Op-ed | The Summit, the Solution, the Possibility

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Part 1 of 2 — The Challenge, “We Must Be Our Own Kennedy”


Part 2 of 2 — Answering the Challenge

To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy in his famous moon speech: We do this and the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. And what makes them hard? When it comes to opening the frontier of space — we do. The biggest challenge is not the vacuum, not the radiation, not the gravity, not the vast distances. It is us. For we can overcome each of those, but can we overcome ourselves? Can we get past our positions so we can work together to throw open the frontier for the people of Earth?

In the case of U.S. space policy, rather than arguing the same arguments, fighting the same fights and reinventing the same wheels, we need a new conversation. And the only way to change the conversation is to change the conversation. Not talk about changing it, not debate how to change it, but to simply and directly change it. And in the middle of a frigid February blizzard, in the town most famous for its inability to change its course, this is exactly what happened. For two days over 100 of the nation’s top space leaders from all sides of all the main debates and divisions and programmatic and political camps got together at the Pioneering Space National Summit in Washington, and for the first time engaged in a new conversation about America’s future in space.

Sandra Magnus of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) did an excellent job covering much of what happened in the summit [“Building Consensus on the Future of Space,” Op-ed], but some of it is worth repeating, and more importantly, it is worth keeping the discussion alive.

The idea of the summit started back in 2012. In the fall of 2011 one of the last and most important battles over commercial spaceflight had been fought, and SpaceX had just made its first flight to the space station, Orbital was on its way to doing the same thing and Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada and the rest were alive and moving forward. I and many others had poured ourselves into the battle for cheap access to space since the 1990s and I felt that well, the baby had been born. For this and family reasons I stepped away and back from the cause all the way to the hills and pastures of East Texas, an interlude that gave me time to focus on the reason it mattered in the first place — what we need to do out there — and why. and I was ready to get back to the reason it mattered — what we could do out there — and why.

One night, gazing up at the canopy of calling stars, I had an epiphany. It was time to try another approach. The next day I called up a former opponent at NASA who was in charge of the government’s spaceflight efforts, and in a remarkable conversation we both agreed to put aside our debate over launch systems and talk about the reasons we wanted to go. I will always remember it, as I sat by the side of the road in Texas and he sat by the runway in Russia, where the next space taxi flight was scheduled to launch. Once we dropped our past disagreements and got past the awkwardness (after all, I was one of those who coined the term “Senate Launch System”) we were able to create a clearing for a new conversation, and soon found ourselves having a fun and serious discussion.

You see, by moving beyond destinations or transportation, we realized we shared a common dream: the expansion of humanity into space. We even shared a common purpose: to make it happen soon, and do so permanently, with the private and public sectors doing what they each do best, thus saving taxpayers funds, getting more science and in the end transforming life on Earth.

The Pioneering Space National Summit was held Feb. 19-20 in Washington. Credit: Pioneering Space National Summit
The Pioneering Space National Summit was held Feb. 19-20 in Washington. Credit: Pioneering Space National Summit

And so we began to talk, and listen, in a conversation that is ongoing to this day. Funny thing about making such a shift: The idea of doing it again begins to grow in you. As new relationships and rationales begin to take hold, as the new inputs and ideas begin to work into one’s mind, it becomes easier — in fact, important — to open up further. And so, over time the idea of a summit began to form in my mind. After all, if he and I could have these talks, why couldn’t the community? And if we could talk about these things and find common ground, then perhaps we could all begin to work together to get something done.

Long story short, a year or so later, I found myself in the Reagan Building rotunda in Washington, next to the amazing Mary Lynne Dittmar and in front of a room of people I never thought would ever come together. The Pioneering Space National Summit was real. The premise of the summit was simple: Remove the usual barriers to communication that have long divided our community and agree on why we send humans into space, what our intended goals are and how to best achieve that vision and those goals. We hoped to achieve three outcomes, and any one of them would be considered a victory:

  • To get people who never talked to each other, in fact who had often been at war over various projects and programs, to talk about a shared vision and goal for U.S. human spaceflight.
  • To try and forge a basic agreement as to what that goal should be.
  • To plant the seeds of this new agenda and conversation into their organizations and companies in a way that it could take root and grow over time — and result in real change.

Who was this group? The supporting organizations are listed on the websites. As to the rest, since we agreed to keep it anonymous as much as possible, I can only say what kind of people they were. First, they weren’t armchair space pundits or hobbyists. These were leaders in the field, people with real power, who in combination represented a majority of the human spaceflight community. Yes, there were leaders from newspace companies, but also top executives from traditional aerospace giants. There were senior advisers from the Republican and Democratic political worlds, including those formulating the policies and frameworks that will show up in the 2016 campaigns. There were congressional staffers, and leaders from a dozen space organizations along with several space heroes and astronauts. There were top scientists and engineers, and government managers in charge of some of the biggest projects in human spaceflight, some of whom cleared their calendars for the entire two days of the summit — because to them this was important. And yes, to remind us why it is important, there was a group of university students, who did outstanding work as facilitators and participated in the discussions.

