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Candidates' space ideas lack launch pad

The space shuttle Discovery lifts off from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in October 2007 at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

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TESS VIGELAND: For those of you who've been living on Mars, tomorrow voters in Indiana and North Carolina are going to the polls to help determine the Democratic party presidential nominee.
One thing the candidates aren't talking about at all? Mars. Space Policy in general.

So as they campaign in the state that houses the university, Purdue, that has graduated 22 astronauts, Jeremy Hobson takes a look at the candidates' plans for the final frontier.


JEREMY HOBSON: Plans may be a strong word. Maybe we should go with initial thoughts.

BARACK OBAMA: I want to use some of that money to train engineers and scientists who are going to be able to take us to those next new frontiers.

That's Barack Obama talking about diverting some of NASA's $17 billion budget into education, and that comment has caused quite a stir among the space crowd. Obama's campaign couldn't provide an official space adviser to elaborate, because they don't seem to have one. Same with John McCain, who's hinted at a continuation of the Bush space policy, which has been criticized as under-funded. Hillary Clinton does have an adviser. Her name is Lori Garver.

LORI GARVER: I think as president, she would encourage more international cooperation, more commercial development, and if it requires more money, she would support that.

More money is music to the ears of the folks at NASA, though even Clinton's plans have been criticized as lacking specificity, but there are a lot of others listening, too, and there's a lot more to space policy than NASA.

RICHARD DALBELLO: There'll be dozens of smaller decisions having to do with space technologies and how they affect our day to day life, and a President will have to make those.

Richard DalBello is with the satellite industry giant Intelsat. He says the next president will have to think about auctioning off valuable communication spectrum, regulating the emerging space tourism industry and dealing with the possibility of the weaponization of space, and whether that will become an industry of its own. Theresa Hitchens, at the Center for Defense Information, has some big questions on that front, especially since the Chinese shot down one of their own satellites last year.

THERESA HITCHENS: How we ensure that our satellites are protected. Do we need to have an offensive space strategy that sees the United States building anti-satellite weapons and other sort of weapons based in space perhaps?

If building anti-satellite weapons were to become big business, you can bet Lockheed Martin would be involved, but John Karas, who heads the Human Space Flight division there, sees an even bigger threat to the economy if the next president doesn't make space a priority.

JOHN KARAS: We won't be able to sustain the work force we have, let alone compete in the global marketplace.

Karas says there's statistical evidence to prove the space program inspires thousands of Americans to go into science and technology.

KARAS: If China's graduating five, to seven, to eight times more graduates, and we have no pull into that science community, you know for the next generation of scientists and engineers, I think we'll suffer.

HOBSON: So if intellect is the future of the American economy, we've got to find ourselves some geniuses?

KARAS: Exactly right, and you have to grow those at home.

So what's the total impact of space policy on the economy? Well Marty Hauser, with the non-partisan Space Foundation, has the view from 30,000 feet, or perhaps low earth orbit. His latest report says the space industry is worth more than $250 billion a year, and that's not even the half of it.

MARTY HAUSER: As a common citizen we're connected to it. We look at the weather on the evening news. Farmers want it for their crops. People use it for navigation. The taxi driver who drove me here today has a TomTom on his dash that he uses to help navigate through the city.

That's all well and good, but in a campaign that many complain has spent too much time on side issues and gaffes, space policy now has bigger down-to-earth competition for the candidates' attention: high food prices, oil prices and foreclosure rates. It seems those with billions staked on the next president's space policy will just have to wait and hope.

In Washington, I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.

About the author

Jeremy Hobson is host of Marketplace Morning Report, where he looks at business news from a global perspective to prepare listeners for the day ahead.

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