Posted by: spacewritinguy | February 9, 2008

Space Advocates in Conflict

It has become increasingly clear to me that advocating for space exploration, development, and settlement is not nearly as easy as I once thought. Like much of the rest of the culture, the pro-space movement has become fractured into a plethora of micro-cultures. Let’s start with the big ones first:
  • NASA
  • NASA Contractors and Other Large Aerospace Companies
  • “New Space” Private Space Developers
  • Non-profit Space Advocates
  • Department of Defense
  • Specific Technology Advocates
  • International Space Agencies and Companies

On a macro-level, these groups comprise the majority of the “players” in the $100 billion space industry. And on that macro-level, given the government-centric nature of the space biz, there would seem to be a great deal of overlap and basis for common interests or aims. After all, NASA technologies feed DoD and other space-based technologies and partners with international agencies. NASA (or NACA) technologies gave birth to the aviation and space businesses, including “New Space.” And NASA is still the largest, most diverse provider of space activities. So pretty much anyone having a discussion about space cannot avoid the $17 billion gorilla in the room.

And yet…let’s take a look at these groups in more detail.


  • Shuttle/International Space Station
  • Constellation
  • Science Mission Directorate (telescopes, planetary explorers, and robotic landers)
  • Earth Observation
  • Aeronautics

It has become quite clear that our nation’s space agency, with only .58% of the federal budget, is still incredibly polticized and contentious. The scientists hate the human spaceflight guys. The aeronautical engineers feel slighted (perhaps rightly) when their budget is cut to fill gaps in Shuttle or ISS. Earth observation advocates make political hay by using global warming as a club to silence dissent and score points against Bush, even when he raises their budget by $1 billion. Expecting impartial or rational distribution of resources in such a politicized environment is nearly impossible, and Mike Griffin, as a human spaceflight advocate, is not winning friends by telling the scientists to grow up and play along. John McCain didn’t have much better luck trying to tell conservatives the same thing.

NASA Contractors and Other Large Aerospace Companies

  • Boeing
  • Lockheed-Martin
  • Boeing/Lockheed Joint Ventures (United Space Alliance, United Launch Alliance, SeaLaunch)
  • ATK Launch Systems
  • Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne
  • Northrop-Grumman
  • Raytheon
  • Hughes

Big aerospace companies are rather like blobs in a lava lamp. They start out as smaller spheres and then gradually combine into larger blobs. Some blobs split off, rejoin, and split off again. They team up on some activities, they compete on others. Griffin is bound to catch more heat from those blobs because he dared speak Unpleasant Facts. When billions of dollars are at stake, the teams will matter more than the industry or the agency, and individual company will matter more than the teams. As architectures are chosen and oxen are fattened or gored, billion-dollar companies will not take gored oxen lying down. They will find ways to glom onto the architecture that did win or undermine that architecture.

“New Space” Private Space Developers

  • Armadillo Aerospace
  • Bigelow Aerospace
  • Blue Origin
  • Rocketplane Kistler
  • Scaled Composites
  • SpaceX
  • Virgin Galactic

The “New Space” community is a bit more united, in some ways, than the Big Aerospace community, if only because they see Big Aerospace and often/sometimes/always NASA as “the enemy.” This group is still in the development phase, too. Rutan’s Scaled Composites has had one public accident with fatalities, but also has the goodwill of Virgin Galactic and can-do aura of Burt Rutan keeping it going. Robert Bigelow has managed to orbit hardware using Big Aerospace boosters, and is waiting for others to lower his costs. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Horizon has kept his work quiet in West Texas. RocketplaneKistler just took a hit for not getting things done according to NASA timelines, and is now out of the COTS program. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been having incremental success in pursuit of COTS, but hasn’t put anything into orbit yet. And John Carmack’s Armadillo Aerospace continues working on small-scale, incremental development of their Delta Clipper-like Pixel flyer, and has some big dreams for low-cost space access, but still hasn’t won the Centennial Challenge for lunar landers. Picking a winner at this point would be like picking who would be the biggest airline or airplane manufacturer in America based on the barnstormers and Army flyers of the 1920s. I wish them all well, but aside from keeping the libertarian ideal alive in space, the “New Space” community is still too new and speculative to make any firm bets.

