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New markets and new tecnologies are enabling the creation of a new class of space adovcates. (credit: iStockphoto)

Deepening democracy and space policy 2.0

NASA, for all of its visibility and iconic meaning to society, does not possess a large structural constituency base in the American population. It is unlike other well-known and well-funded government and quasi-government programs and agencies, such as HUD, VA, SBA, Medicare, the Department of Education, the US Postal Service, or the Defense Department. Each and every year—sometimes each month—these and other federal entities provide direct checks, subsidies, loans, or services to individual Americans, their families, and communities. These Americans are, in turn, political constituents of the elected Administration and Congress, which decide the funding level of these agencies and NASA. It does not take a rocket scientist to understand that agencies that deliver direct “bread and butter” support and benefits to watchful constituents and enterprises will usually be a larger budget priority for elected officials, unless a local constituency has a significant, sustained stake in NASA.

Thus, for better or worse, NASA is generally also not a priority for the massive membership lobbies which are engaged in the business of preserving benefits via legislation for their members. These associations, along with the many clients of K Street lobbyists, hold the leverage of well-funded constituent mobilization, votes, and campaign contributions that elected officials require.

A case in point is the AARP, with a membership enrollment of 38,000,000 members, and corresponding legislative power in Washington, DC. For purposes of comparison, the well-respected AIAA, the largest aerospace professional society in the US, claims 31,000 enrolled members, or less than 1% of the AARP membership.

From this perspective, it is easy to understand why structural issues in our representative democracy continue to constrain the extremely small budget wedge of NASA, and are likely to do so in the future. NASA’s tiny fraction of the US GDP is also managed by a small group of powerful space policy actors. Many of these officials have significant space centers or institutes in their states.

Civil space is now on the cusp of a tipping point where at many structural shifts are occurring simultaneously.

Further, if perception is often reality in politics, not since the technological and knowledge-based competition at the core of the Cold War have individual Americans perceived or held a direct economic stake in the fortunes of NASA. This was not always so, for at mid-century NASA commanded a significant percentage of GDP, and a large percentage of new jobs being created in the technological battle known as the Cold War. Since the end of the Cold War, most Americans have been either structurally excluded from impacting space policy choices, or have no overriding incentive to attempt to do so.

How then, will the public space sector investment grow to meet its needs in competition with other domestic and foreign priorities, and emerging international competitors? A related question is how can NASA accomplish the development of a new crewed spacecraft capable of lunar exploration, explore Mars, provide seed grants to new space firms through the COTS program, and also maintain a portfolio of space science within the current budget wedge of less than 1%? The past seven years have demonstrated that no internal need of NASA, including the need for a new space access system, can drive the budget up to break the 1% level. NASA cannot accomplish all of these things on a sustainable basis, and there is no relief in sight, under the current status quo.

To resolve these questions means to grow the NASA slice of the budget pie, but how?

From a structural perspective a “perfect storm” of new trends must converge into a tipping point in order to increase the civil space wedge. One view is that civil space is now on the cusp of a tipping point where at many structural shifts are occurring simultaneously. This essay will touch on three of these emerging trends and how they might intersect to help create a consensus for more funds for innovative civil space initiatives.

Structural shift #1: From localized space constituent to global space consumers

“The free market is the only mechanism that has ever been discovered for achieving participatory democracy.”
– Milton Friedman, economist

NASA policies are proposed by each Administration, and disposed of by Congressional legislation. Beneath this constitutional architecture for decision-making is a traditional set of intermediaries with direct interest in the policy and budget outcomes at NASA. These intermediaries are generally understood to align in the categories of civil service unions, contractors, industry, academia, trade unions, technical and industry associations, NGOs, and the military. Last but not least are the powerful traditional space states. The states are the only intermediary group with elected officials in the decision-making loop of civil space. The local space worker/constituents, and their power in the traditional space states of Texas, Florida, Alabama, Maryland, and California, have an extraordinary interest in, and impact on, the NASA budget. Joining this circle are a second ring states like West Virginia and Colorado who also have a strong interest in space public affairs. A third ring of states has entered the circle of the interested, via spaceports, and includes states like New Mexico and Oklahoma.

