Posted by: spacewritinguy | April 24, 2008

The Political Silly Season Confounds Space Advocates

Recently, Greg Zsidisin wrote a three-part article on the space advocacy community’s responses (or lack thereof) to the presidential candidates, particularly Barack Obama. In part three of his editorial, he cites George Whitesides, NSS’s eminent Executive Director, who explained:

“NSS is doing everything it is legally allowed to do to promote space issues, including leading the SEA’s [Space Exploration Alliance] blitzes on Capitol Hill, identifying key space issues to our membership, doing petition drives on those issues, planning another Congressional blitz at ISDC [the group’s annual conference in Washington late next month], and organizing a presidential space debate of campaign representatives at the upcoming ISDC, among other things.”

It’s the “legally allowed” aspect of Whitesides’ statement that bugged Zsidisin the most, and despite NSS’s restrictions under 501(c)(3) of the tax code, he still presses the advocates to advocate more vigorously. Leaving aside the tax code issue for a moment, I believe the issues run deeper than that. And if I may be so bold, I will offer my own corner-of-the-world perspective on the challenges faced by advocates of human space exploration–not just NSS, but all of us. To begin with, NSS is sort of a “big tent” or catch-all organization, dedicated to “People living and working in thriving communities beyond the Earth, and the use of the vast resources of space for the dramatic betterment of humanity.” This big-tent philosophy is welcoming, pragmatic, and problematic from the point of view of advocacy.

On the important questions, NSS, like the space advocacy community as a whole, is not united by a long shot. Take, for example, the question of where should we explore? “Beyond the Earth,” for example, is deliberately vague. Do we mean the Moon? Low Earth Orbit? Orbital space (L4 or L5)? Mars? The asteroid belt? Or all of the above? The obvious answer is all of the above. On the positive side, we rightly believe that, eventually, human beings will occupy all of these locations as parts of a broader solar-system-wide civilization. On the negative side, favoring all potential locations for human exploration (ISS, Moon, Mars, asteroids) prevents us from pushing too hard for any one of these directions. NSS is also sponsored, in part, by some large aerospace contributors who might not want their rice bowls harmed, which would most likely happen if we came out too fiercely for one destination or another.

Next there is the question of who will explore, develop, and settle the solar system? Should government do it all, take the lead, or get out of the way? These are questions of politics and economics, and here, too, NSS’s status as “the big tent” prevents it from taking hard stances one way or the other. Consider the role of government in the Earthbound economy. Has that question been settled yet? Hardly. NSS’s sponsorship by NASA and some large aerospace firms, too, makes any too-controversial stance troublesome. And, as Zsidisin notes in one of his editorials, one cannot overlook the fact that many people who are space advocates also work for NASA or its prime contractors, and aren’t necessarily going to push for some program that is going to put them out of a job. The serious rebels are over in the Space Frontier Foundation.

But that’s still not all. Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that the advocates could all agree on where we should go first (Moon, then the asteroids, then Mars) and who should do it (the government first, then the private sector once market infrastructure was established). That still leaves the question of how will it be done? Use the current Constellation Program Ares 1/Ares 5 architecture? The “Direct” route? Stick the Orion spacecraft on top of an EELV? Scrap the existing hardware altogether and go for brand-new reusable launch vehicles (RLVs)?

And then comes the next question: what will we do when we get there? Here, too, the space advocacy community is divided. Should we “incorporate the solar system into our economic sphere,” as Presidential Science Advisor John Marburger would put it? Build a space tourism-based infrastructure, concentrating on orbital and lunar hotels and entertainment complexes? Focus on “spinoff” benefits for Earth-based health and energy efficiency needs? Focus on direct benefits to Earth, like space solar power, helium-3, or asteroid mining? Or should we go only for pure scientific research to learn more about solar-system-wide planetary environment phenomena? Or (as some heretics might ask) should we scrap the idea of human exploration entirely and let robots have all the fun?

Now throw all these issues together into the midst of the following environment:

  • A high-stakes, highly partisan presidential campaign
  • A voting public more concerned about the war in Iraq, the economy, or global warming than the .58% of the federal budget that makes up NASA
  • A congress that sees NASA, whatever its budgetary percentage, as a good target for cuts
  • A slate of presidential candidates who have expressed little to no interest in space, and what interest they have expressed is either vague or leaning toward budget cuts
  • A NASA organization in the midst of hurriedly finishing the International Space Station and retiring the Space Shuttle, while still trying to build a politically neglected Constellation Program


Combine all ingredients, add water, mix rapidly with a sensationalist media culture, add a healthy dash of short public attention spans, bring to a slow boil, and then tell me how anyone would expect this odd mix of advocates to come together. It can be done, but it will require thick-skinned leadership willing to disappoint some members under the big tent. If NSS and the other space advocacy organizations are willing to do that, this would be a good time to start. Election Day is about seven months away.

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