The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Lunar lander
Just how willing are liberals to support human space exploration, and how can they be convinced to support it? (credit: NASA)

Liberals, space activists, and the Great Orange Satan

Last week, Nader Elhefnawy offered up an examination of how and where space activists are most likely to fall in terms of political leaning, and how those of various political leanings are more likely to view space policy (see “‘Space cadet’ politics”, The Space Review, March 16, 2009). Mr. Elhefnawy stated that one of his reasons for writing the article was to try and answer the question of why more progressives/liberals are not excited by and supportive of space exploration.

This is not the first time in recent history that an article addressed the issue of liberalism and space advocacy. A few weeks before, in a review of the 1972 movie Silent Running, Dwayne Day had a short discussion about the lack of liberal pro-space activism (see “The green green grass of Earth”, The Space Review, March 2, 2009). And both articles implied that the liberal/progressive community is neutral (or even pessimistic) when considering whether advancing technology is beneficial or harmful for humanity.

The traditional refrain of liberal opposition is based on a combination of hippie mythos and certain members of the Democratic Party—people like Senators William Proxmire and Walter Mondale.

However, both articles lacked something when discussing these conclusions—evidence. I will admit that Mr. Elhefnawy’s article did cite a recent study about public attitudes concerning the issue of nanotechnology. This really provides us with only a single data point to the issue of technology as a whole, and is only tangentially related to the issue of support for spaceflight, and space development. By and large, the evidence they mentioned is dated: citing Kurt Vonnegut’s pronouncements from the 1960s about spaceflight can hardly be considered as recent data.

The traditional refrain of liberal opposition is based on a combination of hippie mythos and certain members of the Democratic Party—people like Senators William Proxmire and Walter Mondale. Both were either critical of, or moved money away from, NASA. However, hippie culture is generally viewed as reaching its zenith in the late 60s and early 70s, and both Proxmire and Mondale have not been active in politics for many years (indeed, William Proxmire died in 2005).

It is time to reconsider the myth of liberal opposition to spaceflight, space exploration, and space development. And the best place to start is with the de facto head of the Democratic Party: President Barack Obama.

Enter the President

Depending on whom you ask, President Barack Obama is either a die-hard liberal or a center-left moderate. During the 2007–2008 campaign and election, Senator Obama’s position on space underwent a major change (see “The (not so) big switch”, The Space Review, August 11, 2008). His first pronouncement about space came in an education document, where he proposed funding part of his education plan by delaying Constellation. It next came up when he released a two-page policy paper on space. This paper seemed to provide only lukewarm support and limited development in the area of space policy. Ironically, it focused more on NASA’s support for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education rather than on human spaceflight. From then on, there were the occasional pronouncements about space and NASA, but there was a fear that then candidate Obama was potentially hostile when it came to the issue of space development, particularly over the issue of human spaceflight. However, this began to change after the end of the Democratic primary. Indeed, the week that final decisions were made about delegate counting was also the week of the 2009 International Space Development Conference, and a forum on space policy by representatives from the various presidential candidates. Then, for most of the summer, candidate Obama was silent on space policy. All of this changed on August 2, 2008, when he made a major announcement in Titusville Florida. This was followed up by a six-page policy paper, outlaying positions on a variety of space issues, from the oft-cited “spaceflight gap”, to interagency cooperation and international rules of the road for conduct in space. This was further on display throughout the remainder of the campaign, at events such as the Mars Society’s candidate forum (see “Space policy heats up this summer”, The Space Review, August 18, 2008).

Some attributed this change in policy to Obama merely being opportunistic, and wanting to win Florida. But if this was just a blatant attempt to get votes, a question presents itself: why would Obama propose such a developed policy? Why consider such space-specific questions that are unlikely to resonate with anyone outside the truly committed space activist community? Why not simply endorse some variation of Constellation, and leave it at that? One thing worth noting is that Obama does interact with and listen to the activist Democratic base—how much he acts upon their comments is open for debate, but he does interact with them. And, if reports from Bill O’Reilly and Bernie Goldberg are to be trusted, then one of the best examples of the liberal activist base can be found at Dailykos.

The Great Orange Satan

In 2005, my political activities started expanding to the online world. However, I had been following various space blogs for awhile. One thing I noticed was that, despite events happening within the space community, such as the flight of SpaceShipOne and Vision for Space Exploration, there was a lack of recognition about space, at least within the liberal activist blogging community. While I considered doing my own personal blog, I ultimately decided that working on a collaborative blog made more sense: although I didn’t have as much control, I was ensured that more liberals and progressives would see my posts, whether in article form or comment form. And that brought me to Dailykos.

While readership numbers were small, they did grow over time. This, I would argue, demonstrates at least the possibility for a larger liberal space community.