These space influentials will soon have to move over to make room for those who do not live next door to a NASA center or space port, for space commerce is about to produce a new vested sector, in a newly empowered space consumer.

The much-anticipated arrival of profitable private space in low Earth orbit is not yet a fact, but space entrepreneurs’ desire to create markets and make profits will have a byproduct in the creation of space consumers and the projected consumption of critical goods and services from space assets. The requirements of investment dictate that this must be so, for investment requires customers in order to generate a return. Individual customer/consumers and consumer blocks are now poised to spring into being, and they will change the face of civil and private space forever.

The rise of the consumer and consumer movements in America is well established in every market segment, but only recently can the notion of space consumer be thought about in relation to the space sector. With consumption comes choice. Space consumers may soon be “voting” with their discretionary income. Choices will abound on space services and goods. Consumers are known to register stockholder initiatives (and protests). With consumer political clout they will be poised to apply pressure on firms via government regulation. And occasionally consumers use the power of the boycott to impact the marketplace.

Individual customer/consumers and consumer blocks are now poised to spring into being, and they will change the face of civil and private space forever.

Space consumer choice is a public benefit of private markets, however, it should not be confused with uncritical and wholesale privatization of all government functions. Government has a role to play in the creation of markets, and a role in consumer protection to play after the markets are created. The “withering away of the state” in space, as some wish for, is an extreme aspiration, when what is required is a public interest commitment to more effectively reform and revitalize NASA, not eliminate it. The state will also be needed as a watchdog for space consumers, and in turn watchers to keep and eye on the watchdog.

Savvy space consumers can have a broad agenda of their choosing which can include matters at NASA as well. As interested but independent players, they can also introduce a change loop back into NASA choices, in addition to impacting the space marketplace. Space consumers and the companies that serve them will likely see a long-term benefit in receiving support from government, and the NASA budget in particular, in the form of contracts, grants, loans, prizes, and research that support commercial space and consumer interests. Space consumers can legally press the Administration and Congress for these and other programs, just as the AARP impacts budgets for health and Medicare funds. It is conceivable that “silver collar” space consumers may choose to seek to increase the NASA budget—or not. NASA’s behavior will likely determine whether space consumers come to view the agency as friend or foe, or something that is a shade of grey between these two poles.

Structural shift #2: The rise of proactive citizen space hives

A digital plank has been thrown across the distance that once separated the wiki community from the rocket community.

Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of Wired magazine, captured this phenomenon in the notion of “hives”, where independent agents spontaneously form to meet group objectives. Kelly viewed this trend as a neo-biological social and economic development. Both led and leaderless hives of concerned parties are now mobilizing fast to make major impacts on space budgets and provide highly competent input into the space policy process.

Web 2.0 is also dramatically influencing 21st century space policy in a direct manner. IT tools now enable viral marketing, web fundraising, blogging, video posting, advocacy, conferencing, user-created content, instant information, texting, meet-ups, friend sites, community building and much more.

These web-empowered, HTML-fluent agents have been dubbed an “Army of Davids” by leading blogger Glenn Reynolds. That virtual crowds could help make space choices for the nation is still a bit inconceivable to those accustomed to the institutional Goliath language of space discourse, where senior experts were the only voices heard just a few years ago. What is equally interesting is not only the quantity of space opinion and direct policy action on the web, but the quality of the information publicly available. “Billions and billions” (to borrow a well known quote from Carl Sagan), no longer refers just to the firmament of stars, but to the number of global citizens now space-hip, and online 24/7.

Savvy activists and organizers are using tech tools, and more sophisticated advocacy IT platforms, to create communities that mobilize new publics, interest groups, space “prosumers” , beleaguered space scientists with dwindling budgets, and others space constituents. Several thousand of these interest organizations have been cataloged in informal databases. The list of active space networks represent official organizations, industry lobbies, professional societies, informal societies, bloggers, affinitive networks, state-based organizations, consultants, researchers, and media. What it does not fully capture is a profusion of sub-niche players with enormous reach, or those with a “long tail” of impact.

Added to this is the evolution of gaming and simulation, as Second Life and other virtual environments allow for a simulated high-definition space experience for anyone with an adequate computer system. These tools are both evolvable and, most importantly, free or very low cost. In economic terms, some simulated space expertise is looking less like an elite preoccupation, and more like an information commodity.

