The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

US Capitol
Many people in the space industry simply don’t seen political activism as their role. (credit: J. Foust)

A plea to those who are passionate about human spaceflight

The space advocacy community is always saying that it needs to expand educational and outreach programs. After all, if we can inspire school-age children or convert adults from all walks of life, our government in Washington, DC will see that there is strong support for human space exploration. While I believe that this is absolutely correct, I don’t think we look in the mirror enough. It would stun me if even one quarter of the people within the space advocacy community or employed in the aerospace industry ever communicate with their elected officials.

Why is this? Is it apathy?

Well, according to Webster’s New International Dictionary, the definition of apathy is:

  1. Want of feeling; lack of passion, emotion, or excitement.
  2. Indifference to what appeals to feelings or interest, or prompts action.

While it is a certainty that the people in the space community don’t lack passion, not surprisingly, that passion is predominantly focused on space exploration and the hardware, software, and experiments related to it, as it should be. But some of the passion—some of the attention—must be directed toward defense of this dream.

The space community is filled with people of all disciplines and from all walks of life who rarely or never communicate with the United States government—this must change.

Unquestionably, cynicism plays a role as well. However, our elected government does pay attention to volume of opinion. While there are varied common opinions of how corrupt, how jaded, and how inattentive our government can be, regardless what the reality is, Congress will notice if they receive large numbers of letters, faxes, and phone calls in favor of the same issue. Volume means influence. Volume means political power.

I suspect that some people just don’t see it as their role. Take the case of an imaginary aerospace engineer who says, “I design propulsion systems. Let others do the politics.” The problem with this sort of attitude is that if people like our imaginary aerospace engineer don’t engage in politics once in a while, they may not be able to design propulsion systems in the future. And it is not as though political activity is an exclusive domain, like propulsion design is. Political outreach is highly democratic. Propulsion design is not. It is very easy for any engineer or scientist to write letters to Congress or call their offices at least once a year. It is not so easy for most “political guys” to design propulsion systems.

I don’t want to only pick on engineers and scientists. The space community is filled with people of all disciplines and from all walks of life who rarely or never communicate with the United States government—this must change.

The space community needs to take on more of the political burden. We have far more people than many effective political movements. If each person in our community were to write or call their members of Congress at least once a year; if they were to take the time to write to or call the presidential candidates, that would be impressive. And I tell you what, I’m sure that Congress and the candidates would notice. While we may not convince all of them to become space promoters, we very well could make them think twice about being space attackers. To paraphrase a former president, “It’s about the politics, stupid!”

If we are going to come together as a community and use our combined political voice, now is the time to do it. For those who haven’t been paying attention, more than $500 million was recently cut from the original 2007 NASA budget proposal. Most of this money comes directly from exploration programs. In addition, there are now some people in influential positions who would be perfectly happy to eliminate VSE and, perhaps, human space exploration altogether. While there are a lot of supporters of NASA on both sides of the aisle, we need to reassure them of our support, sway those “on the fence” to our side, and hold off the outright opponents of human space exploration.

If we are going to come together as a community and use our combined political voice, now is the time to do it.

In addition, we will have a new president in January 2009. Wouldn’t it be nice if that growing ocean of candidates were to get an ocean of letters and phone calls in support of returning to the Moon and going on to Mars? After all, I think it would be a very sad day if the Vision for Space Exploration was killed because the supporters of that program around the country weren’t sufficiently motivated to write a few letters and/or make a few phone calls.

The bottom line: Do we need to expand our education programs? Certainly. Do we need to improve our public outreach? Unquestionably. However, it is equally important that we look at ourselves and better utilize that vast resource of people that we already have.

Perhaps I’ll be accused of preaching to the choir, but the choir needs to sing louder!


Information and links to presidential candidates.

Contact info for the United States House of Representatives.

Contact information for the United States Senate.

Hatch Act for Federal Employees: With certain restrictions, even NASA employees are allowed to engage in political activities. Example: A NASA employee can send letters to Congress on their free time. The web site of the Office of the Special Counsel explains the “Hatch Act,” which defines which political activities federal employees are and are not allowed to participate in.