Column: Will our next president commit to American leadership in space?

A NASA Orion spacecraft is launched atop a Delta IV rocket at Cape Canaveral in December 2014. The space agency's next rocket, the SLS, will be able to carry a crew capsule to Mars and beyond. Associated Press
A NASA Orion spacecraft is launched atop a Delta IV rocket at Cape Canaveral in December 2014. The space agency's next rocket, the SLS, will be able to carry a crew capsule to Mars and beyond.Associated Press
Published March 24 2016
Updated March 24 2016

In the presidential primary campaign, Florida voters heard a lot of locker-room insults and discussions of petty controversies. Unfortunately, Floridians heard relatively little about the issues that really matter to our state. Now, as the apparent nominees emerge from pack, we deserve more of an explanation of where the presidential candidates stand on NASA and their commitment to adequately funding the next generation of space exploration.

Space carries a special historical resonance and economic importance in our state. When Alan Shepard lifted off to become the first American in space, he launched from Cape Canaveral. Neil Armstrong's "giant leap for mankind" really started when he took off from Kennedy Space Center. And today, the space industry employs more than 30,000 Floridians at 500 companies.

As Floridians know all too well, NASA often becomes a punching bag — or piggy bank — when administrations change, and that's why space must be on the agenda during this presidential election. This administration has admirably set in motion new initiatives in both low-Earth orbit commercial space operations and deep-space and interplanetary exploration. However, very often the White House's rhetorical support for reaching the next frontier of space travel is not matched by the NASA budgets it sends to Congress.

It is important to remember that a successful space program — like the effort to put a man on the moon during the 1960s — doesn't come in four-year chunks. It requires sustained, long-term planning and funding commitments that balance different aspects of space operations and exploration.

Fortunately, it appears that a bipartisan consensus has formed around a roughly two-pronged approach to space going forward. Under this approach, NASA has returned to its core mission of reaching for the stars. The agency that brought man to the moon can focus on taking humans to Mars. Its scientists, engineers and industry partners are freed up to build the heavy-lift rockets and spacecraft needed for astronauts to travel to asteroids.

The primary vehicle for this endeavor will be NASA's new Space Launch System, or SLS, the most powerful rocket ever, which will carry a crew capsule to Mars and beyond. It promises to open up new opportunities for scientific research and technical innovation. And because it is designed to evolve over time, it will allow America to continue as the world's leader in space exploration for decades to come.

As NASA focuses on completing the SLS, private companies are taking over the job of ferrying crews and cargo into low-Earth orbit. With NASA's help, these companies are building new spacecraft and inventing new flight technologies. The programs have created thousands of jobs and inspired unprecedented private sector investments to make space flight as routine as airplane travel is today.

Inevitably some people will question NASA's mission to Mars and deep-space exploration as too expensive and impractical, preferring to focus on fostering more routine, commercially based activity in lower-Earth orbit. This ignores how investments in NASA, in addition to advancing scientific knowledge, also generate benefits in other areas. In addition to better artificial limbs and heart pumps, space experiments have also led to more effective tools to detect toxic chemicals and purify our water, remove land mines and keep firefighters safe. Yet for the last several years, the administration has submitted a NASA budget that badly underfunds SLS, requiring Congress to scramble for funds elsewhere to sustain this important program.

Those seeking to be our next president should be asked to take a stand on these vital issues while they are campaigning in our state. Are they committed to America's leadership in space? Do they believe we should have continuity in our long-term space program, or do they plan to rip up all these years of work — and the Florida jobs involved — and start over? As president, will they invest in the programs that will allow astronauts to travel to Mars and beyond?

The next president has the opportunity to launch the next era of human space exploration. Let's hope wisdom prevails.

Fred Humphries is president emeritus of Florida A&M University. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.