The Politics of the Curiosity Rover

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Zap! An artist's interpretation of Curiosity on Mars.

The timing of NASA's Curiosity rover landing on Mars, coming two months after China's first manned spacecraft docking and three months before a heated U.S. election, has analysts debating both the domestic and international political repercussions of American space exploration.

Even before Curiosity hit the media radar, commentators were questioning whether the U.S. was entering a new Space Race against China. The headlines made by the Chinese space program in June—executing a manned docking, featuring the first female Chinese astronaut, and announcing plans for a Chinese space station—have only reinforced worries of competition over the next major space milestone.

While China's scientific leaps and bounds are impressive in their own right, the consensus in the scientific community is that a serious space rivalry with the Chinese remains lightyears away. China is working through the checklist of feats that the US and USSR accomplished decades ago. NASA achieved its first manned docking with the Gemini 8 mission in 1966—46 years ahead of the Chinese. And even their most ambitious plans (a manned lunar landing, unlikely to occur before 2020) would only bring them up to speed with NASA circa 1969.

As the Chinese rush to make up for lost time, Curiosity delivers a more potent message to the international community: the U.S. is still in the space game, and we're doing more than you. "This is something you can use in speeches to talk about American exceptionalism," says Dr. Howard McCurdy, a space policy expert and professor of public affairs at American University.

The Martian landing actively demonstrates that American innovation can continue to thrive despite lagging test scores and extreme budget cuts. In addition to the huge engineering achievement of landing a laboratory on a planet known to "eat spacecraft," said McCurdy, the recent mission to Mars is a "benign but informative way of demonstrating military and technological prowess."

That kind of stump speech fodder could come in handy for incumbents up for reelection this year who want to associate themselves with the achievement. Curiosity offers bonus political leverage to pro-space Congress members, particularly those from places like Ohio, Texas or Florida where NASA has a significant presence and promises of a secure space budget resonate deeply.

One campaign likely to get excellent mileage from the Mars landing is that of Senator Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat vying for reelection in November. Nelson is not only Chairman of Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space, an advocate for space investment, and one of three sitting Congress members to have flown in space—his state is also home to the Kennedy Space Center. "So," wrote a Nelson press aide in an e-mail, "the state gains jobs and economic development, not to mention a certain amount of prestige" from prominent extra-terrestrial accomplishments.

And Nelson presumably gets the credit. The upcoming election will be one of just a handful every decade where a space crusader like him can both point to the fruits of his advocacy and promise his Space Coast constituents a steady influx of federal dollars.

The Presidential contenders aren't ignoring Curiosity either.

Mitt Romney, though unable to take any personal credit for the mission, emphasized the 'exceptionalism' angle at a campaign speech in Florida last Monday. He touted Curiosity as evidence of U.S. superiority and ridiculed China's lunar ambitions, taunting that when the Chinese reach the Moon, "I hope they stop in and take a look at our flag that was put there 43 years ago."

Ordinarily, a sitting president up for reelection might rush to take credit for a successful mission that happened in his first term, but Obama's official statement was subtle; he applauded America's scientific "preeminence" while advocating that NASA partner up with private companies to foot the bill for future space missions.

The Obama campaign recognizes that trying too hard to capitalize on Curiosity could come back to bite them. The president's record on space has its blemishes, and he drew heat from science celebs like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson after his 2013 budget proposal axed NASA funding drastically. The proposed budget would force NASA to table two important Mars voyages over the next six years (including the mission to bring a Martian dirt sample back to Earth for analysis, which experts say is the next major step in Mars research).

Unlike in the sixties, when JFK’s ambitions to land on the Moon faced direct opposition from many fiscal conservatives and only lukewarm support overall, few politicians today can benefit from publicizing an opposition to space exploration. While NASA's budget may have its ups and downs, McCurdy notes, "space is a cultural issue. We won't see our commitment to space renegotiated."