The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Mars exploration illustration
Is the universe big enough for the three of us? (credit: NASA/John Frassanito & Associates)

Can’t all space nerds get along?

Observers of space politics have identified three interest groups in the civil space sector: government-funded scientific robots/machines, government-funded human spaceflight, and private space industry. They have been called the Sagan, Von Braun, and O’Neill models respectively. Each group argues against the others in an attempt to establish itself as the dominant paradigm.

The question is whether these conflicts are at all necessary. Even the names of these interest groups are not as clear-cut as they might seem. Sagan advocated colonization as well as robotic exploration in his book Pale Blue Dot, von Braun was instrumental in both the first American satellite and the first American astronaut, and O’Neill supported both governmental and private approaches to colonization. They arguably have more similarities than differences. Their respective organizations—Planetary Society, National Space Society (and Mars Society), and Space Frontier Foundation—have different priorities but share many common interests.

Looking at the positive and promotional side of these interest groups, they could be summarized as pro-science, pro-human, and pro-private. There is nothing inconsistent with holding all three positions. One can simultaneously support scientific unmanned programs, human spaceflight programs, and space tourism ventures without any contradictions. It is a non-zero-sum game, where all three can make progress at the same time. An example of this would be an expanding space tourism industry happening at the same time as an increase in the total NASA budget (including both human and robotic programs).

What would a non-zero-sum future look like? More joint activities between the interest groups would be a good beginning.

Zero-sum games also exist in space politics. Pro-science vs. anti-science, pro-human vs. anti-human, and pro-private vs. anti-private are debates where gains by one side equal losses by the other. As a participant in the human spaceflight debate, my personal impression is that the anti-human group has particularly extreme viewpoints. Calls for the elimination of human spaceflight regularly appear in space opinion articles, so much so that it has become a tired cliché of the field. It is impossible to reach a compromise in a zero-sum game where one side wants something to exist and the other side wants it eliminated. Hopefully the pro-science, pro-human and pro-private groups will all win their respective zero-sum games and we can stop playing them.

What would a non-zero-sum future look like? More joint activities between the interest groups would be a good beginning. An issue like better launch technology is of common interest to robotic, human, and private spaceflight. The various space societies could also cooperate on membership. Space enthusiasts rarely join all the space societies because it means filling out several application forms and paying multiple fees. The societies could offer a joint membership or establish an umbrella organization. Not only would the societies benefit from increased membership, but the members would have access to a wider range of space projects and viewpoints.

The non-zero-sum game could also be applied to that other great topic in space politics: space and Earth. Again, there is nothing inconsistent with supporting valuable projects both on Earth and in space. People who try to portray space and Earth as a zero-sum debate usually have an anti-space agenda in mind. Like its counterparts, pro-space vs. anti-space is a zero-sum game which should be won and ended. It’s fitting that the pro-space side would be best served by a united political coalition.