The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Saturn 5 launch
Rather than seeking to relive the 1960s, space advocates would be better served by communicating new messages to get the public more interested in space. (credit: NASA)

That was then…

“Oh, my God.”


“You’re from the sixties.”

“Well, yeah, actually…”

“Out! Back to the sixties! Back! There’s no place for you here in the future! Get back while you still can!”

– Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) and Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) in Field of Dreams

You don’t have to be from the 1960s (or have “experienced” them, to borrow another line from the movie referenced above) to realize that the end of the first decade of the 21st century is very different from that tumultuous decade. Despite some superficial similarities, most notably an unpopular war, the politics, economics, attitudes, and more of the current decade are very different than those of the 1960s. If nothing else, contrast the epic struggles for civil rights in the 1960s with the inauguration last month of Barack Obama as president. Times change.

Another major difference space advocates would point out is that in the 1960s, particularly in the first half of the decade, the public appeared a lot more interested in—and passionate about—space. Astronauts were celebrities, every launch a major event, and space seemed to permeate the popular culture. Today, by contrast, most astronauts are virtually anonymous (quick: name the crew of the shuttle mission launching later this month—you did know about the mission, right?), launches get a few minutes on cable news, and space in general? Meh. Occasionally interesting to the general public, but something few are truly passionate about.

This is particularly aggravating to space advocates, who have for decades sought to recapture that interest and enthusiasm in the hopes of converting it into bigger NASA budgets and bolder exploration plans. Sometimes the blame for this lack of contemporary interest is pinned to NASA, for making space look boring and bureaucratic. Other times the tables are turned and it’s the public who’s criticized for not recognizing the importance of space.

The lack of public interest is particularly aggravating to space advocates, who have for decades sought to recapture that interest and enthusiasm in the hopes of converting it into bigger NASA budgets and bolder exploration plans.

Some of this thinking is on display in a recent op-ed in Space News by Miles O’Brien, until recently the space correspondent for CNN. O’Brien is one of the best space journalists today, having perfected the skill of communicating complex technologies and topics to general audiences. But in his essay, adapted from a speech he gave last October at the Wernher von Braun Memorial Dinner, he clearly shows his frustration with the public for not appreciating the importance of space.

“Those were audacious times—hard to imagine it all happening today—and that is a sad statement,” he writes, referring to the accomplishments of Apollo 40 years ago. “Why did we allow it to slip through our fingers? Sometimes I get the feeling we are the only nation that just doesn’t get it, because we are either cocky or stupid or distracted—or all of the above.”

Well, perhaps Americans—at least some subset of them—are cocky, stupid, and/or distracted. (It would explain a good many things about popular culture, like the box office success of such movies as Paul Blart: Mall Cop over more cerebral fare.) But it’s not necessarily a new development in American culture, nor is it at the root of the problems O’Brien describes above. Could it be that the problem is instead with space advocates themselves?

In his essay, O’Brien argues that what supporters of the space program need to do is follow in the footsteps of von Braun and communicate the importance of space exploration to the public. “He would have shouted about this crisis from the rooftops. He was as much a brilliant communicator as a remarkable engineer and manager,” O’Brien writes, then advocates approaches ranging from blogging to classroom visits. “It doesn’t matter, just do something to make people outside your world appreciate all that we have come to take for granted.”

But what are these people supposed to say on their blogs and at their school appearances? There’s the key problem: not how to reach out to the public but what to communicate with them. This is something glossed over in O’Brien’s essay but is essential to this strategy’s success. Otherwise, it’s analogous to the stereotypical American tourist who, having encountered a local who doesn’t speak English, proceeds to speak louder and slower in a vain attempt to be understood.

O’Brien suggests that the solution is to point out the accomplishments of China and India in space, such as their recent lunar orbiters, while decrying NASA’s “shoestring budgets”. “[W]hy not mention India? Say something like this: ‘Calcutta can afford it—and Cleveland can’t?’ Or perhaps more accurately: Calcutta thinks it cannot afford not to be in space—and we can?”

