OpEd: Sustaining the Vision for Space Exploration

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OpEd: Sustaining the Vision for Space Exploration

By ALAN LADWIG

posted: 16 January 2006
02:31 pm ET


I recently picked up a special edition of a business magazine devoted to space. I was struck by the opening editorial which observed:

“This is no time to overkill the budget for our space effort, despite dire difficulties that we face today. It would be an extravagance of unaffordable proportions to abort projects that must be programmed years before they can become faits accompli. It’s hard to argue that the future should share in a budget so dominated by a present war overseas and other pressing needs at home. It may be hard to argue, but it must be argued.

Our present bountiful gross national product springs from past years of research, profit and intellectual stimulus. Our future breakthroughs in knowledge will come from the exciting disciplines necessary to solve the problems that arise in traveling to the Moon and beyond.

The war will eventually end and some of the problems and pressures of today will be solved or dissolved. For a tomorrow that will be as relatively bright for the U.S. as it has been in the past, we must not shut up or shut down our space shop. To abandon space exploration, to ignore it, to sneer at it is to do a disservice to the long-range health of the American economy.

Our future in the brightest sense lies in continuing to look up, continuing to look out, continuing to probe for the pie in the sky.”

Space advocates have to love this kind of editorial. It recognizes other pressing national needs, but argues that space can help ensure a bright future. Even more fascinating than the stirring rhetoric was when these words were written.

It is from a special issue of Forbes magazine published July 1, 1968. Here we were, a mere year before the first landing of humans on the Moon and a sustained commitment to space exploration was already in doubt.

Fast forward 35 years to the second anniversary of the announcement of the Vision for Space Exploration. Will the current vision hit the same challenges for budgets and sustainability as the Forbes editorial described?

Two years ago I was full of optimism that perhaps this time around, we would significantly advance the exploration agenda. Given the capsule design and systems legacy for the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), we should be able to improve the ability to meet costs and schedule targets. We have public support. As the Gallup Poll commissioned by the Coalition for Space Exploration revealed, over 75 percent of the public is supportive of the vision.

However, given a growing federal deficit, the demands of the Iraq war and the need to rebuild communities following numerous natural disasters, we are beginning to hear from critics who question the timing of the vision and wonder if it is even essential given other pressing domestic budget priorities.

I have three specific recommendations that the space community should undertake to help build a firm foundation to sustain the vision.

Why explore?

First, we must develop compelling reasons for why it is essential to establish a base of operations on the Moon. For us true believers, it is unnerving to have to spend time to answer the question, “why explore ?” It is as though we have to apologize for our highest aspirations. Given humanity’s history of probing the unknown and setting out for unknown territories, is it not obvious that we are a nation that was built and prospered as a result of exploration?

On top of that, it is not like we are breaking the federal bank. As NASA Administrator Mike Griffin noted recently, the cost of NASA to each taxpayer is about 15 cents a day compared to 50 cents a day during Apollo.

Nonetheless, ever since 1987 with the creation of the first Office of Exploration at NASA headquarters, the agency has struggled to convince its critics that space exploration is essential to the nation and not an unnecessary indulgence or luxury.

I have had no more significant success than anyone else in developing the compelling reasons that will create a “eureka” moment for non-believers, but I am convinced that they lie in a mix of traditional rationales and in the realm beyond our normal comfort zone. At the very least, we need to expand awareness among the public that Earth and the Moon are part of an indivisible system and essential to our long-term survival as a species.

Initially, we will use the Moon as an explorer’s training ground and a science and technology factory. Before we commit to the extraordinary planning that will be necessary to safely land and return from Mars, we will want to learn to live and work in hostile environments for long periods of time.

We need to start talking about the vision as a means to address societal problems on Earth. One such example is the hope that space exploration will eventually contribute to renewable, non-polluting energy sources. Let’s see if space-based technologies can be developed to turn the long-held dream of solar power satellites into a reality for the transmission of electricity for use in space and eventually back on Earth. If we could come up with efficient systems to support the global energy grid, I do not think we would be stuck in the eternal debate of “what good is the space program?”

Engaging the public

We also need to look for ways to directly engage the public in elements of the vision wherever possible. As the large turnouts to NASA launches and to two separate X Prize events verify, the public has a thirst for direct contact with space activities and players.

In this day and age, I do not believe we will be able to hold the public’s attention if they are mere observers to the grand adventures of the vision. More and more we see that people support those things where they can actively participate. We need to identify methods to generate massive public engagement and make citizens feel part of the experience from the beginning.

Perhaps we can start by inviting public participation to recommend a better name for the Vision for Space Exploration — it has no zing! No spark! Think of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs — they were programs named after gods. The vision sounds so blase in comparison. And while we are at it, how about better names for the CEV and Crew Launch Vehicle.

Even Mike Griffin recently admitted that these are boring monikers for components that are suppose to take humanity on the next grand space adventure.

Let’s engage the public through interactive Web sites relevant to elements of the vision or simulations related to upcoming missions. We should invite them to physically and virtually tour our factories to see the development of spaceships being built. For those familiar with the capabilities of Apple iPods, give thought to how this exciting technology can be used to spread the word about the value of space exploration. If we do not engage the public in our missions and get them involved emotionally, not even the successful development of a widely accepted rationale for space exploration will be enough to sustain long-term support.

Adventure stories

The final suggestion is to increase our use of stories to influence the public. As a consultant to NASA once noted, in the history of humankind, only two things have ever changed people: direct personal experience and stories.

The consultant was Bob Rogers, an expert in the field of theme park and exhibits development. In addressing a Mars Architecture Definition Team in 1998, Rogers noted that stories and myths are “a deeper level of human truth by which we explain the world and our place in it to ourselves.” If you want to influence hundreds of millions of people and have a mega-impact, Rogers recommended that we become great storytellers. To become a great storyteller, you need empathetic and engaging characters frustrated in their attempts to achieve a clear goal. That certainly describes most of us who have been working on human spaceflight for any length of time .

Think of the early days of the space program. Leading up to the first Moon landing, the Apollo astronauts enjoyed celebrity status and routinely were featured on the covers of Life magazine. We followed “their own stories” and learned of the drama in their lives as they prepared for adventures in the new Space Age. We learned of their dedication and the sacrifice their families made for the good of the cause. We learned about their frustrations when success was not immediate.

And it wasn’t only astronauts that made compelling characters. Think of movies like Apollo 13 or the recent PBS documentary on Apollo 8. The NASA managers involved in these dramas were every bit as interesting and engaging as the astronauts.

Why don’t we ever see stories about today’s space explorers or managers on the covers of national magazines? There are two people orbiting above in the space station. Who are they? How did they get there? What are their stories?

Sustaining the vision for the next three decades through countless budget cycles and presidential and congressional elections will at times seem as daunting as the technical challenges that must be met. If you are satisfied with continuing to talk about trips to the Moon and Mars and show artists’ conceptions on PowerPoint charts, keep relying on the techniques of the past two decades.

If you want to continue to talk about space exploration, keep using terms and words that only have meaning to scientists and engineers.

And if you want to continue to talk about our future in space, keep showing eye-straining, mind-numbing viewgraphs when you talk to the public. Those things turn the excitement of space into the most boring endeavor ever undertaken.

But, if you want to make the vision a reality, help explain why the space program is essential to humanity and how it improves life on Earth and why it is worth the risks. Find ways to directly engage the public in your work. And, go tell a story about our dreams and aspirations beyond Earth’s orbit.

Alan Ladwig is a former associate administrator for policy and plans at NASA and now works for Northrop Grumman Corp.