The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

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The next “Moon-Mars Blitz” is taking place on Capitol Hill at a key time in deliberations on the NASA budget. (credit: J. Foust)

Interview: Preparing for the next Congressional blitz

These are interesting times for NASA in Congress—in the Chinese curse sense of the term. There is a growing consensus in the space community that NASA is being asked to do more that what is feasible with its current budget, forcing the agency to raid some of its programs, particularly in the earth and space sciences, to support the shuttle, space station, and exploration efforts. A simple solution would be to give NASA more money, but Presidential budget requests and Congressional appropriations bills alike have fallen short of the funding levels authorized by Congress in 2005. Moreover, the ascendance of the Democrats to the majority in both houses of Congress has created new opportunities—and new threats—for the agency’s budget.

“The Vision for Space Exploration is in danger of dying a slow death, or it could also be altered so much over time that it turns into a program that will continue to keep us stuck in LEO.”

This situation makes today a particularly critical time for lobbying efforts by proponents of NASA and the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). Since 2004 the Space Exploration Alliance (SEA), a loose coalition of advocacy and professional organizations, has organized the “Moon-Mars Blitz” a series of citizen lobbying efforts designed to build support for the Vision on Capitol Hill. The events bring members from SEA-affiliated organizations, like the National Space Society and the Mars Society, for a day of training followed by meetings with Congressional staffers in their Capitol Hill offices. The next Blitz is scheduled for June 10–12, around the time Congress will begin to take action on appropriations bills for fiscal year 2008.

Jeff Foust recently interviewed Chris Carberry, chairman of the Moon-Mars Blitz, to find out what’s planned for the next Blitz and to gauge the effectiveness of such lobbying efforts in general.

The Space Review (TSR): What is the theme of the latest Moon-Mars Blitz? What particular messages are you going to be giving to Congress?

Chris Carberry: Although there will be a number of issues that we will promote (we are still working on the talking points), as the name of the event would imply, we are going to Capitol Hill to make sure that Congress adequately funds the return to the Moon and human missions to Mars. With a new Congress and a new president in a couple of years, this is a key time period for the American space program. The Vision for Space Exploration is in danger of dying a slow death, or it could also be altered so much over time that it turns into a program that will continue to keep us stuck in LEO. Of course, we will also support programs that will promote private sector participation, such as COTS and Centennial Challenges, as well as some other important space-exploration-related issues.

TSR: How many people do you expect to participate, and from what SEA member organizations? Is it the same group of people each time, or are you getting a steady stream of new participants?

Carberry: In 2004, the Moon-Mars Blitz attracted 76 people. I would like to get at least that number for this blitz. However, if for some reason we don’t get that many people, with a lot of work, we could probably get the meetings done with 30–40 people. As for whether we get new members each time, although there is a core group of people who manage to come to every legislative event that we hold, we always get new people as well. We obviously would like our core people to return, but it is my hope that we can see a lot of new faces. If we don’t get new people every time, we are failing at our overall goal of motivating the space community.

TSR: What goals do you have for this Blitz, in terms of number of offices visited or other measurable results?

Carberry: Thus far (several weeks out) we already have more than 50 meetings set up, including several face-to-face meetings with members of Congress, the rest being with Congressional staffers. I would like to have at least 100 meetings, but if we start registering a lot of volunteers, I’d like to schedule many more meetings. As for measurable results, some results may be able to be seen instantly. Other results may have to wait months or years to come to fruition. Finding support where we didn’t know it existed is a short-term measurable result. Building up positive relationships with congressional offices are also good short-term measurable results. Over time (weeks, months, years), if we see Congress bolster its support for NASA and come closer to living up to the promise of the NASA Authorization Act of 2005, that would be a very positive result.

TSR: What will be different about this Blitz compared to previous ones?

Carberry: There is growing pressure on the NASA budget. The 2007 NASA budget was left with flat funding, which meant that it actually lost over half a billion dollars of what it was originally budgeted to receive. Even the original budget was well below what Congress authorized in 2005. We want to make it clear to Congress that it is in the nation’s best interest to support the VSE and that there is strong constituent support for that program.

TSR: Over the course of the last couple of years, have you seen a change in reactions to your messages from Congressional offices, or changes in their opinions about NASA and the Vision for Space Exploration?

“I fear that there are many people in the space community who feel that the politics will attend to itself. This couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Carberry: Of course, we weren’t sure what the changeover in Congress was going to mean for the VSE. In a blitz that NSS ran back in February, the new members of Congress in general seemed to be quite open minded—and in some cases enthusiastic—about the VSE. However, not all of the leadership in Congress is sold on the VSE. We hope to make a strong argument to them in favor of supporting this program. As for change over time, I think that there has been strong support for the VSE in the years since it was announced. However, budget constraints make it more difficult for many members of Congress to be as supportive as they might otherwise be. It is up to us to provide additional compelling reasons why space exploration is as important as other items in the federal budget.

TSR: There are a number of other citizens’ lobbying efforts, like March Storm, AIAA Congressional Visits Day, and Citizens for Space Exploration. What makes the Moon-Mars Blitz different and/or better than those efforts?

Carberry: The great thing about this effort is that SEA represents a larger cross-section of the space advocacy community. We have over a dozen organizations with a combined membership of well over 100,000 people (including AIAA). Our strong support for the VSE as well as private efforts also separate us from some other the other efforts.

TSR: How big of an impact do you think these various efforts have on Congress? Are they more effective than professional lobbying efforts by companies and industry associations?

Carberry: If these efforts are sustained, they can be as effective as professional lobbyists. The reason is that we represent constituents. These groups are truly “grass roots.” Our participants (including me) are volunteers. They take vacation time and pay their own expenses. This really can have an impact, but as I said before, these efforts need to be sustained. We need to talk to them regularly to make any imprint on the memories of members of Congress and their staff.

TSR: What other political outreach efforts to Congress, the White House, or the 2008 presidential candidates, does SEA have planned?

Carberry: SEA hopes to continue Congressional efforts with more Blitzes. In addition, we are pondering staging events at the Republican and Democratic conventions in 2008. However, this is in the early stages. While I do not know what each member organization is up to, the Mars Society and National Space Society are making a lot of efforts to communicate with the numerous presidential candidates.

TSR: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Carberry: I fear that there are many people in the space community who feel that the politics will attend to itself. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There is a great deal of unfocused support for the space program in the general public. However, it is up to the space advocacy community to be the voice of this public support. If we fail to do that, the VSE will be much more vulnerable to cancellation. We can’t let that happen. The Moon-Mars Blitz is a perfect venue for people to express this support, but it won’t be a true success without a large turnout from the people who are passionate about human space exploration.