Should the space community be more politically active?

In an essay in this week’s issue of The Space Review, Chris Carberry, political director of The Mars Society and organizer of the National Space Society’s recent Space Budget Blitz, argues that members of the space community, be they employees or just enthusiasts, need to do more politically to express their desire for a vigorous space program. A key paragraph from his essay:

The space community needs to take on more of the political burden. We have far more people than many effective political movements. If each person in our community were to write or call their members of Congress at least once a year; if they were to take the time to write to or call the presidential candidates, that would be impressive. And I tell you what, I’m sure that Congress and the candidates would notice. While we may not convince all of them to become space promoters, we very well could make them think twice about being space attackers. To paraphrase a former president, “It’s about the politics, stupid!”

Carberry argues that such increased activity is vital now, given cuts in NASA’s FY07 budget, the upcoming 2008 presidential election, and because “there are now some people in influential positions who would be perfectly happy to eliminate VSE and, perhaps, human space exploration altogether.” What do you think? Would getting more people in the “space community” politically active make a difference? Or do we risk a cacophony of different ideas that drowns each other out, since there’s arguably no such thing as a monolithic space community?

16 comments to Should the space community be more politically active?

  • There are two pieces of the political puzzle: support and consequences. The ‘community’ could write letters all day long but when it comes to election day, what are the actual consequences to the politician? Is there enough cohesiveness in the community to createa coordinated effort to create consequences for bad votes?

    But as you point out, all of this assumes some kind of monolithic space community. I call my congress person regularly on space issues but I doubt that what I have to say syncs up very well with what the Mars Society and NSS would be advocating for. Admittedly I’m more prone to supporting the NSS’s message than the Mars Society but even then I’m not very supportive of government space programs in the general case.

    What I would be much more interested in is NSS/Mars Society/SFF/PS/YFSAG (Your Favorite Space Advocacy Group) looking at that community that Chris talks about as a market and a source of direct funds rather than a constituency-bat to hit appropriators with. If we could figure out a way to monetize the Sci-Fi channel’s weekly viewership we could start funding our own missions.

  • Ferris Valyn

    I agree with you on the point that the Space community is not one monolithic group. And that is a problem.

    There is one thing that I think (at least I hope) we could agree on, and I think would be worth while – that is include the words space colonization any time you write, or call, or visit with, said representative/Senator/presidential canadate. This I would apply whether we are talking about funding, or regulation – the key point we have to come back to is colonization

  • Ferris,
    Well, it depends on who you include in “we”. From what I’ve seen of the typical Planetary Society membership you would get enough disagreement on that point to constitute abuse of the word ‘agreement’. Even within our community you have the robots vs humans debate as well as the “we need to fix our problems here before we go there” meme…

    IMHO, we need to stop trying to boil the ocean with our advocacy and focus on motivating the sub-communities to be much more economically and politically effective. Its much more effective to go do something to prove your right than spend all your time trying to convince someone you are by simple force of argument.


  • Ferris Valyn

    A valid point Michael – I guess I’ve been of the opinion that, if you wanna support manned flight, its for the very simple reason of ultimately wanting colonization. Otherwise, why fly people into space? I know there is some debate about whether you get a better ROI in science, and if science is your primary motivating factor, I can understand the Robots vs manned debate. (BTW, for those interested in that debate, I really don’t wanna start it here)

    Perhaps a better way of putting it is, if you support colonization, you should always tie it back to that – I’d argue thats true whether your talking to someone in a super important position, or whether your talking to the average joe.

  • Ferris,
    Completely agree. I think we would all be much better served by realizing that there are members of the community who don’t ‘get’ colonization and that this is fine for them as long as they realize that what we want is also fine with us. If we could simply stop bad-mouthing the other point of view it wouldn’t matter if we didn’t agree because we wouldn’t be perceived as actively trying to steal the other guys funding.

    On IRC about a year ago I ran across a guy who is an avid Mars rover and astronomy nut. But after chatting for a while it came up that he had zero interest in ever going into space at all and thought that anyone who did was crazy. He was completely content with looking at the universe through a lens. My head almost exploded! ;-)

    Maybe that comes back to having ‘science’ and ‘exploration’ in the same budget and having to fight each other for the same semi-static pile of money. But that starts me down the “split NASA up” thread which I also don’t want to start here. ;-)


  • Michael/Ferris:

    I have often wished there were a way to convince the scientists that a frontier-approach that opens space to LOTS more science as well as “colonization” is the right compromise, but to many robot fans that sounds like a repeat of the Shuttle fiasco (if you scientists just let NASA build their spaceship, then you’ll get a space telescope, etc…). There is also, as Michael suggests, an unfortunate “win-lose” mindset among some in the science community: if any supporter of human spaceflight “wins”, even if they’re NewSpace instead of Shuttle/ISS, then science loses. [I know very few NewSpace folks who have a similar view of science, altho we may prefer smallsats to battlestar galactica science missions. ;-) ]

    If we COULD get past this mindset, then one could craft a broad “let’s get back to exploration and on to settlement” alliance that would be politically significant, and I am guessing please Mr. Carberry.

