The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Astronaut on Mars
Seeing astronauts walk on Mars will require building up sustained public support, something that has proven difficult for the space community in the past. (credit: NASA)

The will to go: can we build it?

It has been often said that the missing element that all space missions and projects need is simply enough people with the “will” to go. In other words, what we need is people with the desire, determination, and persistence and we would have a much more robust space program both in the public and private sector. This is a fact much lamented by many who currently support the space programs of different nations across the world.

All of them suffer from a waxing and waning sentiment from political leaders wherever they may be. Much of the “will” to go into space currently is tied to military or Earth-based applications and benefits. That is a big part of why the idea of settlements on other worlds has not been taken seriously. The political and military context that we exist in now is the true source of “will” for much of the space programs across the world. Yet space advocates seem to ignore these realities and continue to harp on about how we might find life out there and how living on other worlds will help us advance in many ways as reasons sufficient enough for governments and the private sector to donate vast sums of money.

The disconnect between space advocacy and what is actually going on in the space programs of the world could not be more pronounced. In an ideal world we would be exploring the universe and placing human settlements everywhere, and we would be doing it from motives of benefiting “all mankind”, but that world exists only in the mind of science fiction fans (of which many space advocates originate). The reality is much harsher, but if it is never dealt with appropriately our dreams of the human settlement of space will remain just that—dreams.

The disconnect between space advocacy and what is actually going on in the space programs of the world could not be more pronounced.

We live in a world of factions. There are competing interests, nations, ideologies, and agendas. Sometimes these divisions make us weaker and hinder progress with national governments making their own rules on space technology, like with the current International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) laws in the US. Sometimes our diversity makes us stronger and can lead to advancements on many different areas. However, in the field of human space settlement, our divisions and all of the competing interests are a massive hinderance.

How can we build a willingness to do “the hard things” in space with so many competing priorities and agendas? There are no easy answers to this question, and if we accept that fact we will be halfway to making real progress. In short, we must not think that we need to reinevent the wheel on these matters. No intellectual argument, no matter how well researched ,has managed to move our leaders to set their sights on Mars. No philosphical argument has won out either. What does get noticed in this world are two things: numbers and money.

If the space advocacy movement across the world understood that building up their numbers was of the utmost priority, and they were to approach that issue with single-minded pragmatism, then it would revolutionize everything about humans in space. If governments could see millions of concerned pro-space citizens instead of a few thousand—and if the private sector could see this also—then, and only then, would they start to rethink the priority of humans in space and on Mars.

From many different sources it can be shown that there is a latent interest from the public at large in space matters, but it has not yet been tapped into correctly. The science/engineering/education approach might work on some people, but as the figures show, the space community worldwide is not a massive one. Other approaches are needed if we are to reach the wider non space community, and that will involve recruiting the right people for the right jobs. An engineer is good at his or her job, but they are not public relations, entertainment, or media specialists. Those are some of the areas the space community will have to focus on if they are to build their numbers to the levels where governments and private companies start to take notice.

However, before going into the “how” of building our numbers we need to understand “how” our political leaders work, what their priorities are, and what motivates them. Sadly, the priority of winning the next election is of more importance to most politicians than responding to the priorities of their constituents. This is where again, large numbers of pro-space supporters would gain much greater mindshare as opposed to the current small numbers we have. Private companies would also take notice if there was a significant number of pro space supporters in the world.

How, then, can we build our numbers? The first issue we need to look at is “who” we want as space supporters. It would be fair to say that the large majority of current space advocates are of a very specific demographic: usually male, in their 20’s to 50’s, tech savvy, and dominated by large numbers of engineers and scientists. This demographic is not an accurate picture of the wider general public, of course, and is a part of why the reach and effectiveness of space advocates is so limited. From many different surveys, such as public responses to things like the Apollo missions and the Mars Pathfinder mission, we know that there is large scale general “interest” in space matters. We also know that there are literally millions of science fiction fans who have nothing to do with space advocacy, along with astronomy enthusists and similar groups.

So far, these groups remain untouched and few become supporters of space projects. This is where we need to employ methods that do interest the public to reach them, even if they are not space related. For example, if a space advocacy group made a music video that appealed to a popular trend and were credited with the production and promotion of such material, it would have the effect of exposing a particular group (music fans) to not only the music they love but also to the sponsoring space group’s own space-related ideas and plans. By reaching people where they are, and in their areas of interest, we can begin to build the mindshare that the space community needs to attain significant growth in numbers. Even if the response rate is only five or ten percent, if millions are reached, many hundreds of thousands of new supporters would come in.

Creating the will to send humans to Mars or elsewhere and to establish settlements on new worlds will be a monumental task in itself, apart from the technological and financial challenges such ventures pose.

The alternative to trying new ideas like the above is to continue as we have been: super-slow progress, small numbers, and continued ignorance of our issues being ignored by our leaders. They will not see the need to send humans to Mars or anywhere else if the public does not enthusiastically support such a move. The good news is that there is a significant fraction of the public at least interested in space-related isssues upon which we can build significant numbers. Already two out of three in the public support current space exploration programs in the US, with similar results from other nations. The groundswell is not yet there, but it could be.

Creating the will to send humans to Mars or elsewhere and to establish settlements on new worlds will be a monumental task in itself, apart from the technological and financial challenges such ventures pose. The will to go will orginate from our political and corporate leaders seeing a significant groundswell of continuing public support (and as a result seeing it as in their interest to fund space projects), and that is something everyone interested in seeing us walk upon new worlds needs to get active in. We need to reach people in ways they relate to and we need to employ the right people skilled for such tasks. More of that kind of effort will result in the kind of higher numbers we need, and if the space community could at least agree on this point we may see some real progress towards all of our various goals.

The space community does suffer from many image problems when it comes to building public support and it is time we took a hard look at the views of the wider public (who ultimately fund our space visions) and started to communicate with them in ways they understand, enjoy, and are inspired by. The public are one of the key missing ingredients to a long term and expansive future for humans in space and on Mars. If we can reconsider our methods in reaching the wider public we may just start to achieve some of the goals we all hope to see in our lifetimes. We can build the will to go, but it’s up to us in the space community to make a start.