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Now is a critical time for NASA’s future, but are space advocates capable of influencing the outcome? (credit: J. Foust)

Dysfunctional space advocacy

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While it is a bit of a cliché to proclaim that this is a critical time for NASA and America’s space efforts, it is—at least this time around—not an understatement. The retirement of the shuttle, completion of the ISS, and reassessment of NASA’s implementation of the Vision for Space Exploration, coupled with questions and concerns about NASA’s budget, have left wide open the future direction of the agency and the timetable for its current or any alternative plans. Now, more than ever, it’s critical for space advocates to bring their A-game to win support for their vision of the future of NASA.

Right now, though, it doesn’t appear that they’re bringing it. The space field already suffers from a high degree of Balkanization, given its relatively small size, with a proliferation of organizations dealing with policy issues and advocacy. Some are nonprofit organizations that do advocacy as part of a broader mission (National Space Society, The Mars Society, The Planetary Society); some are industry organizations that include public policy as part of their efforts (AIAA); and some are wholly dedicated to space advocacy (Citizens for Space Exploration, ProSpace). None, though, have reached the critical mass that gives them the influence on policy that much larger organizations, like AARP and the NRA, have on Capitol Hill. And given a string of events in the last couple of weeks, from internecine disputes to quixotic initiatives to questionable results, it doesn’t appear space advocates are getting any better.

A tale of two storms

In March 1995 nine space activists met in Washington to carry out a series of briefings with Congressional offices, an event they dubbed “March Storm”. Originally a project of the Space Frontier Foundation, it was later spun out into a new organization, ProSpace, which carried out the events every March, lobbying for measures ranging from support for the commercial space industry to projects like near Earth object surveys and space solar power research. The events attracted dozens of people who traveled to Washington on their own time to walk the halls of Congress, meeting with members and staffers.

Now, more than ever, it’s critical for space advocates to bring their A-game to win support for their vision of the future of NASA. Right now, though, it doesn’t appear that they’re bringing it.

In 2009, though, ProSpace cancelled March Storm for the first time since its inception, citing at the time “resource and time limitations”. ProSpace provided no updates in the months afterward about the status of the event and whether it would return in 2010. However, on November 12, the Space Frontier Foundation announced that it would “resurrect” the event in 2010. “We’re still in the early planning process—we don’t have a web site ready and haven’t yet picked a date—but I’m excited to announce that there WILL be a March Storm 2010,” Mike Heney, the project manager for the effort, said in an email message announcing the event.

A day later, though, ProSpace responded. “In consultation with members of the House and Senate, the Obama administration and our membership, we determined that the singular focus on the dire state of the economy would obscure our message,” the organization said in a press release, explaining why they didn’t hold a 2009 March Storm.

ProSpace does plan to hold a 2010 event, and they’ve laid claim to the term “March Storm”. “We have always encouraged those other space groups to come to Washington to advance their organizational agendas and likewise applaud the proposed efforts of the Space Frontier Foundation,” the ProSpace statement read. “Our singular requirement is that they create an original name and identity for their event that does not imply the endorsement of ProSpace.”

Winn Phillips, executive director of ProSpace, said in followup correspondence that the organization was taken off-guard by the Space Frontier Foundation’s announcement. “While we’d been in communication with them beforehand, we were told they were interested in helping ProSpace with the 2010 March Storm,” he said. “In fact, we were actively trying to recruit some of their people to help us organize the event.”

For the time being, both ProSpace and Space Frontier Foundation are proceeding with their planned lobbying efforts, regardless of what they’re called. Last week ProSpace announced that their 2010 event will be held on March 1 and 2, after a day of training on February 28. (That’s just a week after the Space Exploration Alliance, a coalition of several space-related organizations, is planning its own, similar “Legislative Blitz” on Capitol Hill.) Meanwhile, Heney confirmed Saturday that the Foundation is continuing work on its own event, focusing for now on when to hold it and what issues to put on the agenda. “We’re not worried about naming the event at this point,” he said.

Tweeps want to #saveNASA

The rapid growth of “social media”—in the form of web sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter—has made this an increasingly popular tool to win support for causes and to advertise products. Most famously, perhaps, was the use of social media by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign to raise money and win over voters. (NASA has also been a major user of social media, holding a series of “tweetups” for Twitter users, including one at the STS-129 shuttle launch last week.) If it can get a president elected, why not use it to secure NASA’s future?

A sample “SaveNASA” tweet: “If you don’t think we should #SaveNASA, please throw away ur pacemaker, dialysis machine, cancer detection technology, cell phone, etc. Thx!”

Some Twitter users (or “tweeps”, to use one appellation) felt inspired to use the microblogging service to rally support for NASA last week. The triggering event appears to be an Orlando Sentinel article published Tuesday that indicated that the space agency could be facing as much as a 10-percent budget cut in the fiscal year 2011 budget proposal to be released in February. That cut would be part of across-the-board cuts in discretionary spending (the AP had reported a few days earlier the potential for cuts of up to five percent) to reduce the budget deficit. The Sentinel article made it clear that no final decision had been made, and that NASA could well be exempt from the cuts depending on the decisions the White House made on space exploration policy.

