Space And The General Public: What Would Homer Simpson Do?

By Keith Cowing
January 5, 2011
Filed under
Space And The General Public: What Would Homer Simpson Do?

There is an interesting opinion piece online at Space News by Joan Johnson-Freese regarding some obervations she has gleaned from a recent class she taught on space policy. She notes:

“I think the views of this class are important as they would probably reflect the views of the general public — if they had any knowledge base for assessing the issues and options. With lots of discussion within NASA and other groups about strategically communicating with the public about space issues, these views might be worth considering. Educating the public on the technical aspects of how space assets work is neither possible nor likely profitable — few people care about uplinks, the magnetosphere or millinewtons — but awe and inspiration will likely not garner space the sustained political support needed to achieve future goals either. However, educating the public about what’s at stake — that seems achievable and worthwhile.”

I do not disagree with the conclusions drawn by this author (indeed I agree with most of what she says). Nor do I seek to gratuitously dump on her – she’s got one heck of a resume. But this opinion piece, however well-intentioned, is yet another example of someone (like me) who has spent decades immersed inside insular space community jumping to conclusions as to what they think the ever-elusive “real people” outside the space community (out in the real world) think about space. The source of these observations, logical as they may seem, is a bunch of students in a space policy class inside the DC beltway.

Keith’s correction: My HUGE, sloppy error. The Naval War College is in Newport, Rhode Island – not inside the DC beltway. That said, a space policy class at the Naval War College, whose mission is to “provide professional military education programs that are current, rigorous, relevant, and accessible to the maximum number of qualified U.S. officers and Navy enlisted personnel, civilian employees of the U.S. Government and non-governmental organizations, and international officers.” is not the place where you are going to find mainstream public views in abundance. The mainstream public isn’t going to go off and spend time studying and researching the topic – rather they are simply going to know/and think what they know based on their every day lives.

No one interested in the general public’s views on space ever actually goes to a Kmart in the middle of a rural community in Iowa, visits a school in East LA, or just seeks out people at random locations and walks of life to see what “real people” think (or do not think) about space. And of course, when it comes to opinions, one size does not fit all – the views are not going to be homogenous and many may seem outright odd to people used to having discussions within the familiar confines of the space community. Space folks get all upset when several thousand jobs get cut in one place or another, yet vastly larger numbers of layoffs have been happening across the rest of the country. Reality check, please. “Leadership in human spaceflight”? Who cares: people are losing their homes to foreclosure.

NASA (justifiably) trumpets its web prowess but it is clueless when it comes to understanding what this Internet popularity actually means or how to integrate it in a meaningful way into the actual activities of the agency. Yes, there is interest out there in space – and in NASA. But NASA simply cannot describe (with data or metrics) what this interest actually means in terms of the daily lives of taxpayers and the things that they (not the agency) deem to be important.

Until space policy wonks set aside their decades of bias and actually ask “real people” what they think, and integrate this information, this is all just guesswork. NASA, of course, is chronically addicted to conducting self-reinforcing studies – the proverbial self-licking ice cream cones, so to speak. That’s why the public seems to have such an inexplicable (to NASA) understanding of what the agency does – and why it does it.

The space community should stop talking to itself. The echoes, however logically sounding they may be, can be profoundly misleading.

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