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Obama in Pennsylvania
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has proposed delaying Constellation, yet there has been little outcry from space advocacy groups. (credit:

Obama’s modest proposal: no hue, no cry? (part 3)

In the two previous parts of this article, I have discussed presidential candidate Barack Obama’s campaign promise to single out NASA’s Project Constellation as a budget target to help pay for his preschool education initiative.

In the broader context, US human spaceflight is at a major nexus, with the Space Shuttle being retired, its replacement (Ares 1/Orion) being designed, and the future of US space exploration and the NASA workforce hanging in the balance. Obama’s proposal is the icing on the cake, adding to the uncertainty for space, already made uncertain by the change in presidential administration.

Although we’re at arguably the biggest crossroads in space since the end of Apollo, the space advocacy groups that have come up since that time are relatively quiet. Because of a number of factors I discussed last week (primarily, rules on “501(c)(3)” nonprofits), groups won’t be taking on Obama’s proposal specifically, and even raising awareness or mobilizing people over the “Space Nexus” is problematic.

What direction, besides up?

Strangely, it is only now that some of the most prominent space groups are trying to figure out just what it is, in fact, they want to advocate. After all, once you’ve gotten past the basic premise, “Americans should personally explore space,” there are many stances to take. Keep going as we are (Project Constellation)? Do so with changes? Forget the Moon, and aim more directly for Mars? Maybe a human mission to a near Earth asteroid? Let the whole government program fail (Project Constellation, or even NASA itself), and encourage private industry to get us there?

Despite long years of advocacy, and a long recognition that we’d come to this crossroads, some groups are still sorting out what they’d advocate, and how they’d go about doing so.

There is an excellent chance that the US will, in fact, do nothing but the status quo. That is, stay in low Earth orbit for some time, keeping the International Space Station the focus of our activity. We’d simply move from Shuttle to Ares 1 to service it, while deferring or scrapping the larger Ares 5 vehicle and any human activity beyond LEO. In a 2004 article (“Promising the Moon”, The Space Review, January 19, 2004) I wondered if we’d be waiting another 15 years to return to human space exploration after a grand Bush space plan. Unfortunately, that may yet be the case.

Despite long years of advocacy, and a long recognition that we’d come to this crossroads, some groups are still sorting out what they’d advocate, and how they’d go about doing so. Here are summaries of what some of the leading space advocacy groups told me they are doing.

The Planetary Society

The non-profit group that is probably furthest ahead in trying to address the nexus is The Planetary Society. This rather professorial group was founded by several people from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and academia, the most famous of whom was Carl Sagan. Another founder, Louis Friedman, is the group’s long-serving Executive Director. Understandably, they started out with something of a robotic exploration bias. Over the years, they have become more involved in advocating human spaceflight, generally in the context of a mixture of robotic and piloted missions engaged in planetary exploration.

The society is now determining what direction in human spaceflight it will promote. To that end, it co-hosted a private, invitation-only workshop in February with Stanford University, attended by 50 or so of the “space elite”. After presenting the workshop’s conclusions to Congress, the society is now in the midst of running several public “town hall” meetings to get further inputs, for the eventual recommendations it will make and presumably spend some effort advocating.

I spoke with Friedman about the workshop. “Two important things came out of that workshop,” he said. “Mars is a huge focus, and international cooperation is a huge focus. Space exploration should be undertaken for geopolitical purposes… The Reagan space station went nowhere until it went international.” Friedman said he thought that nearer-term expressions of this might involve an “International Lunar Decade” and an international Mars sample return mission.

One avenue that apparently didn’t make the cut was a human mission to an asteroid, which was touted in an Aviation Week story published before the workshop.

Friedman suggested that The Planetary Society would be taking a stand on its final positions “either just before, or just after, the election.” Would this be a white paper, or a direct presidential pitch? Friedman demurred on specific strategies, but did say, “Remember, Congress is important too.”

Aerospace Industries Association

AIA is the leading US aerospace industry trade association. Its current president and CEO, Marion C. Blakey, had a leading role in “NewSpace” in her capacity from 2002 to 2007 as Federal Aviation Administration chief.

“Mars is a huge focus, and international cooperation is a huge focus. Space exploration should be undertaken for geopolitical purposes,” said Friedman.

As one might expect from such a trade group, AIA is advocating that space exploration proceed as planned, and that NASA get more money to do the job. “We believe NASA is underfunded and needs to have additional funding across the board for exploration, science, and aeronautics,” said J.P. Stevens, AIA Vice President for Space Systems. “Space policy takes many years to reach completion, and to rewrite the policy at the change of an administration is disruptive to the progress, the space industrial base, and our skilled space workforce. The initial steps for Project Constellation (the Orion and the Ares 1 launch vehicle) are well underway. It is important that these projects, and the follow up projects of the Ares 5 heavy-lift vehicle and the lunar lander, be allowed to move forward as scheduled.”

Shortly after the Obama education proposal was released, AIA issued a press release urging support for Constellation, including comments by Blakey. “Over the last two weeks Constellation has emerged as a campaign issue after suggestions by candidates from both parties that the program could be delayed. Other candidates immediately countered with their strong support of the program,” the release read. “Constellation will have a powerful effect in attracting students to science, technology, engineering and mathematics studies, disciplines in which the nation is lacking, she said.”

The group has published an election information kit; the space exploration section is pretty basic. It recommends funding increases for NASA; unspecified incentives for teachers and students in math, science, and engineering; and more technology work. A sidebar prominently promotes earlier space spinoffs.