That news generated a flurry of tweets starting Tuesday, all tagged with the search term “#saveNASA”. While people were rallying online to save NASA, 140 characters at a time, exactly how they planned to do that wasn’t clear. Many of the tweets were actually “retweeting” other posts, most of which cite the technological spinoffs created by NASA. An example: “If you don’t think we should #SaveNASA, please throw away ur pacemaker, dialysis machine, cancer detection technology, cell phone, etc. Thx!” Then there were the electoral threats: “Dear Obama. I voted for you. I in fact managed to get my whole family to vote for you (amazing!) Now is your time to keep my vote. #SaveNASA”.

In an effort to help organize these efforts, Neal Wiser, a marketing consultant, established a customized social networking site called “SaveNASA”. Exactly what the site will do to save the space agency isn’t certain: in its first five days the only visible progress was a draft of a mission statement that calls upon the government to “provide NASA with sufficient means to safely and successfully accomplish the missions with which it is tasked”. (Wiser, who had previously offered to provide more information about SaveNASA’s plans, was not able to do so by press time.)

While one can ask just how much a handful of people (only about 50 people had registered as members on the SaveNASA site by Sunday night) can do to shape space policy, particularly when their activism appears contained to the web, there’s a bigger question left unanswered: why does this group exist? Given the large number of other organizations already out there, its not clear that the space advocacy community needs yet another small group versus encouraging people to join existing organizations and amplifying their voices.

Space saved?

For those whose idea of “social networking” still involves a sheet of paper and a stamp, there’s Save Space. In late September the Brevard County, Florida, board of commissioners kicked off this lobbying effort, asking people to write letters to the White House to support the space program by adding additional funding to NASA’s budget, extending the life of the shuttle to close the gap between it and the Constellation program, and extending the life of the ISS. Those topics were all of local concern: Brevard County is in the heart of Florida’s Space Coast region, and is facing the potential loss of thousands of jobs once the shuttle is retired.

Regardless of the exact number of letters that had been sent via the Save Space campaign, DiBello said, “it’s still a remarkable achievement.”

When Save Space was started on September 28, the project had an audacious goal: get 500,000 letters submitted to the White House by the end of October. A month later, though, it appeared that the effort was scaling back its ambitions. In an October 25th Florida Today article, the campaign backed away from its original October 31 goal, saying that Save Space would be an “open-ended venture” until the president made a decision on the future of the space program. The metrics the effort provided, in terms of “fans” of its Facebook page or traffic on its web site, also appeared far short of what was needed for a 500,000-letter campaign.

That’s why it was all the more surprising when Save Space announced on Wednesday that it had, in fact, met its goal, and by the end of October as well. With remarkably little fanfare (a single tweet), Save Space posted a one-minute video on its web site from Frank DiBello, president/CEO of Space Florida. In the video, from a Brevard County commissioners meeting on November 10, DiBello mentioned the “devastating impact” of the recent letter-writing campaign. “While I was in Washington two weeks ago, I had a meeting with some people in the White House who wanted to know what they could do with all the letters that they’ve got,” DiBello said in the video. “And their estimate is that they have some 500,000 letters in Washington, all in support of the space program. And they have an issue for security—they can’t deliver them to the White House—but believe me, the White House knows that they’re there.”

In an interview late Friday, DiBello clarified the statements in the video. The comment about the letters, he said, came from an unnamed White House staffer he encountered during meetings on Capitol Hill. The staffer claimed, he said, that they had been “overwhelmed” with letters, first stating that they had received a couple hundred thousand letters, and later increased to 400,000 to 500,000. He also said that the letters came up in a meeting with Congresswoman Suzanne Kosmas, whose district includes the Kennedy Space Center; she had tried to arrange for the delivery of the letters. Regardless of the exact number of letters that had been sent, he said, “it’s still a remarkable achievement.”

From a practical standpoint, though, it’s hard to see how a relatively small campaign like Save Space could have generated a half-million letters in a month’s time. In a video released by the White House in August, Director of Presidential Correspondence Mike Kelleher said that they receive 65,000 letters per week on all topics. If Save Space effectively doubled the White House’s mail volume—something that surely would have been noticed—it still would have come far short of that 500,000-letter goal after only a month. And if the letters were coming in at a lower, but probably more realistic rate—perhaps 10 percent of that existing volume of mail—it would take over a year to reach the 500,000-letter plateau.

“The space community is not a patient lot, and we’re not putting up well with the pace, the priority, and the inconvenience of having to wait for the new administration to determine our direction and level of resources committed to the civil space program,” NASA’s Alan Ladwig said.

Another reason, perhaps, why Save Space did not play up this apparent achievement of their original goal is more strategic in nature. “While we are pleased that hundreds of thousands of letters supporting the space program are reaching Washington DC, we do not want people to think that we’ve achieved our ultimate goal” of winning additional funding for NASA, Save Space spokesperson Leigh Holt said in an email. “Our true goal will not be reached until that decision is made.”


Right now many in the space field are waiting impatiently for that White House decision. “The space community is not a patient lot, and we’re not putting up well with the pace, the priority, and the inconvenience of having to wait for the new administration to determine our direction and level of resources committed to the civil space program,” NASA’s Alan Ladwig said in a speech Friday at a space law conference in Washington held by the University of Nebraska College of Law.

However, when such a decision is made—be it next week or next month or early next year, when the fiscal year 2011 budget proposal is released—it will only be the beginning of an even more intense lobbying effort as companies, organizations, and other space advocates all pressure Congress to either adopt those plans or alter them. When that time comes, will space advocates be better prepared than they appear to be now?