The so-called “fiscal cliff” and its across-the-board spending cuts are set to take effect on Wednesday, and the last week has seen little progress to a resolution to at least delay those cuts. Even if there is a breakthrough in the next few days, we’re likely heading into an era of constrained budgets. Is the space community, in particular grassroots space advocates, prepared to effectively lobby for their interests? Recent efforts suggest they’re not.
One popular tool in the last year or so has been to petition the White House through the “We the People” web site. Collect 25,000 signatures in a month, and the White House promises to respond to the issue raised in that petition. And, sure enough, there’s an open petition regarding NASA. “Instead of cutting NASA’s budget, we should be growing it. Not doubling or tripling, but at least keeping its funding at the levels it has been or greater,” the petition states, making its case in two brief paragraphs. As of Friday morning, the petition was closing in on 15,000 signatures, with a week left to reach the 25,000-signature threshold for a response.
If this approach sounds familiar, it should: it’s one of several petitions filed since 2011 to in increased support for NASA, several of which reached the threshold for a response. One in September 2011 sought to reallocate defense funding to NASA, while another earlier this year wanted to “at least double” NASA’s budget. There have also been petitions on narrower space issues, like the allocation of Space Shuttle orbiters and the search for extraterrestrial life. None, it appears, has made any difference in space budgets or policy, so there’s little reason this current one, even if it makes it to the threshold for a response, will be any different.
Moreover, the petition process has arguably been abused by people seeking to air various grievances or just have a little fun. A petition calling for the government to begin work on a Death Star by 2016 received 32,788 signatures, enough to warrant an official response. (One imagines the Pentagon and OSTP arguing over who gets to take on that issue.) And, sure enough, now there’s one demanding NASA to fund a feasibility study for the USS Enteprise. Clearly, some science fiction fans want the government to resolve, once and for all, who would win a battle between the Death Star and the Enterprise.
In short, it’s very difficult to consider a petition a serious space advocacy tool. It hasn’t resulted in any change in policy to date. Moreover, wouldn’t it be embarrassing if such an effort failed to attract as many signatures as, say, one to build a Death Star?
There are, of course, other tools: a group called “Penny4NASA” seeks to roughly double NASA’s budget to one percent of the overal federal budget (i.e., one penny of each federal dollar). They’re encouraging people to contact their congressional representatives asking them to double the space agency’s budget, including offering a form on their web site to do so. Among those who have done so is one member of the new National Research Council study of NASA’s human spaceflight program, Ariel Waldman, who tweeted her support of that effort last night.
Contacting members of Congress is not a bad idea, although doing through an online form may not be the best approach, particularly in the numbers this effort has garnered to date: fewer than 7,300 people over several months. (That number includes a handful of people who used the online tool to express their opposition to such a budget increase.) Such low numbers mean that these responses are likely lost in the noise of other issues.
Worse, arguably, is the goal of a one-percent target for NASA’s budget. It’s largely an arbitrary figure, not based on the funding needs of specific programs but a general desire that the space agency is somehow entitled to a larger slice of the federal pie. Moreover, that figure is based on two variables, NASA’s budget and the overall federal budget, thus making NASA’s budget dependent on the level of spending overall instead of its specific needs and requirements. In an era where a recent report found a lack of “national consensus” on the overall goals and strategy of the space agency, asking Congress for a multi-billion-dollar blank check doesn’t sound particularly effective.
There have been more focused efforts as individuals and groups have lobbied for specific NASA programs, such as planetary science and commercial crew, that may have been more effective (until there’s a final fiscal year 2013 appropriations bill, we won’t know for certain.) Those seeking more general support for NASA, though, may want to rethink both their overall strategy and outreach tactics in a time when funding in general will be difficult to come by in the federal budget.