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Romney’s silence on NASA’s future worries space fans

By Mark K. Matthews, Orlando Sentinel –

WASHINGTON — Though the Space Coast is less than 150 miles from Tampa, Fla., it might as well be on Mars for the attention given to NASA by Mitt Romney during the Republican convention last week.

As has been the case for most of the campaign, Romney largely ignored the issue — heightening anxiety even among some Republicans about how a Romney administration would impact NASA and Kennedy Space Center.

“There is no real meat on the bone at the present time,” said Bob Walker, former Republican chair of the U.S. House science committee.

Though Romney’s mention of NASA legend Neil Armstrong in his convention speech was encouraging, Walker said, space supporters want to know more about his plans for NASA’s future.

Romney’s relative silence stands in contrast to the detailed stances taken by both John McCain and Barack Obama at this point four years ago.

“He (Romney) has not articulated a particular specific vision for space, instead suggesting that he would convene a panel of experts to figure out what NASA should be doing,” said Jeff Foust, editor of The Space Review, an online magazine.

That Romney has shied from space policy makes some sense politically — especially on the issue of human exploration.

The past four years have been jarring to NASA and its contractors as the Obama administration has overseen the retirement of the space shuttle and the cancellation of NASA’s troubled Constellation program, which was supposed to return astronauts to the moon by 2020.

Though Constellation faced major financial and technical trouble, its cancellation divided the aerospace community; if Romney takes sides now, it could alienate potential allies.

U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla., said it’s better for Romney to remain vague than to make promises he can’t keep — such as Obama vowing in 2008 to minimize the gap between the retirement of the shuttle and its successor.

“I would rather he (Romney) didn’t give specifics,” Posey said.

Congressional and industry sources said Romney’s vagueness also could be attributed to divisions within his own team. His advisers include former NASA chief Mike Griffin, who championed Constellation and the big-government approach of exploring space.

But other Romney aides are said to support, at least philosophically, Obama’s push to rely more on the private sector to send astronauts into orbit, in part because they see that alternative as more cost effective.

The conflict pits old-school Republican support of NASA spaceflight against its fiscally conservative roots — complicated by an unwillingness to side with the current administration. How the internal battle plays out could determine which course a Romney administration would chart for NASA.

“I think the civil war has kept any one faction from dominating the discussion inside the Romney advisory group,” said Walker, a former supporter of Romney rival Newt Gingrich.

But before making any decisions, Romney first needs to win the White House. That path runs through Florida and — to a small degree — the Kennedy Space Center area, which has been battered since NASA retired the shuttle and slashed thousands of KSC jobs.

Though the shuttle’s 2011 retirement had been in the works since the Bush administration, many Space Coast residents still blame Obama, especially since he also canceled Constellation. Romney doesn’t need to worry about these votes, but he may have to contend with growing support in Florida for Obama’s efforts to jump-start the commercial-rocket industry.

“Brevard is a Republican county, so the efforts to demonize the president here on this issue are made easier. But Romney’s failure to provide specific comfort to the space voter here leaves the field wide open,” said Dale Ketcham, director of UCF’s Space Research and Technology Institute.

The commercial push is helping to bring hundreds of jobs back to the KSC area, such as Boeing’s decision last year to hire as many as 550 workers to build so-called space taxis out of an abandoned KSC shuttle garage.

The commercial sector has been one of NASA’s brightest stars in the post-shuttle era; SpaceX of California, which launches out of Cape Canaveral, made history in May when it became the first commercial-rocket company to blast a capsule to the International Space Station.

One question Romney must answer is to what degree he would support these commercial efforts, as well as whether he would back NASA’s new Space Launch System. NASA plans to spend $3 billion annually on the Space Launch System, which includes a new NASA rocket and capsule, with the goal of a first crewed flight in 2021.

No destination has been picked for the program. It could be at risk if Romney is committed to reducing the size of the federal budget.

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