Obama, Romney Spar Over Space Exploration

Romney and Obama's plans for space aren't all that different, experts say.

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The presidential race headed to a new frontier over the weekend, with President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney sparring over the final frontier.

At the University of South Florida, Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan accused Obama of "dismantling" the space program over his first term, and an accompanying policy paper released by the Romney campaign said America's space program is "befitting [of] a President who rejects American exceptionalism, apologizes for America, and believes we should be just another nation with a flag."

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Romney also hammered Obama for not having a clear plan in place beyond the Space Shuttle program, which was retired last year, requiring American astronauts to "hitch rides into space on Russian spacecraft." The next manned NASA mission is planned for 2021.

Michael Lopez-Alegria, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a nonpartisan organization, says it's difficult to pin that one on Obama.

"I wouldn't blame either party [for the long gap], because they both had a hand in it," he says. "We knew there was going to be a gap from the time they announced the shuttle would be retired. I don't think we thought the gap would be this long."

The timing of Romney's attack may have been poorly timed, considering NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has been hailed as a major American triumph. Earlier this year, SpaceX, based in California, became the first private company to fly to the International Space Station.

"The two achievements are pretty remarkable and represent different sectors of NASA's science portfolio," Lopez-Alegria says. "I think the rumors of NASA's demise are greatly exaggerated."

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Romney had been relatively silent on the issue—in a January trip to Florida's "Space Coast," Romney accused his Republican primary competitors of pandering to Florida voters with promises of spending billions on space exploration. In a debate, he skewered Newt Gingrich's idea of building a space colony on the moon.

"If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say 'You're fired,'" Romney said. "The idea that corporate America wants to go off to the moon and build a colony there, it may be a big idea, but it's not a good idea."

Gingrich had some criticism of his own for Romney on Sunday: The former speaker of the house said Romney's plan isn't "robust" enough.

"Romney is better than Obama on space, but could be bolder and more visionary," he told NBC News.

Romney says NASA doesn't need more money, but it needs "clearer priorities" and needs to focus on developing technology that can be used for national security and human space flight. He also says private industry should take over most crewed flights to the International Space Station and other low-earth-orbit targets, something NASA had planned to do under Obama.

From his policy paper, it's unclear how Romney's plan would differ much from Obama's, Lopez-Alegria says.

"Obama has shown good support for the commercial space sector, and it's gratifying to learn that Romney is also leaning in that direction, too," he says. "For the Democratic party to take something away from the government and give it to the private sector is a bold idea that's right in the Republicans' wheelhouse. It's encouraging both parties are stepping up and endorsing this idea."

Last week, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told reporters in Washington, D.C. that he supports Obama and hasn't thought about what a Romney space program would look like, but said that people who say the agency has no plan for returning to human spaceflight are doing more harm than good.

"Some have claimed that we're adrift, that we have no clear human space missions. That could not be further from the truth," he said. "Those who perpetuate that myth are hurting the space program."

Danny Kanner, an Obama campaign spokesperson, said in a release that the Romney team has turned to tactics they've decried in the past.