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

<< page 1: the Space Revolution series

Netroots Nation

In addition to the Dailykos blog, there is a convention, called Netroots Nation, which brings together many of the liberal activist base. Originally called Yearlykos, last year it morphed into Netroots Nation. Many major names attend: for example, last year both Nancy Pelosi and Al Gore were in attendance. And in 2007, seven of the eight Democratic presidential candidates attended. It is not uncommon to see many candidates or liberal elected officials in attendance.

At last year’s Netroots Nation, largely thanks to the work of Andrew Hoppin (although Bill White and I provided some auxiliary support) there was a panel at Netroots Nation dedicated specifically to space. The panel consisted of 4 people. Three of the panelists, Lori Garver, Patricia Grace Smith, George Whitesides, are well known in the space community. Below are videos of the panel. Due to a technical error, until 12 and a half minutes into the panel there is no audio, which means much of Mr. Whitesides’ comments were not recorded. However, many of his comments can be found after the videos.

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Whitesides talked about the need for long-term vision, in this particular case the idea that one day, we’ll have more people off planet than on planet. He noted that there needed to be more dialog between everyone. He also talked about how NASA and space can help us deal with the various challenges we face, like global climate change and clean renewable energy. He provided a good framework for where things stand: he noted that, at that time, NASA received about $17 billion, and the military space budget is about double that amount. He also noted that, with the rise of commercial space, more people were considering space issues beyond the traditional NASA scope.

In particular he noted that there is a great deal of turmoil in NASA that is driven by the human spaceflight program. However, there are five key areas for NASA:

  1. Embrace climate change. This has been a signature issue for NASA, and given the dangers we face, NASA can play a powerful role.
  2. Embrace its potential as catalysis for commercial spaceflight. Many within the space community are aware of the emerging entrepreneurial space industry, and Mr. Whitesides noted how NASA could substantially help to advance the industry.
  3. Embrace international collaboration. Space projects can be large scale, and spreading the risk among various governments can help us deal with these risks and costs.
  4. Space militarization (and more specifically weaponization) is not a good thing.
  5. Dealing with the energy issue. Key to the issue of climate change is coming up with new, renewable forms of energy. NASA, and space, can help, ranging from acting as a technological incubator, up to things like space solar power.

Finally, Whitesides closed with a comment about how human spaceflight has had lots of changes, and we need continuity: changing the plan every four or eight years doesn't allow for the long-term planning that will be needed.

After the panel, in conjunction with then Senator Obama’s call for input into the Democratic national Platform, we held a meeting to discuss what issues we would like to see included, with regards to space policy. What resulted was the following statement, sent to the Democratic Platform committee.

The United States has a unique and powerful relationship with space – from the glory days of Apollo, to today's Mars Rovers and the International Space Station, the United States has been an important player in the long term use of space. That relationship needs to continue, and further developed. In particular, there are 3 points that must be incorporated into the platform related to space.

1. The United States, in cooperation with other countries and private individuals/organizations/companies, must move humanity towards a spacefaring society.

Moving humanity into space, and truly incorporating it into the sphere of human existence, will have massive long term positive impacts, ranging from new resources and industries, to a greater understanding about ourselves and the universe. To become a spacefaring society, we will need many people and many groups involved – other governments, entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists, even artists and musicians will play a role. Vital to this is the development of cheap, reliable access directly to space, for every person, which we need to invest in.

2. Space and NASA are vital to deal with the intertwined problems of energy independence and climate change, including both monitoring and finding solutions.

NASA has played an integral role in monitoring our earth. In addition, it has acted as incubator for new technologies. These 2 factors mean NASA must have a major role in these 2 issues. Further, as mentioned above, the resources of space, specifically space solar power, offers us a long term, large scale solution to the problem of energy independence.

3. The President and Congress must have independent advisers concerning the issue of Space, and science, who have direct access to elected officials.

