Space cadets unite! Otherwise we’re irrelevant

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Published on: June 3, 2012

With the successful launch, mission and splashdown of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft during the past two weeks, once again we have seen the general public – or at least the mainstream media – showing renewed interest in our nation’s space program.

Most of the commentary I’ve read has hailed the launch of the first commercial cargo delivery mission to the International Space Station as an event heralding the future of spaceflight, a bold new era in which the government takes a diminished role getting into and out of low Earth orbit so it can concentrate on exploring the unknown frontiers beyond.

It all sounds very exciting, especially to the pro-space activists who are all aglow in the aftermath of the achievement by SpaceX. The Space Foundation, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, the National Space Society, the Space Frontier Foundation, the Planetary Society and others all put out congratulatory releases or statements or tweets.

There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m giddy too. The challenge now is to turn that interest and excitement into greater and enthusiastic support for space exploration from the White House and Congress. Unfortunately, as challenges go, well, let’s just say that SpaceX getting their Dragon capsule up to the space station was a lot easier by comparison.

You see, we in the space community have at least two major problems.

First, we can’t ever seem to agree on the message. One group says we should be going back to the Moon. Another says the target must be Mars. Another favors robot exploration of the solar system and launching telescopes to explore the universe.

Some promote spinoffs and economic benefits as the reason we should have a space program. Others point to national prestige and national security. Still others talk of destiny and survival of the human species as motivators.

As long as we are unable to speak as one community we will never be as effective as we could be, and we won’t be taken seriously. In fact, when I hear of the bickering that goes on among the various groups, I often think we’re no better than Star Trek fans who argue over whether Kirk or Picard is the superior captain. (We all know it’s Kirk.)

Second, we don’t always understand who we should be delivering our message to.

Like a bunch of NFL cheerleaders, only not necessarily as cute, we do a great job of rooting on our fellow space cadets and getting all worked up about how cool all this technology is, how thrilling it is to see a rocket launch, and how inspiring the space program is to children.

This is where the preaching to the choir and other religious-themed clichés come in. Your church won’t grow unless you share your Good News with the non-believers of the world. But is it enough to preach the gospel of spaceflight just to the masses? The answer is no, it’s not enough.

Moving on to a Wall Street simile: Like any good financial portfolio, you must have a decent mix of investments that represent various amounts of risk and payoff, depending on your short and long term goals. Too often the space advocates don’t get this right, and don’t work well together to invest their time and money in a balanced outreach campaign that takes into account risk and value of the return on that investment.

This week I read a post on the NASA Watch website that illustrates this point very well. In a series of replies to a comment made by the website’s editor, Keith Cowing, under the headline of “People Listen to Tony Stark – Not to Space Advocates,” the president of an organization called The Moon Society, Ken Murphy, wrote this:

“Here’s a question for you, Keith. How many MENSA meetings and conferences, Rotary luncheons, science fiction conventions, museums, elementary schools and other public outreach events do I have to do to not be considered a ‘space activist only talking to other space activists?’ What is the threshold of the general public attending my Moon Day events to be thought of as someone who is actually engaging the public? 1,000? 2,000? 5,000? More?

How much money does the National Space Society of North Texas have to give away in Science Fair scholarships? How many toys do we have to donate to our Santa Space Toy Drive? How many space books do we have to donate to the play area at the local flight museum?…”

Keith Cowing’s response, frank and to the point, was “I have yet to see any discernible alteration in space policy as a result. Sorry.”

While I often bristle at Cowing’s blunt style, I completely agree with the substance of his response to The Moon Society’s president. And believe me, I wish it weren’t the case because actually moving the needle on space policy is really the key challenge we face in the space advocacy community.

We have yet to find a way to turn all that outstanding public outreach into viable political currency such that every Senator, every member of the House of Representatives, and each occupant of the White House – no matter what party they represent – will support a robust national space policy.

And while exactly what that national space policy should be is a debate for another time, please don’t misunderstand the message now: I’m not saying we shouldn’t do public outreach, or that all of our efforts should go toward lobbying on Capitol Hill. It’s not a case of “either or.”

Organizations like the Moon Society and the others I mentioned must continue what they are doing. We also need planetariums, and science museums and places like our own Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex here in Florida to continue reaching out to the masses and sharing the excitement of space exploration in all of its forms.

But it won’t mean a thing unless we as space advocates actually agree on a coordinated message and a balanced plan for our outreach that recognizes and deals with the hard realities of politics. Until we get our act together, we can never hope to realize our collective dreams for a true spacefaring civilization.

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