A coalition of space advocacy groups mobilized their respective memberships to visit members of Congress in their home districts during the August recess in an effort to bolster support for NASA’s new exploration-driven agenda.

U.S. lawmakers face a jam-packed legislative calendar when they return to Washington in early September. Unfinished space business still pending before Congress includes: approval of NASA’s 2006 budget, passage of the first NASA authorization bill in five years, and revisiting a 2000 law that bars NASA from buying Russian Soyuz launchers and spacecraft that will be needed for the international space station program starting next year.

The Space Exploration Alliance (SEA), formed in 2004 by a dozen of the leading space advocacy groups to support the effort to refocus NASA’s human spaceflight activities toward exploration, is trying to reach lawmakers back home so that when they return to Washington, NASA is fresh on their minds.

“We thought it would be good for lawmakers to see people in their districts, not just the inside the beltway, who support space,” said George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society, one of the Washington-based groups organizing the August lobbying push. Other SEA member organizations include the American Astronomical Society, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the California Space Authority, the Florida Space Authority, the Mars Society, the National Space Society and the Space Frontier Foundation.

The congressional district visits campaign is the second lobbying effort organized by the SEA. In July 2004, about 75 SEA members descended on Capitol Hill for about three days with a single message: fund NASA’s 2005 budget request.

Whitesides said NASA’s budget is not in the same kind of danger this year as it was in the summer of 2004 when lawmakers appeared intent on denying NASA the nearly $800 million increase the White House had requested for the space agency. So this year, he said, the SEA’s grassroots lobbyists are being armed with talking points that go beyond calling for full funding for NASA’s $16.45 billion budget request. Lawmakers also will be called on to support NASA’s accelerated timetable for developing the Crew Exploration Vehicle, the agency’s plan to develop new crew and cargo launchers, and amending the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000 to permit NASA to buy the Russian hardware it needs to support the international space station.

Chris Carberry, a Boston-based historian who volunteers his time as the Mars Society’s political director, said space advocates calling on their elected representatives in their home districts have an important advantage over the paid lobbyists who haunt Capitol Hill: they are true constituents who can vote for them, or not, come election day. Carberry said that can make a big difference.

“When you talk to them in D.C. you are generally perceived, even if you are not, as a lobbyist of some sort,” Carberry said. “People speaking to the local office generally tend to be constituents.”

The SEA kicked off this year’s first of its kind campaign the week of Aug. 15, a rather late start, Whitesides and Carberry admit, given that lawmakers are due back in Washington Sept. 6.

Whitesides described this year’s effort as a good trial run, and Carberry said he is encouraging participants to keep pushing for meetings, even if they have to wait until later this autumn to meet with lawmakers during visits home.

“Needless to say August is almost done,” Carberry said Aug. 23. “We are not restricting this only to August or we would have a very quick campaign. We are going to stretch this on another month or two.”

Looking ahead to next year, the National Space Society and the Mars Society are hoping the other SEA member organizations will once again participate in the Moon, Mars Blitz. About 75 space activists participated in last year’s event, visiting more than 200 congressional offices in Washington over three days.

Comments: bberger@space.com