Guest Blog: Views on Space from an (Rare) Informed Public

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I just finished teaching a 13-week class on Space & Security and I’m always pleased to be able to disprove what Jay-Walking answers on late-night television would have you believe about the eagerness (and ability) of individuals to learn. The class included 31 students, graduate and undergraduate, some already professionals and returning to school, some eager young minds, largely government majors, and none aspiring to or intending a space-related career. Though admittedly it was a self-selected group, with some taking the class based on topic interest; for others it was a convenient time slot or they knew me from my Globalization & Terrorism class and apparently felt it better to stick with the academic devil-they-know. Once involved in the material, they were all hungry to learn more — and many researched topics independently as the class progressed.

At the end of the 13 weeks they may well be the closest we can come to that Unicorn-like creature known as The Informed Public, especially rare for a technical topic like space. Unlike the related species of Space Enthusiasts — who can be technically informed and are always opinionated — this group knows enough about space to understand the language spoken by Space Enthusiasts, words like exoatmospheric, geosynchronous orbit, dual-use technology, COPUOUS and Chang’e, but have no vested interest in one side or the other in debates. Unlike the related species of The Uninformed Public, who have opinions but zero knowledge of the subject matter, they are able to assess options before forming opinions based on information.

While it is certainly possible that they picked up some of the biases of their instructor, me, every attempt was made to point out and balance those biases — and students are a known-contrarian group so persuasion only goes so far in the classroom.

At the end of the course there was a two-week capstone exercise where the class, first through groups and then as a committee of the whole, decided on some priorities, starting from trends discussed in the 2010 Space Security Index. Not recommendations; just, “knowing what you know, what do you now feel are the 5 most important issues to be addressed regarding space.” While consensus wasn’t easy, or always smoothly word-smithed, they did it, and you’ll get the idea.

  • Invest in space development with commercial entities to drive international cooperation, exploration & technology advancement — globalize space.

The group had a pragmatic view of space activity. They want the U.S. to be involved and even lead, but within a realistic budget. To them, that inherently meant working with others. They largely supported the Obama National Space Policy in that regard. They also felt that globalizing space gave other actors a vested interest in acting responsibly there.

About exploration specifically, they were asked to choose between five options. I think the U.S. human space exploration program: (1) should be fully supported through tax dollars to whatever extent necessary to keep the U.S. solely in the lead in the human exploration of space; (2) should be fully supported through tax dollars to whatever extent necessary to have the U.S. lead in the international, human exploration of space; (3) I think U.S. tax dollars, at about the current level of NASA funding, should be spent on developing the commercial space sector, including human exploration; (4) I think NASA funding should be exclusively for robotic, scientific exploration; (5) Space exploration, human or robotic, should be left to the private sector.

About half of those voting selected option No. 2, with option No. 3 their second choice and the rest of the votes distributed among the other options. Discussion revealed motivations based largely on leadership and strategic leadership considerations, given the plans of China, India, Russia and other spacefaring nations.

The class was largely unenthusiastic in the discussion of space being “inspirational,” images intended to create awe, or other idealistic notions. While they were considered nice, and not rejected, the students felt them short-term only in their effect on the public and so politically irrelevant. It was a government class though.

  • In order to ensure the sustainability of the space environment and space-based assets the U.S. should take a leadership role in addressing space sustainability issues such as space debris and frequency allocation.

Space sustainability — not screwing it up — was perhaps their strongest priority. Again, the theme was leading others in acting responsibly. This was the topic they came back to most often. “Why doesn’t the public know about this?” “Why isn’t the government doing more?” were frequently asked questions.

  • The U.S. should take a leadership role in increasing space situational awareness capabilities toward security, space debris and Near Earth Object (NEO) issues.

After a few slides on NEO “smashers and crashers,” and discussion on what could happen if one or more satellites were take taken out by debris collisions or by intent, needing to “know what was going on” was a consensus topic of interest.

  • Support development of an enforceable legal framework for the peaceful uses and regulation of outer space activities, including the goal of preventing an arms race in space.

The class saw no alternative to dealing with space issues other than on an international, cooperative basis. They were frustrated — as are many of us — at the ability of a few politicians to thwart efforts toward that end, often based on domestic politics.

  • The U.S. should support development of operationally responsive space.

They were unwilling to be any more specific than this regarding missile defense and space weapons. They felt their other priorities tacitly spoke to their preferences. The class did feel it necessary to include a statement recognizing threats that had to be dealt with — their concern was “how.”

I think the views of this class are important as they would probably reflect the views of the general public — if they had any knowledge base for assessing the issues and options. With lots of discussion within NASA and other groups about strategically communicating with the public about space issues, these views might be worth considering. Educating the public on the technical aspects of how space assets work is neither possible nor likely profitable — few people care about uplinks, the magnetosphere or millinewtons — but awe and inspiration will likely not garner space the sustained political support needed to achieve future goals either. However, educating the public about what’s at stake — that seems achievable and worthwhile.