling adoring delegates:
We are Americans. This is what we do. We reach the moon. We scale the heights. I know it. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. And we can do it again.
Later, most of these delegates were napping, chatting, and or freshening up their martinis when Brian Schweitzer told the floor:
President Kennedy’s idealism and spirit of possibility inspired [my parents] to send all six of us children to college. And when he said, “we’re going to the moon,” he showed us that no challenge was insurmountable.
No problem taking a martini break at the DNC or RNC, however, because one can always hear the same speech again. So it was with Ted Sorensen’s speech a few hours later:
Confronting a Soviet military advantage in space, [Kennedy] made all Americans proud by literally reaching for the moon.
Or if they stayed in the bar all afternoon, they could still reemerge on the DNC floor to hear Frederico Pena say:
John Kennedy, a Democratic president, committed us to putting a man on the moon. American energy, American technology, American jobs, ready to be created, right now. That’s the change we need.
Even if they passed out in their hotel rooms, they could still pick up a copy of the DNC’s Platform Report “Renewing America’s Promise” which would have told them:
We know that at every turning point in our nation’s history, we have demonstrated our love of country by uniting to overcome our challenges-whether ending slavery, fighting two world wars for the cause of freedom or sending a man to the moon.
In all of this, the moon has no value in and of itself. It does not represents an economic or scientific imperative. Rather, it functions solely as a benchmark of American accomplishment, a symbol of technological progress, and a reminder that young, good-looking Democratic presidents have the chutzpah to do cool things in office.
No surprise then that Barack Obama’s statement on Science Policy also mentions the moon, albeit with a slightly different spin:
In the past, government funding for scientific research has yielded innovations that have improved the landscape of American life-technologies like the Internet, digital photography, bar codes, Global Positioning System technology, laser surgery, and chemotherapy. At one time, educational competition with the Soviets fostered the creativity that put a man on the moon. Today, we face a new set of challenges, including energy security, HIV/AIDS, and climate change.
In this incarnation, reaching the moon represents a benchmark of American educational accomplishment, a golden age that Obama implies is beyond us now. Indeed, Obama’s Space Policy in late 2007 seemed to pit money for space exploration up against federal money for education. Said Obama:
We’re not going to have the engineers and the scientists to continue space exploration if we don’t have kids who are able to read, write and compute.
As for Republicans, the moon received nary a mention at their national convention. Testament to the fact, I imagine that they see it primarily as free advertising for Kennedy and therefore Obama by proxy.
On the surface John McCain’s policy on space exploration seems much more vigorous than Obama’s. He is committed to continuing President Bush’s 2004 Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) which anticipates a return to the moon in the coming decade as a prelude to the eventual manned mission to Mars in 2020. Yet what is the ultimate objective of human space flight? McCain begins by discussing (much as Kennedy did) the accomplishments of international rivals:
China, Russia, India, Japan and Europe are all active players in space exploration. Both Japan and China launched robotic lunar orbiters in 2007. India is planning to launch a lunar orbiter later this year. The European Space Agency (ESA) is looking into a moon-lander, but is more focused on Mars. China also is actively pursuing a manned space program and, in 2003, became only the third country after the USSR and the US to demonstrate the capability to send man to space. China is developing plans for a manned lunar mission in the next decade and the establishment of a lunar base after 2020.
Ultimately, McCain concedes that the principle objective of human space flight is not science or commerce but national prestige. Boldly going where no one has gone before is, in effect, a matter of keeping up with the Jones:
Although the general view in the research community is that human exploration is not an efficient way to increase scientific discoveries given the expense and logistical limitations, the role of manned space flight goes well beyond the issue of scientific discovery and is reflection of national power and pride.
This is a very expensive way to show “prestige.” So despite the Democrats paper-thin, hokey moon-talk at the DNC, and the lack of Obama’s specifics about alternatives to human space exploration as proposed by the VSE, I tilt towards Obama on space policy if only because McCain seems to be willing to maintain the rather shallow vision of exploration put forth by Bush.