There was a flurry of media attention over the weekend and on Monday to the official White House response to a petition to “formally acknowledge an extraterrestrial presence engaging the human race”. In what doesn’t exactly qualify as breaking news, the White House stated, “The U.S. government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race.” At least we have that issue settled. Whew!
But are people using the White House’s new “We the People” online petition tool for more serious space policy topics? Not much, it seems. Of the 118 open, visible petitions on the site (as of early Tuesday morning), only two deal directly with space issues, but both have met the threshold—originally 5,000 signatures, but raised for newer petitions to 25,000—for an official response. One, “Reallocate Defense funds to NASA”, seeks to divert defense funding to NASA, specifically for human spaceflight. “America and Humanity require a permanent presence in Space and no amount of telescopes or rovers are going to meet that requirement. Manned Missions are the only answer but NASA does not the have funds to make this vision a reality,” the petition states (capitalization in original). “America needs to wind down these wars and reallocate all that money into our space program.”
The second petition seeks to give the shuttle Enterprise to Ohio, reversing NASA’s controversial award of the orbiter to New York’s Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum. “New York City is unprepared to house the Enterprise Shuttle while the National Museum of the USAF at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is the ideal location,” the petition argues. “Please help boost the Ohio economy!”
The odds of success of either petition—in terms of changing policy, not attracting signatures—appear long. Transferring “all that money” that funded wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to NASA would be a political nonstarter in the current era of cutting overall federal spending. And would the White House wade in and override NASA’s decision to award Enterprise to New York City, making NASA look bad and agitating New Yorkers, without some other precipitating event (such as the failure of the Intrepid museum to raise funding for its planned shuttle museum)?
Notably, there are no open, visible petitions on what the space community considers hot topics: nothing about the Space Launch System, commercial crew, space technology funding, and so on. The key here, though, is visible: in order for a petition to show up in a search on the “We the People” site, it must already have at least 150 signatures, requiring sponsors to rely on word of (electronic) mouth when starting their petition drive. For example, in addition to the petition giving Dayton the shuttle Enterprise, there’s a similar one to give Enterprise to Houston. However, that petition, created just over a week ago, has attracted only 37 signatures as of Tuesday morning, and thus doesn’t show up in public searches.
Perhaps, though, the space community has decided that the petition site is little more than a stunt, and that there are more traditional, effective means to shape policy. Or, as one recent petition states, “We demand a vapid, condescending, meaningless, politically safe response to this petition.”.