    But until then the divisions amongst just the supporters of human spaceflight, leaving out the scientists entirely, makes a coalition really hard.

    – Jim

  • kert

    “Would getting more people in the “space community” politically active make a difference?”

    Substitute the word “space” to “railroad”, “sea” or “air”, substitute centuries accordingly and see how silly discussions can you extrapolate from there.
    The problem with “space” is that cold war and the whole rivarly thing messed up the natural order of things, and space became a place for politics long before it becomes a place for communities.

  • kert

    regarding alliances and a unified call.. it is being tried
    with mixed results, as usual

  • Jim: If we COULD get past this mindset, then one could craft a broad “let’s get back to exploration and on to settlement” alliance that would be politically significant.

    The sad thing, Jim, is that I think, for a very brief period shortly after the VSE was announced, we almost had this. Space scientists were not initially opposed to the VSE as it was initially presented, so long as what they perceived as their interests were respected. This consensus was bound to break down as hard financial choices needed to be made. However, one of Dr. Griffin’s greatest failings, I think, was that he pointlessly picked fights with scientists long before he had to, making unnecessarily (or at least unnecessarily early) enemies of them.

    — Donald

  • Ferris Valyn

    If we COULD get past this mindset, then one could craft a broad “let’s get back to exploration and on to settlement” alliance that would be politically significant, and I am guessing please Mr. Carberry.

    The problem with that Jim is that when people see the phrase exploration, they think exploration = science.

    Frankly, I’d be happy if we could narrow it down to the point of getting everyone who supports manned flight to agree to always bring it back to colonization. Let me give an example. Last year, the SEDS chapter at my school restarted after having fallen off for years. During one meeting, I tried to make the point that at any sort of political events (we talked about doing them – nothing ever came of it as far as I know), we should bring up colonization or settlement. And I didn’t necassraily mean “we’re going to colonize right now ” (although I do think its entirely debatable that we’ve already started), but in the sense of “This will bring us closer to the goal of space colonization/settlement”, and, while I wasn’t the only one arguing for this, most of the people there thought that bringing up colonization or settlement was a bad idea, basically arguing that it sounds too ambition/ostentation/whatever. Basically that it was too big of an idea for the average politician (forget the average person) to wrap their minds around it. And so, assuming they did anything (my suspicion is that they didn’t) they would only mention exploration. And, because of that exploration = science dicotimy we have right now, this forces the humans vs robots debates that we are all aware of.

    If those of us who back manned spaceflight, instead of talking about exploration started talking about colonization (and as much as possible about colonization), I suspect that, to some degreee, the scientist would stop fighting us, at least as much. Because then, both manned and unmanned would serve 2 different and distinct purposes. By trying to occupy the niche of exploration, we’ll have this robots vs human debate for many years to come.

  • Bill White

    If the goal isn’t settlement then human exploration versus robotic exploration becomes a much tougher question, for me.

    Next question, “who” is the agent that will aspire to these goals?

    As for our species, I assert permanent settlement (becoming spacefaring) must be THE goal. As Mike Griffin has said, perhaps no lesser goal can justify the risk to life and treasure that will be required for routine and sustained human spaceflight and no greater goal can be imagined.

    As for “Western Civilization” or people who aspire to American values (arguments over what that means are hereby tabled) I again assert that permanent settlement is THE goal.

    As for that entity known as the United States of America I find it a little bit harder to articulate why our national best interest is served by permanent settlement except in the vicarious sense that I shall willingly pay for my child’s college education even if the direct “benefit” to me is less tangible.

    I simply see no scenario where Washington DC can (or should) retain long term political jurisdiction over permanent settlers on the moon or Mars even if our nation does retain jurisdiction over temporary mining camps, or research stations and the like.

    But then again, I foresee paying for my children’s college education even if they choose a major I do not approve of.

    As for that entity known as NASA (one subset of the USA) again as Mike Griffin has said, NASA must answer to a diverse group of stakeholders and many of those could care less about settlement, with some of those being primarily focused on the value of their corporate stock.

    A question that interests me is whether (a) NASA or (b) even entire nations (such as the US) are the appropriate entities to sponsor or undertake the permanent settlement of space.