These advisers may come in many forms—a re-invigorated National Space Council, or a space policy adviser to the president, scientific adviser to the President, or similar offices in congress. But all of these advisers need to be independent, and have direct access to the president, or congress.

We are hoping to have another panel at this year’s Netroots Nation, with some repeat performance, as well as some new people.


The fourth person on the space panel, Chris Bowers, is not necessarily known to space activists, but he is well known to liberals and progressives. Mr. Bowers has described himself at times as a “Dirty F***ing Hippie (DFH)” although no longer wears long hair. He is also a union supporter and former union organizer. He formerly wrote at, and now writes at Given this, if the traditional story about liberals and space is true, he would be opposed to space exploration, or at least human spaceflight.

In fact, the reality is very different. Quoting from something he wrote based on his panel participation:

Space Is Progressive. One of the main reasons that I prefer the term progressive to the term conservative is that it draws a direct contrast: conservatives look to the past, while progressives look to the future. Conservatives view the ideal of society as existing in a past golden age, while progressives view the ideal society as never having existed, but being a future state toward which we are working. The space program, by its very nature, is a part of the progressive ideological and cultural ethos.

By pushing the limits of human understanding on our place in the galaxy, the pace program is inherently progressive. Answering fundamental questions such as the origin of the universe through the WMAP satellite, or determining whether we are alone in the universe through new exoplant discovery telescopes, the space program helps to answer fundamental questions of humanity in non-dogmatic, reality-based ways.

By pushing the limits of human engineering capability, the space program is also progressive.

By creating an increased sense of connectedness, such as the important ways in which the first pictures of the entire Earth from outer space helped launch the environmental movement, the space program is progressive.

And, if none of these reasons convince you that the space program is fundamentally progressive and connected to the expansion of humanity, keep in mind that if progressives don't care about space policy, then conservatives will destroy outer space in much the same ways they are destroying Earth. Excessive militarization and corporatization is just as possible in outer space as it is on our home planet.

Whether you agree or disagree about his sentiments when it comes to conservatives, he does present a very liberal defense of space exploration.

Concluding thoughts

There are other groups worth mentioning, although I don’t have much interaction with them—the Obamanauts for example, formed to help push then candidate Obama on space policy, as well as campaign for him in various space states. Another website, put up by Andrew Hoppin, is called, and it acts as a social networking site for democrats and space. How successful these two attempts have been is open for debate, since there hasn’t been much activity related to their websites.

The real divide over support for space is whether or not human spaceflight has or does produce a positive return on investment.

The big problem with everything I presented here is that, as evidence, it is of a circumstantial nature. I’m not aware of any exhaustive, in-depth study that looks at attitudes as they relate to space policy and space advocacy. There is enough evidence and activity that would suggest that it is time to revisit old stereotypes when it comes to space activism. However, throughout my various association and work with both the liberal activist community and the hardcore space activist community, I have formed a number of conclusions that I suspect would end up being proven true if and when a major study takes place.

First, the support for current unmanned operations is fairly strong. Only occasionally do I see someone actively opposing missions like the Mars Rovers or Hubble. The frequency that I see this is about as often as I see defense of VEHMT. The real divide over support for space is whether or not human spaceflight has or does produce a positive return on investment, with the primary assumption being that the purpose of spaceflight is about science, and a long-term question whether humanity’s destiny belongs in the stars. I’m uncertain about the size of these two groups, although I believe that the split is about even (although as more evidence is presented, more people are willing to embrace concepts like space development).

Second, while there is a liberal space community, as demonstrated by a number of regular posters in Vladislaw’s diaries, many do not necessarily make their way into the space activist community: they do not necessarily attend events like the ISDC, nor do they comment on space blogs like Space Politics. There is hope to change this, partly because we now have a Democratic majority in Congress and a Democratic president.

Finally, the liberal space community lacks coherency and organization. Yes, it is true that liberals are supporters of organized labor, and one could expect that it would be successful in organizing itself. However, Will Rogers’ famous quote—“I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”—is the reality.