Guest Blog: A Popcorn-bred Perspective of Space Commercialization

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As the heated debate over commercial crew continues, constant expressions of support to the commercial space sector — even from those who have so passionately argued against the President’s proposal — reveal something perhaps slightly shocking: agreement.

Key opponents of the President’s proposal have often felt compelled to add that despite their misgivings they do in fact support the commercial crew concept. These are the traces of the unspoken assumption in the space policy community that at some point in our spacefaring future, we will need a robust commercial space sector to share the load.

How can safety standards best be incorporated to developing designs? Are the companies ready? Is there a real market? What policies should be in place to protect government investment? These are the questions being asked. They center not on the question of whether crew transportation to low Earth orbit should ever be turned to the commercial sector, but when and, most importantly, how.

This attitude may make little sense to someone on the outside — a passerby on a visit to Congress whose only link to space may be through science fiction movies. To judge by many of these Hollywood tales, a commercialized future in space often looks grim and undesirable, a dystopia of vast proportions. Recall that scene in Alien (1979) when Ripley discovers the company has all but forsaken their lives in its own interest. Or more recently, the smiling CEO in Wall-e (2008), urging us to keep buying despite Earth becoming uninhabitable as a result. Blade Runner (1982) and Moon (2009) likewise portend a future where private interests suffer no control, their power unchecked by national boundaries and reaching the vastness of space.

Even as the space policy community seems to agree that the commercialization of space will eventually be a good thing, that same future is often depicted in science fiction in the opposite light. In several science fiction movies our commercialized future in space signals a point of self-destruction, with individual freedom, the role and influence of governments, and the values of life we hold dear as its casualties. In these movies space commercialization is part of the problem, not a solution.

“So what?” we may be tempted to ask. These are only movies. But to dismiss this perspective without considering its implications could be foolhardy.

The work of scholars in the field of science fiction studies alerts us to the potential impact of the imaginings of this genre. The same way that utopia can inspire in us feelings of hope to work for a brighter future, dystopias convey an implicit call to action to correct the wrongs driving us into the dark, messages that could potentially transform into opposition from specific parts of the populace. In areas like space, where public support is indispensable for carrying out long-term, expensive initiatives, our understanding of these trends of thought may prove decisive.

The critical point is that these prognostications of the future reflect on considerations of the present. Just as decades-old artwork of our future in space served to capture emotions rather than engineering, the predictive value of such movies is a secondary matter. What do they say about now? What are the present assumptions, the status-quo, highlighted in these movies?

The fears captured in these dystopias, including the disappearance of the state, should alert us to the presence of a gap. Not the much-discussed shuttle gap, but a different gap: the distance between the space policy community and the public.

Consider, for instance, fears over the assumed contradiction between profit and safety in crew space transportation. Some are concerned that companies, committed to making money, would be less careful with their passengers than NASA is with its astronauts. Similar thoughts are suggested in movies like Blade Runner where company rule has brought about the destruction of individual identity: to the company only the customers matter. To have members of the public hone in on only this issue, made familiar by these fictional depictions, would be unfortunate as this is only part of the debate.

For the majority of society, whose only link to space may be through movies, most of the debates held within the space community can be completely foreign. This may produce at the very least indifference, or worse, opposition. Instead of heading down that road, we can attempt to look at our discussions from their perspective and ask: are we framing the right questions? What have we taken for granted? Should we communicate with the public differently?

The ultimate goal in understanding these trends of thought is to consider their potential impact in policymaking, a strategy that may prove crucial to continue our activities in space. Considering the public’s views, influenced by science fiction, could help policymakers map present fissures and even suggest ways to address their concerns. We should take advantage of popcorn-bred perspectives like this to drive policy forward and bring the public along.

Failing this, when the space community finally agrees on the best policy to commercialize crew space transportation for true risk and benefit-sharing, policymakers may be caught by surprise to find that the passerby (and her supporters) has opted to lobby aggressively against the measure. And with powerful Hollywood images of company policy dictating matters of life and death in the far reaches of the universe … well, who can blame her?

 

     This article is based on a paper presented at the “Astrosociology and Interactions with Society” technical session of the AIAA Space 2010 Conference & Exposition in Anaheim, Calif.

     Laura M. Delgado is pursuing an M.A. in International Science and Technology Policy at the George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute (SPI). She is also a 2009 Harry S. Truman Scholar and a Northrop Grumman Fellow at SPI.