… or Kicking the Same Can Down the Same Road and Getting Nowhere
In my earlier post on the recent NSS International Space Development Conference (ISDC), I mentioned that not much has changed since my more frequent opportunities to attend the ISDC over twenty years ago. It would seem that we (the NSS and like-minded space advocates) have been using the same sales pitch for the last thirty years and we are getting the same results. Not much. I found similar sentiments in commentaries posted by space historian Dwayne Day (http://www.thespacereview.com/article/2516/1) and policy analyst Jeff Foust (http://www.thespacereview.com/article/2510/1).
One example was Mark Hopkins’ talk with the headline “Space is Our Future” (in black Helvetica text on a featureless viewgraph background). Wasn’t that our tagline in 1980? After over three decades of grass-roots and Washington, DC-based advocacy, the US still does not have a coherent long term space strategy. Similarly, the American public has not bought into the concept of an expanded space exploration and development effort with any sort of passion or excitement. Maybe that’s why we don’t have a coherent policy.
I submit that we need to update our approach and our message, or at least find a new way of summarizing our vision in a short statement. If “Space is Our Future” was true in 1980, and we still try to use that line today, it dismisses all the progress of the past 34 years. In 1980 there were precious few planetary missions planned, the only space station was Russian, and the Shuttle had yet to fly. Now we have a functioning research lab with a crew of six in orbit, robots crawling around Mars and heading to Pluto, and a burgeoning private space industry. I contend that space is not just in our future but is well-established today. We should stop the negative thinking and mindset that we have made no progress. We may not have tourist flights to 100 km yet or factories in space, but we have come a long way.
On the other hand, Hopkins painted a rosy picture of how well the NSS is doing. I’m not so sure about that. NSS membership is simultaneously dwindling and aging. The Society has not adapted to the internet and that is hurting chapters and recruiting. We still have not been able to articulate our reasons to send people into space at all. There are many reasons but none have proved compelling or else we would be further along.
Advocacy groups also need to keep their message up to date. NSS-types (and L5 veterans in particular) have always been enamored with living in space. They want to go into space. I understand that – it’s awesome and cool. Their original reason the L5 Society supported space based solar power (SSP) satellites was that it would take hundreds of astronauts on-orbit to build the giant structures. That would be the ticket to space for ordinary people – the need to manually build gigantic power satellites. A fall out of the SSP model was that they were so big you needed giant rockets to launch them (to take us to space cheaper!) or you had to mine extraterrestrial resources. Both developments would foster a huge growth in space based industry.
The latest concepts for SSP take advantage of advances in performance and robotics, however, and no longer require space colonies as assembly bases or ET materials. That puts a big hole in that original plan go get more people in space. There are still concepts for large scale habitats in free space but the economic case for building them is still rather fuzzy. Lunar and Mars colonies are touted as ways to ensure we establish ourselves as a multi-planet species so as not to go the way of the dinosaurs should some catastrophe make our home planet uninhabitable. That is a noble goal, but it has yet to be established that humans can thrive (or even reproduce) in those low gravity environments.
Another example from the ISDC was Rick Tumlinson, who gave another one of his preacher-style sermons where he explains his vision of humanity’s future in space. He has even developed his performance to the point where he includes peppy background music to work the audience. Most notably, Tumlinson’s ultimate reason for supporting manned spaceflight isn’t economics, or exploration, or survival of the species, it’s “because we want to”. Sorry, that seems so infantile to me. I want to live in a nice cabin in the mountains, but I can’t afford it. So I should usurp national technology development policy just so my friends and I can go live on a mountaintop, just because we like the view? We’re not even pretending we can make a living there, or provide a useful service, we just want to go. I can imagine how well that message will go over with the single mom with two jobs or the married dad with none. That may inspire the faithful but it won’t bring in new parishioners.
So what is the right way to convey this message? The current NSS Vision statement is the closest thing I could find for a summary of the “message”:
“People living and working in thriving communities beyond the Earth and the use of the vast resources of space for the dramatic betterment of humanity.”
That statement is a good summary of the long term goal (i.e., vision) of the Society, but I’m not sure it does well as a marketing slogan. When you include phrases like communities beyond the Earth people are going to roll their eyes and dismiss whatever follows because you are clearly out of touch with reality, or at least the reality of the man on the street.
My bottom line here is that space development has always been difficult to sell to the public. It’s been that way for the over thirty years I have been involved with this movement, and frankly we should only expect that to change when the space “ecology” (technology, business models, commercial utilization, etc.) changes. That’s starting to happen but it is a very slow process and folks are understandably running out of patience.
I’m afraid I don’t have any good answer, but thanks for listening to my observations on this topic.