That virtual crowds could help make space choices for the nation is still a bit inconceivable to those accustomed to the institutional Goliath language of space discourse, where senior experts were the only voices heard just a few years ago.

In political terms, interested persons can now “opt-in” to the space policy debate, click-and-send opinions and requests to elected officials and the media, and host meet-ups in Congressional offices with their representatives. Many more are choosing to do so in increasing, influential numbers and ad hoc crowds. As theorists and practioners in space policy and political campaigns know, the impact on official legislation and Administration policy from closed to more open, is already happening.

As a result, independent and hive space actors no longer are willing to accept marginal status in decision-making around space exploration and utilization of space assets. Where the space hives want the nation’s taxpayer-funded space investment to go, and whether it should grow, will become increasingly clear in the next few years. What is clear now is that space hives are in the space game to stay.

Structural shift #3: The crisis factor: from civil space as a luxury, to space assets as a necessity in global warming mitigation

By now you would have heard that NASA intends to go to the Moon again in 2018 but why should that interest you? You already have enough concerns here in your life on earth with things like terrorism, hurricanes, wars and your own employment prospects keeping you up at night... The list is practically endless. I'm not going to sweep all these things aside and tell you that space is more important when you say, “Why is space so important to me?” or “What has space got to do with my life here and now?”
– Fred Stratford, blogger

Some in space circles have advanced a theory that the NASA budget is small because space is a luxury item compared to other budget priorities. As we have suggested, space budgeting choice is better understood as a case of structural inequality in the political and policy context. Whatever truth there is to the luxury argument, global warming has moved civil space to a position of necessity in global warming observation, and possibly, mitigation.

Global warming has become the most compelling new societal issue of the era. Space assets can now be plotted directly on the critical path of halting global warming and the potential mass extinctions and economic chaos it can bring. Both NASA and NOAA budgets contain a significant percentage of the world’s budgets dealing with climate change research and assets. Both agencies advance the state of knowledge regarding global warming, and provide crucial satellite data streams that assist during larger and longer weather crisis, such as hurricane strikes.

On the political front, almost overnight, a passionate advocate, Al Gore, and the world’s top scientists persuaded many Americans and others across the globe of the existence of global warming. As of this writing, the momentum of voter towards climate as an issue is gaining adherents, and will be felt in the 2008 Presidential election cycle.

Green opinion has already found its way to Washington, in many forms and appropriation initiatives. In space, it is also arriving in the form of NASA budget proposals by some Presidential candidates. The net effect will be to heighten the climate-related focus on the already very visible NASA. This time the issue, and the resulting demands on the civil space sector, are almost science fiction made science fact. Will NASA be expected to play a leading role in the drama of saving the planet, and us, from extinction? It is hard for this writer to imagine that NASA will not be called upon, and this surely has budget implications.

The structural walls of the old citadel that contain space policy decisions are still in place, but cracks are appearing thanks to new waves of participatory players and societal challenges.

Space is also plotted on the other points on the critical path for preservation of the planet and humanity. One opportunity is in global warming mitigation via energy delivery from solar power satellites. Another one is in the now real question of spacecraft-as-lifeboat. Will climate degradation force us to explore space? These and other topics now require more space community engagement and focus in order to fully comprehend both the issues and opportunities in space affairs. It will also be critical that space exploration advocates not be seen as ones who are willing to forsake the home planet. This will discredit space advocates in the eyes of the terrestrially attached, which is most folks. Indeed, the redirection of a significant share of the NASA portfolio towards the home planet is highly likely.

Meanwhile, the structural walls of the old citadel that contain space policy decisions are still in place, but cracks are appearing thanks to new waves of participatory players and societal challenges. These trends are pushing towards both openings and transparency in democratic institutions and entities, including in the entity called NASA. Those would-be space leaders who understand the dynamic intersection of empowered public will, interactive technology, space consumption, and global warming will best be able to guide NASA into the second decade of the 21st century. Should they also embrace these facets of the future, a future that has already arrived, they will find themselves with the credibility to also make the case for increasing budgets and increasingly robust space exploration initiatives as well.