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Obama in Pennsylvania
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has proposed delaying Constellation, yet there has been little outcry from space advocacy groups. (credit: BarackObama.com)

Obama’s modest proposal: no hue, no cry? (part 2)

Last week, I discussed the proposal by presidential candidate Barack Obama to delay NASA’s Project Constellation for at least five years, putting the saved money into a new $10 billion-a-year national preschool education program. Coming as it repeatedly does from a major presidential candidate, this pitting of space explorers against preschool children is one of the most visible and vocal expressions ever of that perennial argument, “We need to solve all our problems on Earth first before we think about space.”

The proposal, of course, comes at a crucial juncture in the US space program. The process of retiring the Space Shuttle has begun, likely irreversibly. NASA has finally been allowed to set its sights on the Moon again, and has been designing the first new vehicle of that program, Ares 1, for several years now. Meanwhile, concern is already high about a projected five-year gap in US human spaceflight capability between programs, and the impact that all this will have on the space workforce.

Yet despite the stakes, arguably the greatest since those at the end of Apollo, today’s space advocacy groups are pretty mum about all this.

All this in an election year, after which a new President will decide whether to continue George W. Bush’s under-funded “Vision”, put his or her own stamp on it, or scrap it altogether. As I described, the outlook runs the gamut: Republican John McCain says he’ll continue the Vision, Democrat Hillary Clinton wants Ares and a “robust” human space program with no mention of the Moon or Mars, and Democrat Obama plans to shelve exploration to help pay for his education initiatives.

Yet despite the stakes, arguably the greatest since those at the end of Apollo, today’s space advocacy groups are pretty mum about all this. Those that are furthest ahead in the game are actually just now trying to figure out what exactly they’d recommend to a new President, while others are all but silent on these matters altogether.

Why is this? I sought to find out by asking the groups directly, and learned some interesting things along the way which says much about the state of “space advocacy” today.

All quiet on the translunar front

In the heyday of my own space activism efforts, I imagined that I might have done something to work against the US post-Apollo withdrawal from space exploration, had I been old enough and there had been organized pro-space advocacy groups. At the very least, what was always important to me was to demonstrate that space had a public, grassroots constituency, willing to show up and argue for human spaceflight.

I would not have expected that under similar circumstances—today’s juncture in programs, and the distractions of a costly war and souring economy—that established space groups would not be weighing in.

Probably the most surprising case to me is the National Space Society, a human spaceflight advocacy group created from the merger of Wernher Von Braun’s National Space Institute and the aggressively pro-space-settlement L5 Society. It was under their banner that I once led people in shouting slogans at pro-space rallies.

The NSS has nothing on its website about Obama’s policy, nor any other candidate’s. There isn’t even much viewpoint about today’s critical situation. Multiple attempts to contact George Whitesides, their current Executive Director, got me only this via voicemail: “I don’t have too much to say because we have to be a little bit careful as a non-profit about what we say in relation to specific candidates.” Promised “background” and “general thoughts” were not provided despite multiple call-backs and email.

Most space advocacy groups are registered with the Internal Revenue Service as “501(c)(3)”s—the name refers to the relevant section of the US tax code. That status carries with it prohibitions on the kinds and amount of political lobbying they can do.

Bob Dickman was more forthcoming. As Executive Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), he heads America’s premier aerospace engineering professional society. He described a multitude of personal views that AIAA members have expressed on NASA directions. As for a stance from AIAA itself, however, he was very clear. “AIAA will not be providing a response. As a ‘professional membership society’ it isn't ‘what we do.’”

Both groups do belong to the Coalition for Space Exploration, an umbrella organization of space companies and organizations. The coalition did issue a tepid statement on the Presidential race last December. “The Coalition for Space Exploration calls upon all candidates for the Office of President of the United States to recognize the value of our nation’s investment in space and to voice their support for continued American leadership in exploration that will take humans back to the moon and on to Mars,” runs a typical paragraph.

Nonprofit and nonpartisan

There are some structural and cultural reasons for this sort of reaction. Some of the structural reasons require a little tax background.

Most space advocacy groups are registered with the Internal Revenue Service as “501(c)(3)”s—the name refers to the relevant section of the US tax code. This status allows them to be recognized as having an essentially “educational” function, and provides many funding advantages. These include not being subject to federal taxation themselves, and allowing their donors to write contributions off on their tax returns.

That status carries with it prohibitions on the kinds and amount of political lobbying they can do. A paramount restriction forbids these groups from activities for or against a specific candidate for political office, be it national, state, or local. This clearly rules out any space-related 501(c)(3)s from coming out with a statement specifically against Obama’s proposal.

