How the 2016 presidential candidates prioritize space exploration

On July 14, the New Horizons spacecraft made its historic flyby of the Pluto system. As the probe beams back key geographical data on Pluto and its moons over the next year, it will continue on its mission and explore the Kuiper Belt, a region extending beyond the planets from the orbit of Neptune. NASA has already hailed the mission as a hallmark in human history and it is a key scientific achievement of the Obama administration.

The long-planned mission, launched in 2006 during a Republican administration, will continue to make groundbreaking discoveries beyond even Obama’s time in office. The next presidential administration has the potential to impact the way we make use of data collected by projects like New Horizons and how we provide material support for future extra-terrestrial exploration.

NASA budget, 1958-2015

Republican candidates seem clear on their goals for NASA post-2016. Aside from Rand Paul, who would like to cut space exploration by as much as 25 percent, most GOP candidates are touting plans that would increase funding and support for space exploration.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the current chairman of the Senate Space, Science, and Competitiveness subcommittee, hopes to make major changes to the industry. His plans include increasing overall support to NASA while shifting the focus of scientific research from Earth observation to the surveying of other celestial bodies. Some claim that this position is deeply rooted in his denial of climate change. Recent entrant Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin has yet to reveal his platform for the space industry, but supports staunchly anti-environmental policies.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush calls himself a “space guy.”  He recommends an increase in both support for government affiliated scientific research and the funding of long-term projects similar to New Horizons. Bush’s own presidential sibling included a major expansion in space exploration to his 2004 re-election campaign. The current candidate Bush seems committed to furthering this vision.

The consensus is much less clear among Democrats. Bernie Sanders said that he generally supports an increase in support of scientific research and space exploration, but has been criticized by constituents for voting to decrease NASA’s budget in the past. Hillary Clinton has yet to reveal her position on NASA on the 2016 campaign trail, but stated during her 2008 campaign that she was “committed to a space exploration program that involves robust human spaceflight to complete the Space Station and later human missions, expanded robotic spaceflight probes of our solar system leading to future human exploration, and enhanced space science activities.”

President Barack Obama has proposed increases to the NASA budget of a half billion dollars, totaling $18.5 billion for the 2016 fiscal year. His policies have centered on commitments to innovation and entrepreneurship in the space agency, serving interests in understanding climate change and earth science as well as extra-terrestrial exploration. It may be fair to say that we can expect similar commitment–or at least the status quo–from a Democratic incumbent.

A Republican in the White House may lead to a push for more robust support, focusing less on earth science and more on long-term, outward-facing research. Democrats, on the other hand, might remain committed to the status quo. Regardless, New Horizons is drawing the public’s eye to the capability of the United States’ space program. And with additional missions pending, increased attention may be paid to policy surrounding NASA in 2016.

Laura Sorice contributed to this post.