The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

US Capitol
Lobbying Congress to support the space program can be as simple as writing a letter or making a phone call. (credit: J. Foust)

Congressional outreach: it’s not rocket science

“I don’t like politics!”

I’ve heard this complaint a number of times from some people within the space community. While many of these people do wonderful technical and scientific work, for whatever reason they refuse to take part in any of the political aspects of space exploration.

Interestingly, the refusal to take part in political outreach is often not so much about hating politics as it is about fearing politics. On its surface, meeting with a member of Congress can be very intimidating. After all, they are one of the three branches of government, they make the laws of the land, and they always seem so separated from the problems of ordinary citizens. Regardless, you need to remember that they work for you.

Interestingly, the refusal to take part in political outreach is often not so much about hating politics as it is about fearing politics.

Every election year is a job interview and you can vote to hire or fire them. Although some of them may seem unconcerned with this detail, most of them take their constituents’ opinions very seriously, and you don’t need to be a slick professional lobbyist to impact their decisionmaking. They may not show any signs of becoming an ardent supporter of space issues, but your visits and calls help to keep space in their consciousness.

Even members of Congress who support space exploration like to see evidence that there is support from their constituents (particularly from highly knowledgeable and passionate constituents in their district) otherwise they may be more likely to vote against space-related bills.

In an age when a presidential election can be decided by a few hundred votes in a single state, elected officials should understand that all votes matter and those visiting a congressional office are often representing a large number of people. To borrow a metaphor from Hillary Clinton, members of Congress should know that when they meet with a constituent, at least a “village” of people will hear about that meeting.

What can I do?

There are several ways that you can communicate your viewpoint to Congress. The easiest way to communicate with them is to write a concise letter expressing your support for the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). However, don’t feel you have to write a novel. Your letter should be no more than one page long with your primary message appearing in the first paragraph. Even though email is a lot easier, if you want to maximize the effectiveness of your letter, send it through the mail or by fax. Email letters don’t receive as much attention by congressional offices.

Another way to express your viewpoint to Congress is to call their offices. Ask for the person who deals with NASA or science issues and tell them why you think that Representative “Doe” should support VSE. If you do ask to talk to their space staffer, make sure you study up on what you are going to say in advance. Practice it. The more knowledge you have, the more seriously they will take you.

Like it or not, politics is the most important element in getting us to the Moon and then on to Mars.

Of course, preparation is even more important when you arrange face-to-face meetings, which is the most effective way to deliver your message to Congress. Although in many cases, you may not meet with the actual member of Congress, you will at least be able to talk to one of their staff members who will report back to his or her boss. Don’t be disappointed by this. It often can be even more advantageous to speak to a staffer. Members of Congress are frequently overwhelmed with innumerable issues and concerns and tend to be generalists. Congressional staffers have more time to focus on specific issues and you have more of a chance to build a relationship with them. If you convince a staff member, you have created a valuable ally in that congressional office. Who knows: you may become their source for space policy and/or technical issues.

Regardless of the level of support by a member of congress, it is important that we continually speak to all of them for the following reasons:

  1. Supporters: Members of Congress who support the VSE like to be reassured that there is constituent support. These supporters can also help to improve the Vision. You can tell them how.
  2. Neutral: Many members of Congress have no strong opinion one way or another regarding space issues. Even if you don’t convince them, they may gauge their voting decisions on what they believe their constituents want.
  3. Opponents: Few members of Congress are extreme anti-space exploration activists. Depending on the circumstances of the vote, if they see strong constituent support, they may not be as eager to vote against VSE issues.

To make this experience even less intimidating, you should certainly bring a friend or two. There is always strength in numbers and you multiply your pool of information.

Space advocacy efforts

The space advocacy community is willing to help you and is planning numerous legislative outreach activities this year. They include:

  • 2006 Space Blitz: From June 4-7, 2006, the Space Exploration Alliance (SEA) is holding the 2006 Space Blitz in Washington, D.C. With the help of people from all over the country, they hope to visit every congressional office.
  • International Mars Society Conference in Washington, D.C. - August 3-6, 2006 As part of this event, the Mars Society will be conducting a half-day blitz, utilizing the hundreds of conference participants.
  • Also in August, SEA will be conducting the Home District Blitz, during which we hope that people from around the country will arrange meetings with their members of Congress in their home districts throughout the August Congressional recess.
  • And finally, SEA also hopes to hold another small blitz during the autumn of 2006.

Like it or not, politics is the most important element in getting us to the Moon and then on to Mars. Without constant political activity from supporters of space exploration, the space agenda could very well become a casualty to tight budgets caused by Iraq, Katrina relief, and many other expenditures. This is even more important in a Congressional election year and two years in advance of a presidential election. It is far from a foregone conclusion that the new congresses and president will support the Vision for Space exploration and other space related programs. It is only through the continued efforts of the space advocacy community that our government continues their support for the Visions for Space Exploration.

It’s time to become political!