Obama, Romney and the Politics of the Space Coast

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Terry Renna / AP

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover lifts off from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, Nov. 26, 2011.

In the run up to Florida’s Republican primary, a lot of pixels were spilled on Newt Gingrich’s lunar flight of fancy, a proposal to permanently colonize the moon by 2020. Even with the poor state of federal balance sheets, this kind of pandering to the Space Coast is par for the course. But in light of a gut-wrenching look from 60 Minutes at the current plight of laid-off workers in Brevard County, home of the Kennedy Space Center, it’s worth revisiting what Mitt Romney, the prohibitive nominee, has said about the space program and whether he’ll be able to make an issue of it when the campaign returns to Florida in the fall.

In short, Romney hasn’t explicitly promised to bring back the manned space program Constellation, the shuttle’s intended successor that Obama canned, or anything else for that matter. “In the politics of the past, to get your vote in the Space Coast, I’d come here and promise hundreds of billions of dollars,” Romney told voters on Cape Canaveral back in January. “I know that’s something that’s very attractive, very popular, but it’s simply the wrong thing to do.”

Romney may still have an opening on the issue, not because of his own promises, but because of Obama’s. Here’s the tough piece of tape from the 60 Minutes piece:


This isn’t the whole story: Obama was slow to warm to NASA during the 2008 campaign and did not wildly oversell his plans for the agency at the time. His Administration did nix Constellation to the consternation of many space professionals–former NASA administrator Mike Griffin, who championed manned space flight under Bush, is actually an adviser to the Romney campaign–but Obama has tried to sustain the Space Coast by luring private sector businesses such as a helicopter manufacturer, and inked a deal with Elon Musk’s SpaceX to launch a dozen flights to the international space station from the area.

Brevard County already leans Republican: McCain won it by 11 points in 2008; Bush won it by 16 in 2004 and by 8 in 2000. But as an anecdote of economic hardship in a key swing state, the Space Coast story is a compelling one for Romney to seize upon. Obama said in 2008 that he’d ensure “all those who work in the space industry in Florida do not lose their jobs when the shuttle program is retired.” Not all have, but there are clearly enough in pain to make it a point of contention in the general election.

(VIDEO: Layoffs and Hardships for Space Shuttle Workers)