Are You a Space Advocate or Just an Enthusiast?

Commentary by Michael Mackowski

Bill Nye is giving a talk tonight in Phoenix (okay, really he’ll be in Tempe) and I plan to be there. I am looking forward to hearing what he has to say. Most of you know that Nye is CEO of The Planetary Society, one of the largest space exploration societies in existence.

That prompted me to write this commentary about the difference between a “space enthusiast” and a “space advocate” or perhaps more precisely, a “space activist”. I’m a charter member of The Planetary Society (TPS), and I sense that this group has been successful (in terms of membership numbers) because of its primary goal to provide its members the latest news regarding planetary exploration. They do a very good job at that. TPS also encourages its members to contact their government representatives about their thoughts on space exploration, but other than some focused visits to congressional offices in Washington DC, TPS is limited in what it can do when it comes to lobbying or actively promoting legislation or specific NASA program funding. This is probably because their tax status (501(c)3).

TPS does not have a local chapter system, thus they do not stress local, grass roots advocacy activities. This is in contrast with an organization like the National Space Society (NSS), which has a local chapter structure plus a DC-focused arm, including involvement with umbrella groups like the Space Exploration Alliance (SEA) and the Alliance for Space Development. TPS is also involved with SEA, to be clear. While NSS is also a 501(c)3 organization, their political action activities are governed by a 501(h) status which allows for limited lobbying. On the other hand, TPS is more involved in actual hardware programs than NSS. TPS sponsored a solar sail experiment and is working on a follow-on, for example.

I like the fact that TPS (and NSS) encourages their members to promote space science and exploration. But I get a sense that most of their members are just there for the view as passive observers. They enjoy the pretty pictures of planets and are excited at every new discovery and want to share that with their friends and family. There’s nothing wrong with that. I see a similar preponderance of passive observers in a number of on-line communities. It reflects the broad but shallow support the general public has for space exploration. There seem to be a lot of people who love to watch rocket launches, meet astronauts, collect astronaut autographs, read about space exploration, visit museums, and talk about the future of space exploration. I call these folks “enthusiasts”. But enthusiasts alone will not conquer the solar system.

TPS laments the government’s lack of support for planetary science missions. NSS laments the slow progress in human space exploration (congressional bickering over commercial space programs, controversy over SLS, vague plans post-ISS, etc.). Enthusiasts won’t change this situation. What we need are space advocates and activists. These are people willing to talk to not just Congress but the public. I’ve always supported the concept that the government responds to their constituency. If voters don’t demand a more dynamic space program, they won’t get it. One job that real space advocates can do is to inform the general public about the importance of a strong program of space exploration and development. This can create a multiplying effect that increases the number of people contacting their government representatives, or helping at their local school’s STEM program to create the next generation of rocket engineers and planetary scientists.

This situation of a deficit of space activists is one reason I am interested in what message Bill Nye is going to send tonight. Will he simply promote his latest book, or will he inspire the “enthusiasts” in the audience to get out of their comfort zone and become true “advocates” for space?

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