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Space-based solar power is one example of a technological space “fetish” whose potential is oversold by its supporters. (credit: © Mafic Studios Inc.)

Space fetishism: space activism’s obsession with technological and ideological saviors

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You don’t have to spend much time at space activist conferences or reading the comments on space blogs or discussion groups before you start to notice certain patterns. Very quickly you will recognize that certain people, or groups, have specific issues that they care passionately about, and they repeatedly advocate the same technological or ideological solutions to the problems that they think are most worthy of attention. They fit two of the three definitions of fetishes—things that space activists believe contain supernatural powers, and/or things that they have an abnormal fixation upon. There’s an old saying that when all you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. A good corollary to this is that when you idealize your hammer, you look for things to pound.

Technology fetishism

With only a little bit of effort, it would be possible to produce a long list of examples of technologies that individual space activists are obsessed with and believe are the solution to different problems. At the top of this list is space solar power, which many space activists currently believe is a solution to… well, just about everything: global warming, the high cost of gasoline, poverty, Middle East instability, and terrorism. Build solar power satellites, some activists believe, and most problems in the world will be solved.

There’s an old saying that when all you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. A good corollary to this is that when you idealize your hammer, you look for things to pound.

But there are a multitude of other technological “solutions” fetishized within the space activist community. There are people who believe that all (or at least most) of the problems with military space can be solved with small satellites, or the Operationally Responsive Space approach. There are people who believe that space science and exploration can be vastly improved with the use of small satellites. Recently, a passionate subgroup has emerged in the form of cubesat and nanosatellite advocates, although these advocates have a difficult time explaining exactly what useful missions such satellites will do—their primary virtue appears that they are small and “small = good” and therefore “really small = better.”

Perhaps the biggest fetishized technology category concerns propulsion. There are many different groups offering their solutions to different propulsion problems. There is the DIRECT group with their Jupiter rocket. There are the Shuttle-C advocates. Then there are the advocates of space elevators and space beaming technologies, and the advocates of nuclear rocket engines. A current hot topic among this latter group is the VASIMIR nuclear rocket which, if it works as advertized, could provide truly revolutionary propulsion to the outer planets—at immense difficulty and expense. There is a small but vocal group that believes that space fuel depots are the solution to human space exploration plans. And there’s a closely related group that believes that in situ resource utilization (ISRU) is a vital technology. There are also advocates of solar sails. And then there are advocates of specific niche technologies that have only superficial connection to space, such as Polywell fusion and liquid salt reactors.

Now many of these technologies have some merit, and there is justification for spreading some development money around in order to see which ones can bear fruit. These technologies are not inherently invalid or stupid, but their enthusiastic advocates often dramatically overstate their utility, and ignore political or economic reality. Quite often, they are advocates talking to themselves, and failing to convince anybody outside of space activist circles.

Go to a conference on energy development, or read magazines and journals on energy production, and you would be hard-pressed to see any mention of space solar power at all. If the people who are experts in energy development, and who make their living finding ways to improve the field—and make money—do not recognize space solar power as even a niche idea, then that tells you something about the claims made in the space activist community about SSP. Similarly, if you went to a conference on terrorism or third world poverty and proposed space solar power as a solution, the conference attendees would toss you out as a crank.

But more to the point, many of these technologies have limited respectability even within the space R&D field, where engineers and managers are focused on near-term problems and technologies that can serve more immediate needs. Several years ago I read a blog commentary where somebody proposed in situ resource utilization (ISRU)—turning atmosphere into fuel—as a “solution” to a Mars sample return mission. But if you talk to the engineers who devote their time to Mars sample return, ISRU is a solution to a problem they don’t have. Their problem is not reducing the amount of propellant that they need to carry to Mars, but finding a way of protecting the propellant that they carry during a long cold soak in the extreme Martian environment. ISRU is unproven and highly challenging. It is not something that they would add to a mission that already has a large number of technology challenges. ISRU is a potentially highly beneficial technology, but not the kind of thing that any sane engineer would insert into an operational mission until it had been developed and tested on its own. To the people who work in the field, it is not a solution, but a diversion. To the activists, ISRU was a magic technological capability that they reflexively applied to a proposed Mars mission.

Go to a conference on energy development, or read magazines and journals on energy production, and you would be hard-pressed to see any mention of space solar power at all.

Similarly, many of these technologies will require so much time, effort and money to develop that it is hard to see any connection to near-term needs. Does anybody really think that space elevators can be built in the next half century? Is the VASIMIR rocket really something that could be developed—assuming that it would actually work—without the expenditure of many billions of dollars? The advocates in some ways have to oversell the benefits of such long-term technologies in order to hide the reality that these are remote solutions. Only with hyperbole can they attract attention. Maybe if people think that the payoff is great, they’ll be willing to work on it for decades.

