Shortly after SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket placed the company’s Dragon spacecraft into orbit early Tuesday, the White House issued a congratulatory statement from John Holdren, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. “Partnering with U.S. companies such as SpaceX to provide cargo and eventually crew service to the International Space Station is a cornerstone of the President’s plan for maintaining America’s leadership in space,” he said in the one-paragraph statement. “This expanded role for the private sector will free up more of NASA’s resources to do what NASA does best — tackle the most demanding technological challenges in space, including those of human space flight beyond low Earth orbit.”
A few hours later, Holdren brought up space policy in a different setting: at “The Science of Science Communication” colloquium at the National Academies of Science in Washington. At the meeting, ScienceInsider reports, Holdren mentioned the challenge of communicating that plan for “maintaining America’s leadership in space” he cited in his statement yesterday. The problem, in essence, is that space policy is too complex an issue to communicate simply, he claimed.
“It’s an interesting object lesson about how difficult it is to communicate when the messages require a lot of references to analysis and detail,” Holdren said, as quoted by ScienceInsider. Criticism of the plan, by comparison, was much simpler, he suggested: “the counter-messages are very simple: Losing leadership, no vision, and giving up proven technologies for unproven ones. It’s a real challenge.” The administration had “fabulous” responses for those criticisms, he said, “but the answers were basically too complicated. So in many respects, we haven’t won that communications battle about NASA.”
What isn’t mentioned in the article, though, is whether Holdren believes some of setbacks in the “communications battle” regarding space policy were self-inflicted. One of the biggest criticisms of the administration’s plans for NASA was how that plan was rolled out over two years ago: tucked into the administration’s 2011 budget request, with little or no communication with congressional stakeholders prior to the public release of the budget. That immediately put the administration on the defensive. A better rollout would not have eliminated all of the criticism about the plan, but it might have made Holdren’s job a little less complicated.