Kerry: NASA Friend or Enemy

An examination of John Kerry’s official campaign documents reveals some clues as to his general attitude towards the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the US space exploration agenda. Kerry categorically places NASA under his, “AGENDA FOR URBAN AMERICA” on the official Kerry campaign web site. That particular categorization might be a clue that points to the candidate’s view of the role of NASA in his presidential plans. NASA is bunched there in the same “urban” priority category as the National Science Foundation (NSF). NSF is primarily in the lucrative and politically interesting business of handing out money to university based researchers. In other words, Kerry may view NASA primarily as a distributor of monetary grants for university based lab research. That is a politically sensible approach in view of the fact that academia is a an important and influential part of the Democrat party base in Kerry’s home region, the Atlantic Seaboard.

Most people have never worked in a major university research environment and may not understand the underlying significance of the interplay between the federal government’s rich and powerful grant giving machinery and the university recipients. It is politically convenient to label liberal college deans and professors as “elitist phonies” The actual relationship between universities and the Democrat party is a far more practical arrangement than the perceived “elitist” conspiracy that heartland Republicans routinely rally against. The people working in academia realize that probably the quickest way to become ostracized by your colleagues is to shift over to the right of the political spectrum and start questioning the status quo of the government-university cash cow. Grants pay for campus buildings, labs, and facilities. Most significantly, research grants pay the salaries of faculty and staff. A good grant writer is a cherished university employee.

Federal research grants are essentially the academic equivalent of “pork-barrel” spending. President John F. Kennedy used the “grant carrot” to win over the support of university president’s when the late-President proposed the Apollo program. The traditional grant recipients— such as those people who count how many worms of some obscure subspecies still exist in some muddy creek in lower Kentucky– made loud noises in university president’s offices when they feared that Apollo spending would mean the end of their grant funds as Apollo ramped up and gobbled up federal grant dollars. JFK locked up the support of university leaders by promising millions of dollars to build new engineering schools, labs, and even enough funding to justify the creation of entire new universities, e.g. the University of Alabama at Huntsville.

The NSF, NASA, as well as the National Institutes for Health fit well into the urban agenda of a politician who seeks support from academics, university presidents and city politicians from those major urban areas where the bulk of research dollars wind up. Kerry states that NASA’s “technological advances (are) transferable to people with disabilities, and could enhance their capacity to work.” That position is admirable and those transfers should and must be made, but where is Kerry’s vision for NASA beyond converting existing space technology for practical use?

Kerry does not even mention human spaceflight or any program of space “exploration” to occur outside of the 1G environments of university labs. He apparently views NASA as a useful grant-generating machine. PhD researchers, school deans, school presidents, and a few thousand-lab technicians will be the primary direct beneficiaries of this aspect of NASA funding. The big losers will be the NASA centers that focus on sending “researchers” into microgravity (KSC, MSFC, and JSC) if Kerry’s space vision is limited to restoring “the government’s commitment to scientific achievement through increases in research funding for the Department of Energy, NASA, and the National Science Foundation”, through his stated urban strategy.

Kerry lists 28 priority issues on his web site. Space exploration is not in that list., Kerry claims that, “More than 425,000 technology jobs have been lost on President Bush