Op-ed | We Need To Expand the Conversation About Space

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One of our three founders of the Space Frontier Foundation, Bob Werb, is fond of saying that the job of the foundation is to change the conversation about space. And despite 26-plus years of activist work, it can feel like not much has really changed. In the United States, the president and Congress are arguing. The partisan rancor in Congress has the Democratic members and Republican members arguing past each other, even as space policy is a nonpartisan issue. And, of course, the time between elections gets shorter and shorter (didn’t we just have one?).

And yet the conversation has changed. Private spacecraft are visiting the crown jewel, the International Space Station, and NASA has publicly stated that the next space station(s) must be privately owned and operated. Today’s discussions about space activities aren’t merely about exploring space, but about developing and settling it. Everyone — from NASA to the president — has started to embrace a bigger vision than exploration; that vision now includes pioneering. Perhaps the greatest data on that came with the recent Monmouth University poll that said six out of 10 Americans believe private companies should be able to build and operate private spacecraft.

But changing the conversation isn’t really enough, and that poll shows why — a majority of Americans do not support returning to the moon or going to Mars, and just a little over 50 percent of them support increasing funding for human spaceflight. This tells us what our next project is — we need to expand the conversation about space, not just change it.

All of us who are part of the space community see space’s potential. But space is a niche issue for a very simple reason — space isn’t relevant to the average person.

Space Shuttle Endavour in Inglewood
Spectators watch Space Shuttle Endeavour as it is rolled through the streets of Inglewood, California, on its way to the California Science Center Oct. 13, 2012. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Our community doesn’t do a very good job addressing fundamental human needs in a way that requires space. When space people talk about benefits from space, it usually comes in the form of discussing “inspiration” or “spinoffs.” Our national space policy must address fundamental needs (putting food on the table, getting a job, security for the home, etc.) in a way that makes the average person want to be involved in space. The single mom living in the inner city and the rural farmer in the Midwest won’t be moved by inspiration or spinoffs from space when they are struggling to feed their family or pay their mortgage.

This is an unsustainable situation. We need to change this, and it’s why we at the Space Frontier Foundation have brought back March Storm. It’s why we are happy to be working with the National Space Society and nine other organizations to form the Alliance for Space Development, and why we were happy to be involved in the Pioneering Space National Summit Feb. 19-20.

So what does this look like going forward? It starts by agreeing there must be some mechanism that allows for mass access and dissemination to the unique resources of space, and enabling anyone who wants to partake in those resources to have that possibility. Call this “space settlement” or “space development” or “the democratization of space,” but it is something fundamentally larger and more powerful than “exploration.”

Maybe this seems like a small item, but for too long we’ve lost sight of this fundamental idea. Let’s make this a fundamental part of any conversation about what we do in space. That’s why enabling space development and settlement must be a fundamental core purpose for NASA. That is why it’s on our March Storm agenda.

So if we set this as a fundamental goal for our national space policy, the next question presents itself clearly: What do we need to do to allow for the enabling of space development and space settlement? People must be able to have access to space, and they must be able to get some sort of fundamental human value from space (again, things like a job and security). That’s where our other March Storm Agenda items come into play.

Three items on our agenda focus on space access. First, fully funding commercial crew and cargo ensures that the marketplace for commercial human transport will not go anywhere. Second, a streamlined environment for human spaceflight regulations allows the marketplace to try different ideas, but also protects the uninvolved third parties. And finally, the addition of the Cheap Access to Space (CATS) prize puts a clear marker down, and creates greater market pressure for the development of a robust space transportation ecosystem.

The final item on our agenda allows us to focus on finding those unique values from space, and the ISS is starting to give us a glimpse at what this will be. But in order to find those unique items of value, we need to ensure that long-term activities in space can continue. Therefore, we cannot repeat the space shuttle situation — we must have a “no gap” transition to commercial space stations.

This is only the first set of challenges, but the time has come to go outside of our community and talk to the rest of America, and let space play its part in making our country great.

So we ask you to join us — go to http://www.MarchStorm.com and sign up.

 

Aaron Oesterle is space policy director and James Pura is president of the Space Frontier Foundation.