In terms of elections, however, there is nothing preventing space groups from publishing voter guides or articles exploring the views of the candidates, as long as these are nonpartisan and balanced. Here, there is a definite dearth of such resources among the space groups, despite the fact that all the remaining Presidential candidates have already issued positions on space.

Partisan politics aside, 501(c)(3)s can and do indeed engage in other types of political lobbying, albeit within specified limits. Many readers will be familiar with the periodic mailings put out by space groups regarding one form of legislative action or another, (and accompanied by a fundraising plea, a routine practice across the non-profit spectrum).

It is also quite permissible for 501(c)(3)s to talk to lawmakers about particular legislation. This week, in fact, AIAA will host its annual Congressional Visit Day. Participants will make pitches to Congress on a host of aerospace topics, including bolstering Orion/Ares development (without mention of Moon/Mars), NASA’s COTS, DARPA’s Falcon programs, and aeronautics.

AIAA and NSS are both members of the Space Exploration Alliance—not to be confused with the Coalition for Space Exploration cited earlier—which did its own Congressional visit in February to ask for another $1 billion for NASA this year, as well as to promote robotic missions and space solar power.

Advocating for advocacy

There are of course other ways to organize for political purposes under the tax codes. The very next section of the IRS code in question—501(c)(4)—covers nonprofit organizations that do political lobbying and political campaigning. Like 501(c)(3), this type of organization is exempt from federal taxation. However, donations made to it are not tax-exempt—donors cannot write them off.

That last point would seem like a great disadvantage, but it frees that organization to conduct more vigorous lobbying and, if it so chooses, partisan work. Indeed, it is quite common for an “educational” non-profit—501(c)(3)—to have a sister “lobbying” 501(c)(4) to carry out aggressive lobbying and partisan efforts.

Despite ProSpace’s success, however, there are still no other significant 501(c)(4)s for space.

Today, the only significant space group in the latter 501(c)(4) category is ProSpace, which is not directly connected to any tax-exempt organization. This group is well-known today for its annual March Storm event, in which volunteers gather in Washington and, after a day of training, visit members of Congress in teams to lobby on specific issues that ProSpace’s leaders select.

In keeping with ProSpace’s emphasis on commercial spaceflight, one of the three topics in this year’s March Storm was increasing funding for NASA’s COTS program, which is designed to help develop and qualify commercial providers of cargo and crew resupply to the International Space Station. (Its other two “planks” this year were near-Earth asteroids and space-based solar power.)

While it emphasizes a particular viewpoint (more commercial space, fewer government restrictions—Robert Heinlein would be proud), ProSpace’s greatest value to my mind is that, for a good number of years now, it has demonstrated that space does have a public constituency, who are passionate enough about it to come out to Washington on their own dime.

Grassroots vs. astroturf

Despite ProSpace’s success, however, there are still no other significant 501(c)(4)s for space. One would think that other groups, with other specific viewpoints, would have emerged, and that we would now have a plethora of groups and approaches comparable to those of, say, the environmental or animal-rights movements.

This hasn’t happened, I think, because the space community and industry tend to be quite conservative, and that this conservatism abounds on the advocacy side, too. (By “conservative”, I mean cautious and concerned with dignity, as opposed to right-wing Conservatism—although there is plenty of that, too.)

Although I have no supporting facts or figures, I suspect that a far higher percentage of people in space advocacy are employed in the space industry than, say, environmental activists are in the environmental sciences, or animal activists in the veterinary field. The leadership of many space groups is certainly often entwined with the industry.

Not to take away from anyone’s capabilities or achievements, but these links to the space industry can’t help but to be limiting, as people will naturally be concerned about appearances and stances affecting their future ability to work with and in that industry, which is again a pretty (small-c) conservative one, especially given the size and influence of its biggest corporate players, and the close affiliation of aerospace to the military.

That space groups frequently have major aerospace industry donors is a further factor against outspoken views. For example, a page in the most recent copy of Ad Astra, the NSS magazine, thanked its corporate sponsors. It is hard to imagine that the staid companies whose logos were on that page would want to be associated with a highly opinionated group that risked offending anyone.

With all the constraints space advocacy groups have placed upon themselves, it’s clear that there won’t be much pointed advocacy going on this election year, let alone outright activism.

(To be fair, not everyone with space industry links is so quiet. Bob Zubrin, founder and president of the Mars Society, is known to be a particularly outspoken individual. Regarding the Obama policy, he was quoted in an MSNBC Cosmic Log entry as saying the policy “…would be very destructive… There’s so much more we could do for education by having a visionary space program than by just throwing it away into the educational bureaucracy.”)

With all the constraints space advocacy groups have placed upon themselves, it’s clear that there won’t be much pointed advocacy going on this election year, let alone outright activism.

So, given all this, what are space groups doing? I’ll discuss that in the third, and final, part of this article next week.


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