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Donald Trump in Florida
GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump looks upward as he discusses the border wall that’s part of his policy agenda, at a town hall meeting in Daytona Beach, Fla. (Credit: Donald Trump Speeches & Events via YouTube)

GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has been going through a series of reversals this week, and today’s highlights include the dissing of America’s space program.

“Someone just asked me backstage, ‘Mr. Trump, will you get involved in the space program?'” he said during a town hall in Daytona Beach. Fla. “Look what’s happened with your employment. Look what’s happened with our whole history of space and leadership. Look what’s going on, folks. We’re like a Third World nation.”

The rare reference to space policy was sandwiched within nearly an hour’s worth of campaign rhetoric, and the comments catered to a Florida crowd. Employment on the Space Coast was hit hard by the space shuttle fleet’s retirement in 2011. Thousands of jobs were lost.

Now Florida’s aerospace jobs are starting to come back, thanks to SpaceX’s launches and landings, NASA’s commercial crew program, the development of the Orion crew vehicle, Blue Origin’s orbital space program and other ventures. Nevertheless, complaints about jobs resonate with Floridians who suffered through the post-shuttle blues and the Obama administration’s cancellation of the Constellation back-to-the-moon program.

One problem is that the space effort tends to rank relatively low on the political agenda: NASA’s 2016 spending plan amounts to $19.3 billion, which is less than half a percent of this year’s $3.9 trillion federal budget. Little tends to be said about the space program beyond the bromides.

Back in November, Trump faced a question about space from a 10-year-old boy in New Hampshire. “I want to know your opinions on NASA,” the boy said.

“You know, in the old days, it was great,” Trump replied. “Right now, we have bigger problems. You understand that? We’ve got to fix our potholes. You know, we don’t exactly have a lot of money.”

The platform approved last month at the Republican National Convention gave more of a shout-out to the space program, declaring that “we must sustain our pre-eminence in space” and praising the “public-private partnerships between NASA, the Department of Defense and commercial companies.”

Retired NASA astronaut Eileen Collins put in a good word during a brief address to the convention, calling for “leadership that will make America’s space program first again … leadership that will make America great again.”

And in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session that was conducted last week during the Democrats’ convention, Trump said, “Honestly I think NASA is wonderful! America has always led the world in space exploration.”

Today he changed his tune. Or is Trump’s downbeat view of NASA the tune he originally had in mind? Here’s a tweet from 2012 in which Trump lamented the state of America’s space program:

NASA? What would Hillary do?

So what about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton? She has often recounted the tale of how she wrote a letter during her teen years, telling NASA that she wanted to be an astronaut – only to be told that NASA had no plans to send women into space. (The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column looked into the story extensively and gave Clinton an approving checkmark.)

Over the years, Clinton has been supportive of NASA. “I really, really do support the space program,” she said in New Hampshire last year. She has said that identifying potentially threatening near-Earth objects is a good idea, and she’s promised to get to the bottom of the UFO controversy. But other than that, she hasn’t provided a whole lot of policy specifics.

The Democratic platform says “we will strengthen support for NASA and work in partnership with the international scientific community to launch new missions to space.”

Some of the outlines of a Clinton space policy might well be found in the views of former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, who served as Clinton’s space policy adviser during the 2008 presidential campaign and then headed Barack Obama’s NASA transition team.

At last year’s GeekWire Summit, Garver said commercialization was the best way to accelerate the pace of the space effort. But she also said commercial and scientific factors weren’t enough by themselves to push humanity’s space frontier outward:

“No matter who is president, we have to have a geopolitical purpose to send humans to Mars, or go back to the moon, or go to an asteroid. What we need is the capability to do it in a time frame and at a cost that is achievable – and I think that’s within 10 years. We’re not there right now. What would it take for NASA to get there? Frankly, I think the next president will have a lot to say about that.”

That sounds a lot like NASA’s “flexible path” strategy, which focuses on developing technologies that could be used for trips to near-Earth objects, the moon or Mars. Obama started out targeting a near-Earth asteroid, but it’s conceivable that the next administration (and the next Congress) will shift its focus more fully toward the moon or Mars in cooperation with international partners.

Will those partners eventually include China? We’ll have to stay tuned to see which direction the next president will take us in – and hope that America’s space effort doesn’t run into a pothole.

Hat tip to Space News’ Jeff Foust and Ars Technica’s Eric Berger.

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