The million man and woman march to space
But can we find a million space enthusiasts? I estimate the current total membership in space advocacy groups at less than 150,000. However, the same polls that show a steady drop in interest in space also show that 10 to 15 percent of the public remains highly interested. That represents up to 30 to 40 million people. If only three or four percent of this group could be inspired to become actively involved we would have our million man and woman space cadre (or cadets!)
I believe the way to get these people involved is to convince them that they can be involved. Most of the public still sees space as something only done by NASA and large corporations. They are not aware of any way that they can participate directly.
Changing this perception is not impossible and should become easier in the near future. When X Prize competitors begin to launch their vehicles they will attract tremendous publicity and excitement as the public comes to realize that small private organizations can actually develop high altitude passenger carrying rockets. In the next year or two we will see private commercial space missions send a probe to the Moon and solar sails into space carrying messages and mementos from the public. The space advocacy groups should build on these events to gain attention and membership.
However, activists should do more than simply increase their numbers. The goal should be the development of a community of space enthusiasts and a diverse set of companies to serve that community.
One doesn’t need to look far to find many examples of such communities each involving a few million people at most and a host of successful companies built around them. Some examples include ham radio, snowmobiling, horseback riding, sailing, and drag racing. Such communities seldom make the front page but the participants arrange their lives around these pursuits and they generate billions of dollars for the businesses that serve them.
It’s quite possible that space activism will develop into a similar subculture that involves one or two million devotees who provide a robust market on which businesses can rely. When a company, for example, seeks funding for a lunar rover entertainment project or a media center on a space station, it could point to this core market as one that will provide a minimum level of return on the investment.
We already see the initial stages of such a community developing, as space activists focus on real hands-on participatory activities. The Mars Society, for example, has gotten a tremendous response to its many hardware projects like the analog Mars habitat projects. We also see increasing numbers of private space ventures such as the lunar probe and solar sail projects mentioned above and suborbital and orbital launch vehicle companies.
Many of these projects were founded by activists who grew tired of waiting for government to get us into space and decided to take matters into their own hands. We can hope to see this develop into a bootstrapping process where space enthusiasts and entrepreneurs support and sustain one another.
On the longer term such a community would also provide the “settlers” that eventually move into space. Rather than a mass migration, we will see space settlement follow more of an Alaskan model, in which many people visit space but relatively few remain there permanently.
Most people will have difficulty taking such a micro, step-by-step approach to space seriously. The Moon Race made space synonymous with gigantic and wildly expensive programs and massive public attention. But that was an accident of that peculiar 1960’s country where they did space differently than we will do it now.