    Would the US need to follow affirmative action policies in choosing settlers, for example?

    Perhaps we need “a people” to settle space rather than a nation-state.

    Finally, its been a few years since I pounded this drum, however I keep coming back to a definition of spacefaring I have long favored. If we can safely and routinely bear children at multiple celestial locations, we are spacefaring. Otherwise, we are not.

    = = =

    Thus, on the question of political lobbying of the US government, I see it like this:

    (a) Someone will eventually settle space, or not. If not, humanity will begin and end its days here on Earth.

    (b) If “Yes” and someone does eventually settle space, then I desire that people holding “American values” paticipate in that permanent settlement.

    Even if my biological children or grandchildren never travel out there, I want my memes (values and principles) to be shared by those who do travel out there, and stay.

    Finally, I believe Mike Griffin has asserted many of these above points, at times in sworn testimony to Congress, making him my ideal choice for NASA Administrator, scuffles over EELV versus Ares 1 notwithstanding.

  • Monte Davis

    If “Yes” and someone does eventually settle space, then I desire that people holding “American values” paticipate in that permanent settlement.

    I’ll throw in a doubly heretical POV here: that “eventually” is far enough out that the array of nations:values may well be very different by then. This has nothing to do with immediate lobbying strategies, since “the US must be a leader in X” is a traditional and still indispensable pitch as long as most effort is tax-funded. But in my heart of hearts I care a lot about the species getting established in space, and not a lot about which country takes which baby step over the next few decades. Just sayin.

  • Monte: But in my heart of hearts I care a lot about the species getting established in space, and not a lot about which country takes which baby step over the next few decades.

    I fully agree. That is why I’m supportive of China’s, India’s, and, yes, Russia’s and Europe’s efforts, however modest or otherwise some of these may be. In purely parochial terms, some of these events are probably “bad” for the United States. But, to the degree that they encourage or enable a future human expansion into the Solar System, they are good news indeed.

    — Donald

  • Bill White

    Thanks, Jeff, for the editing.

    Several years ago I volunteered to lobby Congress and as I recall that event was called the “Moon-Mars Blitz” — it was great fun and I believe everyone should volunteer for these things but this year family conflicts left me unavailable for any of the Spring lobbying events.

    Anyway, during our training, and to rally the troops, one of the organizers tried to get us fired up by asking the volunteers, “Who wants to fly in space?”

    As everyone raised their hands and cheered I kinda shrugged my shoulders. The guy next to me said, “What, you don’t want to travel into space?”

    Both then and today my basic answer would be the same. “Sure, it’d be cool” But I also would like to date Victoria Secret models and I ain’t holding my breath on that.

    On the other hand, the idea of our species setting down roots “out there” and having children who will have children who will have children and eventually engulf the entire Solar System with life is something that captivates me. Even if I cannot live long enough to see it happen, I’d like to see that undertaking at least get started. And to help in a tiny, tiny way, if I can.

    Is this logical or rational? I’m not really sure it is. But it is what motivates me.

  • Bill, my motivation is much the same as yours. Other than a possible sub-orbital flight if I remain sufficiently healthy for long enough and manage to accumulate enough free cash, though I’d like to, I don’t expect to visit space. I certainly would not want to go there for any length of time. I’m too settled in my beloved city. I do go visit extremely remote North Sea islands every other year or so to get truly away from it all, but that is for a couple of weeks in good accommodations. . . .

    Isaac Asimov was once asked if he wanted to travel in space. He pointed out that it was almost impossible to get him out of New York, and said something to the effect of, his job is to point the way.

    Like Asimov, I see this as the next step in the long sweep of human expansion over our own planet’s surface.

    — Donald

  • Ken Murphy

    I decided to get involved with a space organization back at the end of the ’90s, and signed up with the NSS. Shortly thereafter, when I’d committed to going to ISU I let my membership lapse to help save money for baguettes and coffee. After graduation, it took me a while to pick it back up, in part because from my past experience it seemed focused on things political.

    I’m just not big on politics, something I learned when I was involved with the UNA-USA. Politics involves changes, and every year you have to train a new crop of folks up on the Hill, and it becomes a tiresome cycle.

    Which isn’t to say that I’m not respectful of the good work (the abundance of which is always open to debate) of our legislators, and we do live in a nation of law where all men are equal thereunder. “”

    So carrying the torch of knowledge to the legislators regarding space matters and their importance to the U.S. is a necessary work. But not all temperaments are suited to such things. Some of us just want to do good space works in our communities, because those are important too (if not more so). And I find that the NSS does encompass that. So will our ISDC 2007 in Dallas, which will have politicians and educators alike.

Leave a Reply to Donald F. Robertson Cancel reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>