Petitions, full of sound and fury, signifying…

Back in December I noted the space advocacy community’s continued, if perhaps misguided, fascination with White House petitions. Petitions have been the tool of first resort—and sometimes the tool of only resort—to demand funding increases for NASA or other policy changes. The problem is that they often fail to reach the necessarily threshold (recently increased to 100,000 signatures) for an administration response, and even when they have, the response has been more a reiteration of current policy than a willingness to change.

That hasn’t stopped people from continuing to use this tool. In response to NASA’s decision last Friday to temporarily suspend most educational and public outreach efforts because of sequestration, advocates started a petition demanding that the suspension be overturned. “The Sequester’s recent cuts on NASA’s spending in public outreach and its STEM programs must not be allowed,” it states. As of early Thursday morning, the petition had garnered almost 6,000 signatures, with three and a half weeks to go. Although that’s a sizable amount, unless the petition becomes more popular it will fall well short of the 100,000-signature threshold.

The danger posed by near Earth objects is the subject of another petition. “Find the asteroids, before they find us,” demands this petition, without going into more details. (Find all the asteroids, or just those above a certain size threshold? And by when?) The petition started Sunday and, as of Thursday morning, had received 11 signatures.

Petitions like these don’t hurt, but they don’t alone help much, either, based on past experience. If you feel strongly enough about these issues to sign one of these petitions, make sure it’s not the only advoacy activity you undertake.

8 comments to Petitions, full of sound and fury, signifying…

  • Ben Russell-Gough

    At least in part, these e-petitions suffer from a lack of visibility. Unless their existence is communicated (through chat-rooms and other social media means) then most people won’t know they exist. It’s difficult to judge how popular a given prospect is based on the sign-up rate of a petition only a handful of people actually know about.

  • It’s not a White House petition, but there’s an effort to raise money to show the NASA promo We Are the Explorers in movie theatres as a trailer before Star Trek Into Darkness.

    Click here for the campaign fundraising web site.

    Click here to watch We Are the Explorers.

    While well-intentioned, they miss the point just like the “Penny for NASA” movement. Most people don’t care about exploration. Unless you demonstrate a tangible and immediate benefit to their everyday lives, you’re spinning your wheels.

    They also ignore that there are private-sector efforts beyond NASA. NASA is a government agency beholden to the whims of Congress. It has a long legacy as a very inefficient bureaucracy. All the new technology is in the private sector.

    Why we think playing a NASA promo in a few movie theatres will somehow convince Congress to bankroll a big bloated government space program is beyond me.

  • Any Mouse

    I think the valuable part of the petitions (at least in their current configuration) is that they serve as a sort of stress-test for advocacy organizations. If you can’t get to 100,000 people it indicates at least one of three things.

    1) The widespread support for your movement isn’t nearly as widespread as you thought
    2) Your organizing power (i.e. power to mobilize votes) is limited
    3) Your persuasive arguments are weak

    In many cases, people may argue that failures don’t count because they’re not being pursued seriously. In that case, one must note that successful efforts, such like the environmental movement, have extensive, well-funded, and well-organized networks. The space community doesn’t perform well next to that kind of competition for political leverage.

    In this respect, the petitions tell us a great deal about the movements behind them.

  • common sense

    Most of the advocacy community it seems to me are driven by lingering dreams of Star Trek. In a sense I don’t mind. But ignoring reality is where it hurts us all.

    As for the environmental movement it seems obvious (to me at least) that the environment affects us all, whether we like it or not.

    Not so much space “exploration”. Actually come to think of it space exploration has essentially no effect on any one. Especially the human kind of space exploration.

    The only real meaningful advocacy is to make sure the government ensure technology transfer to the private sector and let the private sector figure why they would like to send humans to space.

    We just saw that even the threat of an impact with all the possible associated consequences won’t move our Congress beyond hearings to market Armageddon.

    • Dark Blue Nine

      If true — AvWeek has been wrong on these futuristic initiatives before — a few thoughts:

      1) $100 million is only 3.8% of what the Keck study claimed it would cost ($2.65 billion) to conduct the asteroid retrieval mission. And it will cost more, probably much more, with NASA running it. At this tiny funding level, this is not a hard and fast commitment from the Administration to this mission. Rather, it’s a small pot to explore the viability and desirability of such a mission, with a strong commitment to come later if it proves out.

      2) The Administration’s rationale — that asteroid retrieval will enable the President’s 2025 human NEO goal — is flaky. If “President Obama’s goal of sending astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 can’t be done with foreseeable civil-space spending”, then where is the remaining $2.55 billion — probably more like $5 billion-plus by the time NASA is done — going to come from to execute this mission? If we have to outsource the service module for MPCV to ESA because we can’t find a multi-hundred million dollar wedge in NASA’s budget to build it domestically, why are we starting multi-billion dollar initiatives?

      3) Before tacking on more unaffordable initiatives, a better solution to the Administration’s dilemma would be to pursue more affordable systems than SLS and MPCV. For example, a 70-ton EELV Phase 2 at $2.6 billion would save upwards of $6 billion over what SLS is going to cost through Block I. Only once the Administration takes steps like that will things like an asteroid retrieval mission become possible within the foreseeable budget.

      4) Regardless of cost, the connection between the asteroid retrieval mission and SLS/MPCV is also flaky. If the point of SLS/MPCV is to enable long-range/long-duration missions beyond Earth orbit, then sending MPCV to an asteroid that’s been moved into Earth orbit defeats that purpose. You’re not testing any human space flight systems (communications, life support, etc.) or operations under deep space or long-duration mission conditions. After billions of dollars, you’re no closer to proving that you have the equipment and procedures necessary to send humans to Mars (or pick another deep space target). In terms of advancing human space exploration, all you’ve proven is that you can rendezvous with a controlled object in Earth orbit. We’ve been doing that since Gemini 8 and Cosmos 186/188. Heck, even the Chinese can do that now.

      5) On its own, asteroid retrieval is a worthy mission for NASA or another organization. The achievement of such a feat has large implications for planetary protection and space resource utilization. But it makes no sense budgetarily at NASA until the Administration and Congress clean up the SLS/MPCV mess. And its justification will probably never make sense in terms of a mission sequence to push back the frontiers of human space exploration.

  • James

    The Purpose of a White House Petition is not to alter existing policy; no one believes that mechanism will do the job. The purpose is to gain publicity for the protest of the policy, to raise awareness of a the policy in question.

    And from that perspective it works.

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