Dailykos (sometimes referred to as the Great Orange Satan), for those uninitiated—and despite claims from the conservative media—is easy to understand. It’s a collaborative blog, which means that anyone can become involved. There is no application process: if Rush Limbaugh wanted, he could easily start posting on it. Its primary purpose is about electing Democrats and pursuing a Democratic agenda. For details about its inner workings, I recommend reading the Dailykos FAQ, which is very straightforward. Two points worth noting: in addition to commenting, people can also recommend your diary by clicking the recommend button on your page. The higher number of recommends, the more people will likely see your post. Another option available is that people can tip you, in something called a tip jar. This isn’t as strong as a recommend, but still demonstrates that you read the post, and it impressed you. Prior to my first posting, I searched Dailykos, and only found the occasional piece on space, although by and large, there wasn’t anything.

My very first blog post went up on January 1, 2006. It was titled “Space Development – a winner in 06 or 08?” (be aware that due to a an update in the software that runs Dailykos, earlier posts like that have lost some of the formatting in the comments section). While I admit I was more optimistic about the timeframe for space development then, what is more relevant to the point of this article is the response to my initial posting, and a promise to further postings about space in the future. It drew 159 comments, and in a poll about the price to orbit, 51 people voted, with a plurality of people voting that the price per pound to orbit was in excess of $100,000. While this was by no means scientific, it did give a starting point for how people at Dailykos might view ideas about space development. While I haven’t completed a specific count of the number of space activists versus space detractors, my impression is that the situation was slightly in favor of the detractors, although not necessarily by much.

I followed this up for a few days with various posts, related to price to orbit, the NewSpace industry, and whether sustainability is practical without space development. However, between the lack of readers, and less time to prepare entries than I would like, I was unable to continue regular posting at Dailykos. In March of 2007, I did however offer a report about the first launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 1. In that story 31 different comments were made by a total of eight people (myself included), five very supportive of both SpaceX and space in general, one hostile to SpaceX, and one somewhat hostile to space in general.

The Space Revolution series

All of this changed when I attended the 2007 International Space Development Conference. While I am a regular reader of various space blogs, I was amazed at everything that was happening, and everything that was being reported on. And yet, if one examined the liberal blogosphere, there was almost no mention of the various announcements and events related to space development. It was here that I came up with the idea for the Space Revolution Weekly News (SRWN). The specific point of this series was to provide the readership of Dailykos a weekly report about what was happening within the space sector. I will admit a preference towards NewSpace, but I tried not to neglect any area of human spaceflight. In addition to the weekly reports, I also provided an occasional in-depth post about a particular space topic: danger from space radiation, a call to action asking people to blog more about space, and the launch of Genesis 2.

One problem related to blogs, which has been true for me, is that there isn’t always a clear way to measure readership. However, by considering the number of recommendations and tips I receive during the blog posting, when Space Revolution Weekly News was an ongoing series, readership did show an increasing trend. While the numbers were small, they did grow over time. This, I would argue, demonstrates at least the possibility for a larger liberal space community.

Since that time, although my blogging has become more erratic (due to time constraints), I still manage to provide reports about major events or developments. Such diaries included discussing Senator Obama’s various comments and policy papers about space, the official unveiling of the design of SpaceShipTwo, a consideration of the economic growth that near-term space development might offer, and commenting on various conferences I was able to attend.

During this time, I’ve met a number of pro-space people at Dailykos: some who work in industry, some who are mildly interested, some who would consider themselves activists, and some who are just interested amateurs. They may range from people who represent the site, like Darksyde, or well-known comic artists like Stormbear, to lesser-known people who regularly comment in space posts, like BBQ Chicken Madness and Bill White.

I’ve met a number of pro-space people at Dailykos: some who work in industry, some who are mildly interested, some who would consider themselves activists, and some who are just interested amateurs.

One person of particular mention is Vladislaw. Vladislaw has been writing close to at least one post per day about space since he started posting at Dailykos. These posts can vary in their content, from discussing the NASA March Madness tree, to an in-depth discussion about Kondratiev waves, and how they could relate to space development. In addition, he always provides a poll question about space. I am convinced that, if someone had the time, there is a fair amount of data that could be gleaned from his postings about the liberal space community, and how large it might be. I also wish more people in the space activist community read his postings – I rarely see them mentioned outside of Dailykos, and there are many excellent points made in the diaries, and many connections worth following.

I will admit that, despite this, it is important to remember that Dailykos is a huge blog, and there are over 100,000 users involved in Dailykos, and so many of these numbers pale in comparison to the total number of people involved. But this does indicate at least the potential for more liberals and progressives. This is further backed up when there is a major posting about space, more often than not people are supportive of space in general, and even human spaceflight.

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