JACKI LYDEN, host:
Now another of our NPR reporters, David Kestenbaum, has been examining the candidates' views on space exploration. Whoever becomes president will see the end of the space shuttle, which is supposed to retire in 2010. But recall the 37 presidential debates we've had so far if you can; space exploration has come up only once.
Finally, with the primary this Tuesday in Texas, the candidates have occasionally been asked questions about their plans for outer space. Texas is home to mission control, NASA's Johnson Space Flight Center.
Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): If we make the wrong choice with respect to either space or energy, then Houston, we really do have a problem.
LYDEN: That's Hillary Clinton. David Kestenbaum reports that while it doesn't get much attention, this is a topic where the candidates do have differences of opinion.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: Barack Obama's campaign has often been compared to that of the man who set the U.S. on a path to the moon: President John F. Kennedy.
President JOHN F. KENNEDY: I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.
KESTENBAUM: But some in the space community have the sense that Barack Obama is, as someone once famously said, no Jack Kennedy. Because, if you take Obama's education plan and read through to page 15 out of 15, he proposes paying for it in part by delaying NASA's Constellation program by five years.
Constellation is the vision laid out for NASA by President Bush. It calls for replacing the space shuttle, returning to the moon, constructing a moon base and eventually sending an astronaut to Mars.
Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail this past week charged that in the near term, Obama's plan would lead to a big gap between when the space shuttle retires and its replacement is ready.
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Sen. CLINTON: I don't think we can afford to take a timeout to delay the next generation of spacecraft and create a 10-year period in which Americans will have to hitch a ride on Chinese or Russian-made vehicles.
KESTENBAUM: Now, it's not exactly clear what part of Constellation Obama wanted to delay. His campaign did not make anyone available for this story to clarify his position, but Obama did express some reservations about human space flight when he talked to the editorial board of the Houston Chronicle recently. The Chronicle provided this recording.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): I think it is important for us to inspire through the space program but also have a practical sense of what investments deliver the most scientific and technological spin-offs and not just assume that a, you know, human space exploration, actually sending bodies into space, is always the best investment.
KESTENBAUM: As one reporter wrote, Houston, we have a contrast, meaning between the two candidates. Howard McCurdy has been watching all this. He's a space policy expert at American University.
Dr. HOWARD McCURDY (Public Administration and Policy, American University): There is a difference between McCain and Clinton and Obama, and that's probably a pretty good spectrum if you want to line them up that way. McCain is the strongest supporter of the vision for space exploration, and Obama's the one who's, let's say, gone the furthest in questioning what the future of space exploration, civil space exploration, is going to be.
KESTENBAUM: McCurdy says NASA will likely present serious budgetary challenges for whoever becomes president. He says in the coming years, if the agency doesn't get more money, it will face the fiscal equivalent of fitting a size 14 foot into a size 10 shoe.
Space travel did surface in one early Republican debate. On response to a question, Mike Huckabee praised NASA for contributing to things like the Global Positioning System; then he said this.
Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Governor, Republican, Arkansas; Presidential Candidate): Now whether we need to send somebody to Mars, I don't know. But I'll tell you what - if we do, I've got a few suggestions, and maybe Hillary could be on the first rocket tomorrow.
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KESTENBAUM: A staffer for Senator Clinton's campaign says he thinks she'd love to go to space after she's completed her presidency.
David Kestenbaum, NPR News.