AIA spokesperson Lauren Airey cited other things AIA was doing this election year. “Over the past few months, staff here have been meeting with presidential campaigns as well as with congressional offices,” she said. Other upcoming activities are space-issue luncheon events at both parties’ conventions and working with the House Aerospace Caucus as they focus their summer meeting on space issues.

“There are a few other possibilities on the table as the presidential field narrows (possibly a forum on the issues this summer), but nothing concrete yet,” Airey added.

The Mars Society

The Mars Society has a pretty specific, and none-too-surprising, goal in mind. “The current [NASA] plan is being dragged out over a ridiculous amount of time,” Executive Director Chris Carberry told me. “NASA needs to accelerate the program and build it in such a way that will utilize common hardware when possible. If we return to the Moon by 2020, we should try to get to Mars between 2025 and 2030.”

“For over a year, we have been asking our members to express their opinions to the candidates… We hope to increase these efforts with our membership.” He added, “The Mars Society Convention will also be taking place shortly before the two political conventions. We hope to use this event to focus the spotlight on space exploration matters just prior to these conventions.”

Carberry also said that the Mars Society has been “meeting with representatives from the campaigns,” although he did not respond to follow-up questions on what that meant exactly, or how such contact had gone.

Space Frontier Foundation

I spoke to Bob Werb, a founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, about what that group may do this election year. The short answer: they’re thinking about it. “We’re talking about it… we should have a formal position on things in a few weeks,” he told me a few weeks ago.

I asked him about his personal feelings about Obama’s proposal. “It doesn’t really worry me,” he said, and indicated the group’s members would be more concerned with seeing the approach to exploration changed. “The vision as Bush laid it out was a good thing, but a major midcourse correction is required.” This view isn’t surprising, given the group’s predisposition to seeing space opened up by private industry.

Werb thought that after some consensus was reached, the group would publish a white paper on their website.

National Space Society

George Whitesides, the National Space Society Executive Director, provided me with this statement: “NSS is doing everything it is legally allowed to do to promote space issues, including leading the SEA’s [Space Exploration Alliance] blitzes on Capitol Hill, identifying key space issues to our membership, doing petition drives on those issues, planning another Congressional blitz at ISDC [the group’s annual conference in Washington late next month], and organizing a presidential space debate of campaign representatives at the upcoming ISDC, among other things.”


DIRECT is an effort by a group of engineers to advocate a Shuttle-derived architecture for the exploration program that is more, well, Shuttle-derived than Ares 1 and Ares 5 (see “Another voice in the wilderness”, The Space Review, February 19, 2007). They say their plan would get us to the Moon faster, better, and cheaper.

I frankly don’t know what the people involved are doing in terms of advocating their idea, since they did not respond to my emails for this article. The only indication of advocacy is a link on their website for contacting members of the House of Representatives. (There is no link there for contacting the Senate, or anyone else.)

“The vision as Bush laid it out was a good thing, but a major midcourse correction is required,” sad Werb.

I mention this group because they of all people would seem most likely to be advocating an alternative this election year. Without some kind of advocacy, their idea will surely go the way of decades’ worth of other well-thought-out Shuttle Derived Vehicle concepts, including NASA’s own aborted Shuttle-C. Moreover, their proposal will soon become moot, as Shuttle launch pads, infrastructure and staff move on irrevocably to Ares.

Individuals at the forefront

I’ll end this article by describing several outstanding examples of individuals working to make candidates think and talk about the human spaceflight issue. They tend to a common trait: smartly leveraging the Web and blogosphere to be influences

John Benac, a Boeing engineer, made a personal campaign of making space a topic at back-to-back Republican and Democratic debates held by CNN and He has also started a blog, Political Action for Space, covering space politics with an emphasis on mobilizing activists.

Although Benac was unsuccessful with his debate-question effort, Steven Nielson, a Mars Society member in Denver, did get his well-made video question on space exploration into the CNN/YouTube Republican debate. Nielson asked if any candidate would pledge to land an American on Mars by 2020, or if not what their vision for human space exploration would be. (The question did not get a warm reception. Mike Huckabee quickly turned his answer into a joke by suggesting Hillary Clinton be sent to Mars, before Tom Tancredo slammed the idea of going to Mars in the face of deficits and other issues.)

Jeff Foust has long been instrumental giving space pundits a soapbox through this very website, while his blog Space Politics has provided circumspect reporting. Rand Simberg has long brought his conservative view to his blog Transterrestrial Musings. Among a number of commercial and semi-commercial websites, I would point in particular to Keith Cowing’s influential NASA Watch.

It’s crucial that it be made known that human spaceflight has a public constituency, and that it is an issue of genuine concern to individuals as well as the institutions and industries involved.

In this campaign season, it has been individuals who have kept the candidates, particularly Barack Obama, on their toes about their human spaceflight stances. Once again, just this month, someone asked Obama about space at a campaign appearance. Obama once again questioned manned spaceflight’s value, and showed a distinct preference to robotic missions that he said are “…oftentimes cheaper and less dangerous, but yield more information.” He did say he expected that there would be “a major debate I’m going to want to convene when I’m president of the United States” on human spaceflight.

During our conversation, The Planetary Society’s Friedman told me, “I don’t see getting to the candidates early as being productive.” He pointed specifically to the CNN/YouTube video question as something to be avoided, since it was simply turned into a joke.

I frankly disagree. It may not suit the dignified, high-level approach his group and others have favored. This year in particular, and at this nexus in human spaceflight, I think it’s crucial that it be made known that human spaceflight has a public constituency, and that it is an issue of genuine concern to individuals as well as the institutions and industries involved.