The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

ISDC 2024

US Capitol
Relatively small groups can have a major influence on policies. (credit: J. Foust)

The million man and woman march to space

Imagine the following press release: “Citing the need to unify the nation as it once was, space advocacy groups announce a campaign to press the television industry to restore the variety show, offer at least three Westerns in prime time everyday, and reduce the number of news programs to two half-hour broadcasts each evening.”

Certainly an unlikely announcement, but such a campaign is no sillier than the futile efforts of the space community to return US public opinion back to that golden post-Sputnik period of the late 1950s and early 1960s when a government-led space program received broad and deeply-felt public support. The unique conditions that led to that support are unlikely ever to reappear.

L.P. Hartley said, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The strange and distant America of 1960 did space, television, and just about everything else differently than we do in the here and now. In particular, we certainly don’t do unanimity, or at least the appearance of it, like they did. The US today does diversity and division. Everyday the vast expanse of interests, tastes, social mores, worldviews, and goals of the American populace expands a bit more, and they become a little less shared and common.

In such a culture there is no possibility, short of an alien invasion, of convincing a majority of Americans to make space a high priority in their lives. Only a minority will even become aware of, much less supportive of, grand new space projects such as a crewed mission to Mars. People simply have other interests, and space activists won’t get their attention long enough to change their minds. And there is little that we can do about it. As shown by the failure of his father’s Space Exploration Initiative, the current President could no more order the restoration of wide public enthusiasm for space than he could command the resurrection of Ed Sullivan.

The current President could no more order the restoration of wide public enthusiasm for space than he could command the resurrection of Ed Sullivan.

Nevertheless, despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth by advocates whenever a new poll shows a further drop in interest in space, this does not in fact signal the inevitable decline of space development. The decades since Apollo proved that the existence of an apathetic majority with only lukewarm, shallow interest in space does little to influence government policies or to support the creation of a private space industry. To make genuine progress, what we really need is a community of around one million intensely devoted enthusiasts.

How can just a million people make such a big difference? It is one of the ironies of democracies that small highly motivated groups can actually bring more influence to bear upon the government than large groups. For example, a century ago about 80 percent of the population worked the fields while today only a few percent pursue farming for a living. Yet, as proven by recent agricultural legislation, farmers find increasing success in getting bushels of dollars sent their way. In most developed countries, in fact, farm support grows inversely to the number of farmers. This arises simply because as subsidies become a larger proportion of their income, farmers become ever more motivated to fight for them.

Raw financial gain, however, isn’t the only motivation. Relatively small special interest groups like the National Rifle Association and AIDS activists have achieved amazing levels of influence over public policy. There seem to be two key factors that determine the success of these groups. The first is to exceed some minimum number of participants, which I’m guessing is around a million. The second is for the participants to possess a very intense passion and single mindedness for their cause.

A million passionate space enthusiasts would certainly provide tremendous influence over government policies. It would mean that nearly every Congressperson would find at least a few hundred constituents constantly on his or her case about space issues. This would, for example, result in NASA switching its human spaceflight focus from basic science (for which it has gotten no thanks from the science community) to technologies that make space accessible to the public. It would mean influencing the development of regulations and infrastructure that facilitate private space development.

Such a group would also provide a market on which startup space companies can build. For example, first generation reusable launch vehicles for suborbital space tourism require on the order of ten to twenty million dollars to begin flying. A mere thousand or so customers per year paying $100,000 per ticket would not only provide a solid return on that investment but would fund the development of second- and third-generation vehicles that would eventually reach orbit. A million space enthusiasts would certainly include several thousand who are wealthy enough to support this industry. (The Futron/Zogby survey of wealthy households found 19 percent willing to pay this amount for a suborbital ride.)

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