Non-profit Space Advocates

  • Mars Society
  • Moon Society
  • National Space Society (NSS)
  • The Planetary Society (TPS)
  • ProSpace
  • Space Exploration Alliance (SEA)
  • Space Frontier Foundation (SFF)

Space advocacy is the ocean in which I swim. I belong to most or all of the organizations listed above. I feel I can do so because I subscribe to the only two words that all of the non-profits can agree to: “Space: Good.” However, each group has its own special emphasis and slant on things. NSS is sort of a catch-all for human exploration, development, and settlement of space, supporting activities on Moon, Mars, asteroids, moons, orbit, and other solar systems. In terms of where to go first, the group is for the most part nonpartisan. The partisanship shows up elsewhere…usually among individual members. The Mars Society, Robert Zubrin’s group, is one of several spinoffs from NSS, dedicated obviously to Mars and, for the most part, the “Mars Direct” approach to getting there. The Moon Society is more low-key and emphasizes lunar development. SFF is the most libertarian of the groups, and the ones most intent on supporting the “New Space” community discussed above. ProSpace is a direct lobbying spinoff of NSS, and focuses on direct political action for any of a variety of causes, depending on the political climate. The Planetary Society claims the largest membership and for the most part emphasizes robotic exploration of the solar system. SEA was formed in 2004, in the wake of the Vision for Space Exploration, in an attempt to unite the various non-profits behind Bush’s new policy. The first couple years of the SEA’s lobbying efforts showed at least better cooperation than in the past. However, changes in policy since then have reduced participation. Space science groups have not liked Griffin’s slicing of science programs to pay for Shuttle or ISS shortfalls. The Mars Society fought hard and, unfortunately, unsuccessfully to keep anti-Mars language out of the 2008 budget. And playing well with others has become exceptionally difficult in an election year, when groups are more likely to follow whichever candidate is most likely to give their pet interest a better hearing.

Department of Defense

  • Army
  • Navy
  • Air Force
  • Marines
  • National Reconnaissance Office/Central Intelligence Agency

The military services do not have nearly the rivalry over space activities that they did 50 years ago–if only because President Eisenhower wanted it that way. That would be why there’s an Air Force station at Cape Canaveral, not an Army or Navy base, why some Army activities were transferred to NASA, and why missiles flying farther than 500 miles are the jurisdiction of the USAF. However, today nearly all the services are flying their own special-needs satellites, in addition to employing global positioning systems, MILSTARs, and commercial communication satellites for their warfighting necessities. Ballistic missile defenses have not gone away with the Cold War, however. Testing continues on terminal (near-target) defenses, and no doubt space-based lasers and the like are still being developed, though such “space war” technologies face opposition from peace lovers, inside and outside the space advocacy community. Ballistic missile defenses face opposition from peaceniks and budget-cutters alike. In a sense, the enemies of military space are the same as the enemies of Earth-based defenses, and that is a battle the DoD knows how to fight.

Specific Technology Advocates

  • Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV)
  • Helium-3
  • In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU)
  • Lunar-based Solar Power
  • Orbital Settlements
  • Reusable Launch Vehicles (RLVs)
  • Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) 
  • Space Elevators/Tethers
  • Space Solar Power/Solar Power Satellites

Rather than go into each of these topics, I will just make a general observation, as I encounter most of the technology enthusiasts at a variety of space-related conferences. Advocates for each of these technologies exist, in varying numbers, and often each of them believes that their technology is the “magic bullet” needed to make ours a spacefaring civilization. The most passionate of these individuals tend to be autodidacts rather than engineers (and I count myself among them). I rarely see engineers who work on these technologies getting into arguments except to correct someone. Another word for these single-issue advocates is “fanatics.” A fanatic has been described as someone who won’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. And in a community as small as ours, such narrowmindedness is suicidal. Rather than express a willingness to support this then that or this and that, the technology/magic bullet advocates want this and only this right now! The stridency appears to be getting more obvious, and the fragmentation more difficult to overcome. This is an observation essay. I’ll try to think of solutions at some other point. However, I can offer a clue, and it involves human relations skills.

International Space Agencies and Companies

  • Arianespace 
  • Australia
  • Brazil/Kourou
  • Canada 
  • Energiya 
  • European Space Agency (ESA)
  • Indian Space Research Organization
  • Iran 
  • Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)
  • Roskosmos
  • Russian Space Agency
  • People’s Liberation Army  (PLA)

Again, I won’t run down the whole list here. International space efforts are mostly extensions of the respective nations’ foreign policies. And America’s policies are driven by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) because anything capable of launching a satellite into orbit can launch a warhead at the U.S. homeland. This was true at the beginning of the space age, and it has become even more true now.