The mundane bureaucratic reality is that in the past decade NASA has gutted its technology development budget and now trails industry and other countries in many R&D areas. As an agency with a relatively limited budget and too much to do, NASA has a hard time funding technology development for a number of reasons, including the fact that when space missions run over budget, the leadership goes looking for money in projects that are not tied to immediate needs, and technology programs take a hit. But another recent problem has been that the agency’s technology development program lacked focus—NASA funded too many in-space propulsion programs, for instance, rather than the one or two that it might use in the next decade—and this made the overall development program vulnerable. Anyone familiar with the current state of NASA’s technology development effort will realize that there are far more pressing needs than the technologies that many activists have glommed on to. NASA could make use of better ion engines and aerocapture, as two examples. But both of these are considered mundane by the space activist community, which is obsessed with technologies they consider sexier. The point to remember is that there is a vast gulf between present reality, and what technologies the activists are excited about.

Ideological fetishism

Closely related to, although distinct from, the technology fetishes is the space activist community’s fetishizing of ideological and management approaches to reforming the space program. The most common ideological obsession is a belief that “commercial” (or “free market” or “entrepreneurial” or “NewSpace”) approaches offer solutions to a range of perceived problems. Similarly, there are occasionally calls for major bureaucratic reorganization to achieve a kind of mission focus (or bureaucratic purity) that will supposedly improve the way the government operates its space activities. The problem is that quite often these solutions are advocated almost reflexively, with little thought or understanding of what the real management, organization, and bureaucratic problems are.

For example, it is not unusual to hear space advocates endorse a free market approach to space science whereby the government defines the data to be collected and then simply pays for results, letting private firms raise the capital to compete and provide the bytes, without government ownership of the spacecraft. But this idea is based upon a completely false understanding of how space science is actually conducted. There is a highly iterative process between scientists and contractors when it comes to the development of space science instruments, and it is rarely possible to simply draw up a list of “science data requirements” and then toss them over to a contractor to satisfy. Quite often in science the most important results are the ones you never expected to get in the first place and it’s not possible to list them as requirements before the fact. In addition, nobody would trust data produced in such a fashion, because those producing it have an incentive to falsify the data in order to win the contract.

The most common ideological obsession is a belief that “commercial” (or “free market” or “entrepreneurial” or “NewSpace”) approaches offer solutions to a range of perceived problems.

Perhaps the most recent version of this argument was the idea several years ago that NASA should simply specify the agency’s requirements for a highly detailed map of the Moon and then pay whatever company produced the product. (Instead, NASA followed a more traditional approach and built its own spacecraft, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.) It turns out that there is a real world analogue for this model in the form of government purchase of commercial remote sensing imagery. In the latter 1990s, the US government sought to purchase such imager for national security purposes. The initial plan was for the government to serve only as customer, buying the data but not paying for the spacecraft or any other support. Several companies, such as Space Imaging, based their early business models on this plan. But within less than a decade it became clear that this approach simply would not work—the costs of providing this service was so high, and the demand insufficient, that the model failed. Had the government continued the original approach, the companies would have gone bankrupt, and the government would not be able to acquire the necessary imagery. As a result, today the US government subsidizes the commercial remote sensing industry, although there remains an ongoing debate within the national security establishment over just how much to do this. If this model cannot work in low Earth orbit, where the costs are lower, the demand is greater, and the US government is not the only customer, why does anybody believe that this approach could work for the Moon?

Occasionally the lines between ideology/philosophy and technology are very blurry. For instance, there is a segment in the space activist community that has a strong belief in the “smaller is better” approach, regardless of the requirement. Within NASA, there is currently a belief in a multi-tiered approach of small, medium, and large (“flagship class”) spacecraft, but a common activist view is that nearly everything can be done with small spacecraft, often built and owned commercially, with the government merely paying for the data.

Last year, during a discussion about the threat to Earth from asteroids, I heard somebody propose that the “solution” was to have private industry build a fleet of small satellites to flyby various asteroids collecting data. Once again this was an ideological/technological approach that was disconnected from the reality. For example, the first step in addressing the asteroid threat is spotting the asteroids, which requires telescopes, not fleets of satellites. And flybys provide relatively little useful data required for asteroid mitigation—for instance, they don’t provide mass and density data needed in order to develop a solution to changing the asteroid’s orbit.

A few years ago I saw several posts on space discussion groups stating that the “solution” to problems with NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL)—which is way over budget and behind schedule—was to “flood Mars with small rovers.” After all, wouldn’t it be better to have five Spirit/Opportunity class rovers, or even ten, than a single MSL? The problem with this solution is that it was disconnected from the requirements that led to MSL. MSL is bigger, more sophisticated, and more expensive than smaller rovers because Mars scientists wanted a rover that could land many more places on Mars, travel longer distances, drive over rockier terrain, and carry more sophisticated (and energy hungry) instruments. More rovers are no benefit if they can only be landed in a small, scientifically uninteresting area and never travel to the interesting places. More rovers also means more people to drive them and operate their instruments, which costs money. Finally, more rovers would increase demand on the Deep Space Network, possibly requiring the construction of more communications dishes. Thus, an ideological/technological solution—build more, cheap, small stuff—may not only be worse (by failing to accomplish the goals, and possibly costing more money in the process), it might never work.