This argument fails, though, on several levels. First of all, the United States certainly thinks it can afford to be in space, and backs that up: NASA’s $17-billion budget is far greater than what India, China, or any other nation spends on space—and this ignores the even larger amounts spent on military and intelligence space programs. Only in the skewed economics of federal budgets—or the outsized expectations of some space advocates—can that much money be seen as a “shoestring”.

Only in the skewed economics of federal budgets—or the outsized expectations of some space advocates—can $17 billion a year be seen as a “shoestring”.

Then there’s the problem of motivation through competition. In recent years some people have tried to play up the threat China poses in space with its ambitious space exploration programs, suggesting a new space race is emerging between China and the US. But even if China’s ambitions are as great as some people claim (something far from certain), the geopolitical landscape of the late 2000s is nothing like that of 40–50 years ago, when the US and USSR engaged in that original space race. And forget about engaging India into a race with the US: Kolkata may think it cannot afford not to be in space, but today seems far more interested in cooperating with Cleveland rather than competing with it.

Moreover, it’s debatable whether an Apollo-like push is really the direction the US should go in space. Apollo accomplished great things in its time, but it was fueled by a superpower space race unlikely to be repeated (as noted above). More importantly, it was a push that could not be sustained, and one that created a hangover of unrealistic expectations that has persisted for decades. O’Brien doesn’t agree with this assessment, calling it “a huge excuse—just another way of dismissing something as ‘impossible’.” Yet no one has yet found that magic formula for replicating Apollo—and not for lack of effort.

If space advocates want to get the public more interested in space, it’s clear that they need to communicate new arguments for doing so, rather than repeat the old arguments ever louder. So what should those new arguments be? There’s no exact strategy yet—at least not in the mind of this author—but there are some elements that likely are a part of it. One is explaining the relevance of space exploration, one that goes beyond the tired spinoff arguments used for decades. Another is sharing the excitement of exploration, something that still captures the jaded public’s interest today, as witnessed at events like Phoenix’s landing on Mars last May. And a third key element is fiscal prudence: expecting Apollo-sized budgets in today’s economic climate isn’t reasonable, and even keeping NASA’s current budget will prove more difficult in the years to come as entitlement programs take a larger share of the overall budget (see “The Vision for Space Exploration and the retirement of the Baby Boomers (part 1)”, The Space Review, April 14, 2008)

The Vision for Space Exploration was supposed to contain some of those key elements when it was unveiled five years ago as a clean break from the past: it offered a future of human missions back to the Moon and on to Mars, all under a rubric of “affordable and sustainable”. Yet the Vision has failed to catch on with the public to the degree its supporters might hope, a failure that might be distilled to a single offhand comment made by former NASA administrator Mike Griffin when he unveiled the agency’s exploration architecture in 2005: “Apollo on steroids”. It’s little wonder that the Vision has failed to attract public interest when it appears to even the agency to be a bigger and better version of something we did four decades ago. (Linking it to steroids during an era when the use of performance enhancing drugs in professional sports like baseball and cycling became infamous probably didn’t help, either.)

If space advocates want to get the public more interested in space, it’s clear that they need to communicate new arguments for doing so, rather than repeat the old arguments ever louder.

The change in administrations, coupled with the pending retirement of the Space Shuttle and completion of the International Space Station, offers yet another opportunity to reshape the agency and its mission, if President Obama and his eventual choice for administrator so desire. Whether they decide to simply tweak the Vision or embark on a grand new direction, one thing is clear: they will need to closely examine how to communicate their concepts to the general public if their efforts are to enjoy long-term success.

In a companion essay (see “A good job with a lousy title: notes for the next NASA administrator”, The Space Review, this issue), Taylor Dinerman argues that the stakes are high: “The mission cannot be accomplished unless the American public is convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that space exploration is the only way that our nation and our planet are going to build a decent and prosperous future.” That means revisiting how space advocates and others communicate to wider audiences the importance and relevance of space exploration—and that, in turn, almost certainly means replacing that mindset that’s still prevalent among many in the community that we need to somehow replicate the 1960s. There’s no place for it here in our future.