Carrying the Earth-policies-affect-space-policies discussion farther, does anyone seriously believe that Iran won’t build a spy satellite to watch Israel or that Russian won’t try to hold the U.S. up for more money to access the Space Station once the Shuttle has been retired? Will Space Adventures be allowed to continue sending tourists up to ISS? The coalitions on Earth will mostly be reflected in space. Right now, we have good relations with Japan and Australia, reasonably good relations with Europe, India, and Canada, somewhat less good relations with Russian and China, bad relations with Iran. Depending on how our coalitions shake out on Earth, we might find the space picture remaining stable or becoming exceptionally worse in the next decade. For instance, much as it pains me to say so, the next generation of GPS satellites might come from India rather than us. And we might need them if Russia and China continue to prop up the conventional, nuclear, and space military capabilities of Iran. What do we do about European space assets if the continent converts to Islam en masse? Stalemate? Space war? Who knows?

All of this is to say that space activities have become vastly more diverse in the last 50 years. This is good from the perspective that diversity leads to more ideas and more players. This is bad from the perspective that not all of those ideas will be good, all of them will be looking for money, and not all of them will have the best interests of the United States or the general public at heart.

Therefore, I still believe it would be wise for space advocates to take a broader view of their work. It would be nice to think that human beings will become better people once we get more of them out into space, but that is not realistic. Sooner or later, we will have to learn to tie our brilliant ideas about space to things most “normal people” think about in their daily lives. Funding space technologies or settlements is political, just as much as building dams, roads, or bridges. I realize there are some of us who would like to avoid politics altogether or get into space in order to “leave all that stuff behind us.” However, that is not the way the world works, and it is certainly not the way NASA works. If we truly believe that NASA exists to allow individual private citizens to go out, “explore strange new worlds,” and make ourselves independent, we have a serious reality check coming, and it will not be pretty. But just because our fantasies are not likely to come true in our lifetimes, that does not mean there is nothing we can do in the real world to push future generations in the right direction. First, we must get our eyes off the stars once in awhile and look other people in the eye. We won’t get very far without more of them in our camp.


  1. Absolute. I agree wholeheartedly that it is not simple as it seems. Its good to hear that another space voice on the internet is not tied down to the all too typical bickering between interests.

  2. I believe you mean “Blue Origin” not “Blue Horizon”

  3. Space Writing Guy:

    Nice article. First, not everyone out here in the universe has decent vision and your color/contrast on your side is barely readable to some of us an unfortunately older set of eyes. You might try adding more contrast between background and text, it would help quite a bit. Thanks for that consideration.

    I thought your Conflict comments to be well thought out and a good reality check. As host of The Space Show, I have the opportunity to talk and interview and discuss these issues (and lots more) with people representing all the groups you mentioned and some not mentioned. In fact, it has so bugged me lately that i just uploaded at part of the Friday, Feb. 8th show, an hour and 45 minute first ever Space Show Annual State of Space Message where I talk about most of what you are talking about but some other areas as well and some I did not reference as I was already too long winded. But again, I applaud what you are saying. We have some real soul searching to do regarding space advocacy, space education, the public, funding, the private sector, New Space, etc. This is all from the macro position, not really referencing any specific company or individual working his or her butt off to make some vision of space happen, sooner, not later.

    From what I see, I would say DOD is by far the main player now in space. Their budget dwarfs NASA’s and I think they are also far more competent in getting their mission from start to completion and they work the incremental methodology very well. More and more DOD types show up at space advocate conferences, they open their conferences to just about everyone, and this exchange and the opportunity to meet with these people is great. I am about to conclude that hitching a ride with DOD is the best route and the quickest route to anything in space, but I am not yet there in really affirming that position. I am still giving it lots of thought.

    We in the advocate community and all of us working in space, if we give a damn, we have to figure out how to properly tell the space story of relevance to the public, to members of congress and to others that are important, like people who work for large foundations that put millions of private foundation dollars into education and yet won’t even consider space education as relevant. We need to quit talking to ourselves and since NASA won’t and is probably not competent in doing the story telling anyway, we need to do it and we need to be the players that facilitate space development. We clearly, in my opinion, need to go outside our community with a real message of relevance. Personal relevance. How will space impact your family, your kids, your grand kids? Your future? Yes, there are the business issues, the technical and engineering issues but to me, the biggest hurdles we face for becoming space-faring are in the lack of leadership and inspiration, both in the government and within the space community. For anyone interested in listening to The Space Show State of Space message, here is the URL. The first hour is a great interview with Dr. Charles Lundquist in Huntsville during the 50th Anniversary of America In Space celebration and then the last hour and 45 minutes is my message. Again, good article that you wrote. Thanks. See
    Dr. David Livingston, Host
    The Space Show

  4. Thanks, Dr. Livingston. I’ll try to respond to some of your comments in a regular blog posting. I look forward to your message.

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