Op-Ed | The Remarkable Thing about Obama’s ‘To Stay’ Remark

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So there I was watching the State of the Union, trying to count how many applause-sit-applause repetitions the members of Congress were going to fit into their annual joint exercise routine while studying the faces of Joe Biden and John Boehner to see who would smirk at what line, when in the middle of his annual address the president said we were going to go into space not just to explore but To Stay!

I nearly choked on my almond milk. I had to rewind and play it back. And yup, there it was. He said it. Then the president waved at astronaut Scott Kelly and spoke of his coming one-year mission to ISS as prep for us going to Mars. By this time I had put down my organic peanut butter cookie and was pacing the floor. Barack Obama had just said we were going to space to Stay, and then amplified the statement with an invited guest to symbolize his commitment.

U.S. President Barack Obama delivering the 2015 State of the Union address. Credit: White House video grab
U.S. President Barack Obama delivering the 2015 State of the Union address. Credit: White House video grab

There is a lot here to discuss, including the many mistakes made to date. But that would be a waste of time, and simply force me to dive back into the usual game of “space slapping” that has engrossed our community for far too long. Instead I am going to focus on the word he used: He said Stay. He said we would be going into space to Stay.

Now that can mean many things. We are so far Staying at the space station. We are Staying in Antarctica. Heck, we are Staying in Afghanistan and Iraq. (OK, we left Iraq and now we’re back … to stay? Never mind.) To Stay in terms of a nation can mean anything from a lab to an outpost to a base, to a settlement — for forever or just until it is redefined by the next president.

Again, I am going to skip over those discussions and simply declare that when he says Stay to me it means we are going to go into space to develop it, to settle, to create communities and to expand the domain of humanity and life.

Of course, you wise readers will say: “But Rick, how do you know that he means any of that? In fact you know he doesn’t. At most he means we will build some small government outpost.” And those even wiser will say: “But Rick, you know he doesn’t mean it. The administration can’t do it. And even if they try Congress won’t let them.”

And you will be right on both counts. Left to its own it will never happen. And even if it did, at best it would mean simply some small overpriced facility with no utility and so many rationales for being that it has no rationale at all, stuck like a flag out there on the moon, on Mars, or floating out in free space at the edge of our reach and in constant jeopardy of cancellation.

So I (in my hubris as a citizen and person who some say lives in his own world) am declaring that when the president says we are going out beyond low Earth orbit to Stay, it will mean what I want it to mean, and further, that as a citizen who can make things happen in the world by taking action, I will take the necessary actions to make sure that my interpretation is one that occurs.

And I need your help. Because you can take action too.

The president of the richest, most powerful nation in the history of the species has said he wants us to go out into space to Stay. Whatever that means to him and his government right now, I, and hope you as well, will work to make sure that it translates into much more than a phrase, a gesture or a dead-end techno-binge. We in the space community have the power to take his words and translate them into actions, the right actions.

First comes the definition. The president handed us what we need: an undefined phrase. We must define what Stay means, and understanding that at first it will mean different things to different people, we must forge an agreement that is inclusive of all, at the highest level, that can enable all to achieve their own goals. My vote is that we define it to mean that to Stay means we go as pioneers, to explore, develop and settle the frontier as a new home for humanity. Having spoken to many on all sides, I think this works.

Then we must explain it, delineate it, draw a picture of what it means to the public, and then drive forward to make sure it happens the right way.

And what is the right way? Well, the wrong way is taking the beach of space and planting a flag or a tiny outpost with a flag on top. The only right way that is inspiring and worth the effort is to enable the establishment of growing communities at the places we go that can then begin to capitalize on our investment, be it economically or scientifically, providing new knowledge and technology or offering hope and a new life to those who want to go there.

The wrong way would be to pour billions of dollars into a single Apollo-style program, to try and force all solutions and approaches into one program, or bet on one team, agency or company. Instead, the right way is to create and define the needs driven by this overarching goal then let the different communities in our field provide the answers, technologies and products needed to achieve that goal based on what they do best. The right way is to get behind those who already know how to make it happen, be it as part of our space legacy or using new innovations, and get them to work together.

And the right way means that each of us works toward our own goals and destinations in ways that support each other rather than fearing or fighting with us over who does what, when, where and first. Space is big. The whole point of the frontier is that we go there to do new things in new places. Not one place, and not one thing, but all of the above.

Let’s be clear. I do not expect the government (NASA) to go out and build settlements and colonies and the industrial infrastructure needed to support them. I do not expect the U.S. government to give SpaceX all the money it needs to colonize Mars. I do not expect Washington to suddenly change and realize that the future of the nation and indeed humanity is contingent on harvesting the wealth of the solar system overnight and suddenly subsidize my asteroid mining project.

In fact, all I expect is that this new declaration and agreement creates an opening that will allow those of vision in the government to begin to move solidly and without deviation over the long term to enable permanent human presence beyond low Earth orbit. Then all of us can leverage taxpayer investment back into the economy by supporting a transition from a 20th century single-player space program to the opening of the frontier — which includes both new and traditional space companies in this new endeavor and results in the expansion of the U.S. economy here on Earth.

Of course then there’s Congress. Given the way things are perhaps Obama should have said he will oppose going to space to stay — and then they would have fully endorsed it. As it is, we will have to work the Hill ourselves, and before we split off our lobbyists to go work on our individual pie slicing, let’s give them a single message: We in this community want to see America establish permanent human communities on the frontier ASAP.

We want Congress to finally get it. To get that it helps their districts more to be places that are contributing to a larger, national cause — and reaping the economic benefit endlessly into the future. We need the right budgets and the right laws to support all of us as we do the job.

The rest is up to us. And we cannot blow it as we have done so many times before. From John Kennedy to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, presidents have rhetorically opened the door to the frontier for us, and each time we have turned away to fight over destinations, technologies and timing. We in the space community have the chance to create a shared vision and overlay that vision on the words we heard the president say. We can translate that into, “Give me cash now,” or we can take the opening provided and define and expand it in the right way, so the right parts of our society are doing the right jobs in the right order and for the right reasons.

The government wants to go, new space wants to go, aerospace wants to go. I want to go. You probably want to go (or to sell the rides, tickets, gas and T-shirts to those who are). So let’s do it. Let’s come together for once and say that if you want to Stay, here is the way.

The Moon. Mars. Free space. We go to them all. We go to live. We go to survive. We go to thrive.

Now let’s go!

 

Rick Tumlinson is the co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, Deep Space Industries and Orbital Outfitters and founder of the EarthLight Foundation and New Worlds Institute.