For two days, these extraordinary people put aside their differences and focused on a shared future.

To do this, we had to put aside the petty arguments that have paralyzed our community for so long. Thus, there were three basic rules: No debates about the priority of the moon, Mars or free space; no partisan debates; and, most importantly for the space community, no discussions of launch systems.

To begin the conversation with a shared language, we defined terms like “exploration,” “pioneering,” “settlements” and so on. We posited that pioneering includes both exploration and settlement in its definition, and that both the government and people can pioneer and explore, but only the people can settle.

Next came the history of past attempts to define the national path forward in space and several of the participating not-for-profit groups laid out agendas.

With near unanimity, the summit agreed to the following: “The long term goal of the human spaceflight and exploration program of the United States is to expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and to do so in a way that will enable human settlement and a thriving space economy. This will be best achieved through public-private partnerships and international collaboration.” Credit: NASA/Michael Fincke
The summit agreed to the following: “The long term goal of the human spaceflight and exploration program of the United States is to expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and to do so in a way that will enable human settlement and a thriving space economy. This will be best achieved through public-private partnerships and international collaboration.” Credit: NASA/Michael Fincke

After breaking into groups to discuss the goals of human spaceflight and getting their reports, we then laid out a straw man vision statement, took a vote, debated it, honed it, and went off to work the results. This process was repeated for the next two days. At first the groups all focused on the same top-level questions. By the second day different groups looked into other areas, ranging from technology and engineering priorities for human communities in space to public outreach. The debates and discussions were intense and well reasoned, the passions at times high, especially in the main room, where vote after vote was taken on an overarching statement on which all could agree. Yet, as Mary Lynne and I wandered from room to room to listen in on the discussions, what we found was remarkable. People were talking. More importantly, they were listening to each other, and working together. By doing so, by being willing to drop their positions and perennial disagreements and engage in a new conversation, a miracle happened.

At the end of day two, after all night emails and discussions, a statement was arrived at and put before the group. With near unanimity, the summit agreed to the following:

“The long term goal of the human spaceflight and exploration program of the United States is to expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and to do so in a way that will enable human settlement and a thriving space economy.

“This will be best achieved through public-private partnerships and international collaboration.”

It is clean and simple, and yet huge in its import, for if this gathering of disparate leaders can agree to these words, we can indeed begin a new conversation, and this time perhaps achieve a new outcome. If nothing else, we helped the S-word move to the center of our conversation.

I have to admit that after the event I got a bit depressed. I am more accustomed to the glory of raging legislative battles and rhetorical triumphs, the juices of a startup’s life struggle, etc. The after-effects of the summit were much more subtle. By locking out the press (much to the amusing chagrin of some) and keeping the attendees confidential, and by also avoiding the temptation to start some new organization to carry the work forward, we had assured that it would have to work its way into the space community’s psyche based on more subtle approaches. While the concept sounded good, it was hard for me to understand in real day-to-day terms, even as the instigator, that the idea of simply getting people to have this new conversation was the goal in itself.

Since the summit others have pointed out to me that something has indeed shifted. I was and am the last one to see it, and in fact am writing this piece as a result of it finally becoming clear to me that something is happening.

The Space Exploration, Development, and Settlement Act of 2015 would make space settlement a national goal. Credit: NASA Ames artist's concept
The Space Exploration, Development, and Settlement Act of 2015 would make space settlement a national goal. Credit: NASA Ames artist’s concept

For example, a few weeks ago a friend sent me a link to a letter from Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) to Blue Origin using settlement references twice in its body. There is now a bill being introduced in Congress called the Space Exploration, Development, and Settlement Act of 2015, and organizations as different as the Space Frontier Foundation and AIAA are moving ahead to advocate the concepts on which we agreed. In the meantime, summit working group reports are about to flow out into the community and there is even talk of doing it again next year, to keep the ball rolling and do a progress check.

Personally, this has been an exercise in engagement, and has opened my eyes. While I may have intellectually known those with whom I disagreed shared the same dream, I didn’t get it until I and they were able to put down our swords and sit together for a while and talk. And it gives me great hope. I think the American space agenda is indeed about to change forever, and in a good way — for all of us.

I want to publicly thank those who stepped up and engaged in this experiment. It has renewed my hope for our cause. I wish we had had the funds to bring in everyone. You can still help us, though. Please go to SpaceDeclaration.org and sign the document.

By signing it you simply say, “I have read this and I agree.” After all, in a previous revolution, a small group of people added their names to the bottom of a similar page. A page full of just words. But words that meant something to them, and in the end also changed the future.

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.