Young Engineer Leads Effort To Make Space a Topic of Presidential Debate
Republican presidential candidate, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, left, speaks to attendees of a space policy roundtable as wife Judith listens, in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Friday, Jan. 18, 2008.
Credit: AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack.

WASHINGTON — Have space policy geeks managed to hijack the upcoming CNN/Politico.com presidential debates? In the run up to the Wednesday, Jan. 31 debate between the remaining Democratic presidential candidates, 20 of the 25 most popular viewer-submitted questions were about U.S. space policy. On the Republican side, space questions accounted for 11 of the 25 top spots, edging out questions about the economy and Iraq, although by mid-day Monday, Jan. 29, space questions had slipped in the rankings.

While it is far from clear whether the CNN/Politico.com moderators will ask candidates anything about space during the back-to-back debates in Los Angeles, if they do, a 24-year-old engineer in Seattle probably deserves as much praise as anyone for making it happen.

John Benac, a 2007 college graduate and new father who works as a manufacturing engineer for Boeing on the 737 program, has harnessed the power of the Internet to put space on the radar of the organizers of the upcoming event.

Benac told Space News he has been passionate about space since visiting NASA's Johnson Space Center as a Boy Scout and eventually hopes to land a job in Houston working on the international space station program or Constellation, the U.S. space agency's effort to return to the Moon.

But it was not until reading Robert Zubrin's books "The Case for Mars" and "Entering Space" in the span of two weeks in December that Benac was inspired to translate his passion for space into political action. At the urging of his wife, a fan of Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, Benac said he decided to write Obama using the Mars Society's online fax tool to encourage the candidate to support NASA and space exploration.

Not long after, upon coming home from a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a local Obama campaign office, Benac said he found the CNN/Politico.com debate submittal Web site and realized that there was not a single NASA or space-related question. "I decided to do my best to mobilize the space community on the Web, drafted a letter and sent it out to as many people as I could," Benac said.

Benac's call-to-arms read in part: "[W]e have a tremendous opportunity to put Mars on the political map for the presidential candidates. I have submitted a question for the Republican and Democratic debates that are happening in Los Angeles on January 30th. The way that this debate works is that people submit and vote for the questions that they like online, and the candidates are asked the ones with the most votes. Please tell everyone you think would act on this."

Benac's plea to "put Mars on the political map" was quickly picked up and reposted by the Mars Society and the Web site NASAWatch.com, driving more traffic to the CNN/Politico.com Web site, resulting in the posting of new questions and votes for favorites.

Last week, the No. 1 most popular question for the Democratic candidates was: "Will you continue to support the NASA Vision for Space Exploration with its goals of exploring the Moon, Mars, and beyond? Do you see a connection between exploration and education?"

On the Republican side it was: "Do you support the NASA Vision for Space Exploration — which includes the goal of extending our human spaceflight program to returning to the Moon, going on to Mars, and beyond?"

As of mid-day Monday, however, space questions had fallen in the rankings. While space dominates the Democratic questions, occupying 20 of the 25 top spots, space had ceded the No. 1 position to a question about Hurricane Katrina.

On the Republican side, space accounted for only six 6 of the top 25 questions with only one of those making the top 10.

Jeff Foust, a Washington-based space analyst who writes and edits the spacepolitics.com Web site in his free time, said Benac deserves credit for "getting the ball rolling on this." But Foust also said it remains to be seen whether the high turnout space questions have received in the CNN/Politico.com poll actually will translate into support for space exploration.

"The question is, what happens to all this after the 31st, particularly if the debate organizers decide to skip the space questions?" Foust asked. "Can Benac and others find ways to sustain what momentum might have been created by this effort?" Benac is not stopping at gaming the CNN/Politico.com debate submittal Web site. In mid January he launched the actionforspace.com Web site where voters can go to brush up on the issues and learn where and when the candidates will be appearing in their area so that they can stop by and put in a plug for NASA and space exploration. In its first week since going live, Benac's Web site has attracted more than 1,000 unique visitors.

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