Space Commerce

Formulating Space Policy While Looking Through A Straw

By Keith Cowing
March 18, 2014
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Formulating Space Policy While Looking Through A Straw
1970's Space Colony Concept

Space advocacy groups have existed for more than four decades. While all of these groups are supportive of space exploration, they all have their own unique preferences – and differences.
Sometimes these differences between one group and others can be large. Other times the distinctions between the groups can be vanishingly small. Either way, these groups often spend much more time arguing with one another – about all of their differences – and competing for resources within the space advocacy community than they do listening and talking to the 99.999% of humanity who is not among their ranks.

Author Kim Stanley Robinson referred to this incessant bickering as being due to the “narcissism of small differences”. He nailed it.

In the end its usually the majority of the populace (in a democracy) whose concerns tend to hold sway when government policy decisions need to be made. As such, you would think that space advocates would be seeking to develop policies that embrace themes that many people support (ergo their elected representatives) and do so in a way to build additional support so as to make those policies become reality.

Alas, space advocates just don’t have that skill set. They can make noise and sway some politicians and agency heads on one side issue or another, but in the end, their impact is fleeting. Since these space advocates are all rather smart, this is somewhat surprising. Given that the things they are interested in are often of such profound value and potential, it is unfortunate that space advocates are the only ones championing these issues.

An op ed by Aaron Oesterle and James Pura representing one of these space advocacy groups, the Space Frontier Foundation, titled “Measuring Space Choices by Our Real Purpose” currently appears in Space News.

The authors mince few words in saying what their organization’s preferences are: “The Space Frontier Foundation believes that space settlement is the real reason to have a space program, and therefore we insist on measuring every policy or project against that purpose. To that end we have created the Settlement Enabling Test, a series of metrics to determine whether an idea or initiative advances us toward our fundamental goal. It can be applied to everything from the Asteroid Recovery Mission to the life extension of the international space station or any other proposal or decision.”

Not much wiggle room there.

There is no mention in this op ed of space science, the pursuit of knowledge, understanding our home planet, etc. – all things many would argue are reasons why NASA has been and should be funded. A lot of people are perfectly content on using ever more powerful telescopes and robotics to explore the universe – and maybe sending people – later. And these perfectly rational people can make a logical, cogent argument for that as the purpose for funding NASA – or for deciding what to fund or not to fund.

That’s the problem with idealistic space goals that proceed from a single personalized and narrow premise (bias): they mean nothing if the person you are talking to does not agree with you within the first few sentences. Its like looking at the world (or the universe) through a straw and then trying to proclaim policies that apply to everything outside the narrow field of view of the straw. You don’t see what other people see or incorporate it into your world view.

In a slightly larger sense this is the problem that all space advocacy groups have. They just assume a priori that everyone thinks space is cool in and of itself and that money should therefore be spent on things that space advocates think are cool. The real world takes a back seat.

Small wonder space advocates have not made much headway in the past few decades.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.