Another common ideological fetish is the complete reorganization of NASA, and in fact the entire space bureaucracy. This is usually advocated by people who think that one of the reasons NASA does such a poor job of human space exploration is because the agency has too many other missions that they don’t care about, such as Earth science, astronomy, aeronautics, etc. To them, this is easily solved by splitting the agency up. The National Science Foundation does ground-based astronomy, so give NASA’s astronomy portfolio to the NSF (and maybe throw in solar system exploration for good measure). NOAA deals with oceans and atmosphere, so give them NASA’s Earth science portfolio. And in this reorganization frenzy, give NASA’s aeronautics research to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Another common ideological fetish is the complete reorganization of NASA. This is usually advocated by people who think that one of the reasons NASA does such a poor job of human space exploration is because the agency has too many other missions that they don’t care about.

But while this might seem like an ideal approach on paper, it demonstrates limited understanding of government in general and NASA and these other agencies in particular. As a general example, massive government reorganizations often increase inefficiency and chaos in the short term, and may never reduce it over the long term. The Department of Homeland Security, which merged 22 government agencies into a single department, is the case study in this fact. DHS had an admirable goal of improving communication between agencies tasked with controlling the nation’s borders. But putting the U.S. Coast Guard in the same agency with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service may have been a bit of overkill, and there are plenty of DHS employees who will tell you that things worked better and more efficiently before they were shoved together to form the third largest government agency.

In the more specific area of space, there is the simple fact that many of these other agencies have relatively small budgets compared to NASA, and/or completely different cultures and operating methods. NSF, for example, is primarily a check-writing agency. It does not operate large field centers or procure and operate expensive equipment; it gives money to universities and research institutions that do this instead. If NASA’s astronomy division was turned over to NSF, would NSF also take ownership of portions of the Goddard Space Flight Center and the Deep Space Network? Similarly, despite its name, NOAA’s budget includes only a small percentage devoted to Earth monitoring from space. NOAA would have to change substantially if it suddenly had to take control of a dozen new Earth observation satellites and their ground stations, and NOAA’s other activities would suddenly be relegated to second-tier status within the organization. Perceived efficiencies would be illusory. For instance, what would happen to the people at NASA who sign the contracts to procure launch vehicles to carry astronomy and Earth sciences satellites into orbit if these activities were transferred to other agencies? Would they stay at NASA, or be split up among several different agencies? How would this be any more efficient or “better” than the current situation? The same things could be said for the FAA taking over NASA aeronautics research. FAA conducts very little research of its own and is primarily devoted to regulating aviation safety, not things like operating wind tunnels or developing new aviation equipment.

But of course the most common example of ideological fetishism is the claim that “commercial space” is a solution to various problems at NASA, most notably space station resupply and human access to low Earth orbit, but also including other areas such as suborbital research. Certainly, there’s a definitional ambiguity that has to be resolved first: how does one define “commercial”? After all, Boeing and Lockheed Martin are commercial firms. For the space activists, commercial generally refers to the method and not the entity, so that a major aerospace company could provide commercial services if they did so by procedures requiring them to compete for contracts and to assume a significant share of economic risk for failure, for instance by maintaining ownership of the vehicles themselves rather than delivering them to NASA. In space activist circles, the commercial solution is usually assumed to be inherently good based upon an ideological belief—with considerable evidence—that industry is more efficient than government at producing goods and services.

The point is not that these technological and ideological fetishes are all false, but that they are applied by activist advocates with too broad a brush, based on a belief that they are so inherently good that they will work beyond their technological niche, or in areas where they are not really suited.

But once again the problem with this ideological fetish is that it is often applied by space activists with too broad a brush, and little understanding of specific circumstances. Perhaps the most extreme version of this was the call several years ago for the government to sell the International Space Station to private enterprise. This was a textbook example of an ideological belief—“private enterprise is inherently good”—ignoring the reality that no commercial company would ever buy the space station.

There are numerous examples where space activists, or even space entrepreneurs who are currently developing hardware, advocate their systems based upon a profound misunderstanding of what the government contractor actually does and needs. Although this might seem like a technological misunderstanding, it is often based on a degree of what might best be described as capitalist arrogance: a belief that they know better than the government what is actually needed, and a fetishizing of an ideological approach that may be better suited for some problems than for others.

The Holy Grail

It’s worth repeating, because some readers will undoubtedly not get it: this is not an argument of absolutes. Commercial spaceflight approaches can be good. ISRU could be useful. Fuel depots may provide expanded spaceflight capabilities. VASIMIR may someday revolutionize interplanetary travel. And space solar power may be worth at least some further study. The point is not that these technological and ideological fetishes are all false, but that they are applied by activist advocates with too broad a brush, based on a belief that they are so inherently good that they will work beyond their technological niche, or in areas where they are not really suited. Commercial spaceflight may be a better approach in many areas than what NASA is currently doing, but not in all of them, and overselling its virtues can actually discredit it. And unless it aligns with what the government and its agents (like the government-supported science community) actually need, then it will not be adopted. It will be a solution in search of a problem.

That hammer may be useful, that hammer may be cool, but it is certainly not the only tool with value, and pounding away with it too much may ultimately be self-destructive.