There is something very American about the idea of a few patriotic heroes fighting off a massive and established foe bent on crushing their new ideas into the dust of history. Always in such tales there is a moment when the heroic band tastes its first victory — usually in the form of simply holding off a devastating defeat — and just in the middle of celebration the true extent of the forces arrayed against them becomes apparent as the enemy armies regroup and return to fill the horizon.
The “Battle for the Frontier” in Congress is at just such a moment right now. The rebel alliance fighting for the U.S. future in space barely held off those who would continue the ongoing failures to launch known as Constellation and Orion and other cost-plus government programs just in time for the summer break. Some “new space” and pro-frontier advocates have begun to celebrate. But the victory is only in the battle, not the revolution. This is merely a pause in the war of ideas, and those who believe in an open frontier in space must use this time well or prepare to lose it all when Congress returns this fall.
Yes, we should thank those who stood up for the future, many of whom arrived just in time to help turn the tide. From what I have heard, the calls and letters and meetings held by regular folks who see their stake in this really added up. And several leaders in the House and Senate, from Virginia to California, got engaged after the issues were clarified for them by their constituents.
It is important to keep educating the public, as frankly the administration of President Barack Obama didn’t do this well when the policies were announced, and as any campaigner will tell you, once you hand the conversation to the other side to be framed, you are in an uphill battle. One can only hope the White House, NASA and our pro-American enterprise, pro-taxpayer friends on the Hill will do better painting the vision that we in the frontier movement clearly see, but the public at large is yet to understand.
This is where the battle was nearly lost, as Americans have been programmed to think of space as a program of government, not the people, and of goals as destinations, not capabilities.
Initially the White House failed to address these two ideas and explain how the pro-frontier agenda would open space more affordably and more widely and allow us to go everywhere and stay anywhere.
The traditionalists and porkers were thus able to form the conversation and worked the media to create a completely false image in the public’s mind that the frontier was being tossed out the airlock. Allied with some famous heroes of the past who I must believe were simply misled, they launched a propaganda barrage about how the plan would end America’s leadership in space — exactly what the current space program has been slowly and expensively ceding to Russia, the Chinese and others, while we spent billions and went nowhere.
In the name of constituencies and coalitions of the comfortable, they used the cover of these false fears to slap into place so many conditions and restrictions on the president’s new space agenda as to make it little more than a gesture, and gutted key budgets such as NASA’s $3.3 billion investment in commercial space transportation — which would not only help kick start this new industry and open space for the rest of us, but also save taxpayers billions and ensure U.S. leadership in space development and exploration for decades to come. Ironically, those defending the old ways are so fearful of new space that they are willing to turn on their fellow Americans by buying flights on Russian vehicles but blocking the government’s ability to contract U.S. firms through 2011!
One can never underestimate the power of the status quo.
Those trying to work this new agenda into the old establishment from inside NASA and Congress face an immense task, and I celebrate them for even trying. Like today’s overseas wars with entrenched and zealous insurgents, the battle for the frontier has to be won cubicle by cubicle, floor by floor and center by center. In the end it too comes down to hearts and minds. Those caught in the fantasies of the failed programs of yesterday need to be shown that building an orbital industrial infrastructure that is not only robust but eventually self-funding and profitable means they get more science, not less; they get more missions, not fewer; and more astronauts will get to go to more places and stay longer.
So during this lull in the fighting, it is time to press forward — time for those who believe in an endless and exciting frontier in space to get the message out to even more who might join in the fight, and to neutralize what will be a tremendously powerful blitz to kill these ideas when Congress comes back in the fall.
In the next months, new space must show what it can do for America’s future, and Americans need to be rallied to support new space. We need to build on the incredible success of the Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Falcon 9 flight and the Bigelow Aerospace modules already in orbit and point out the other teams of people all across the country embarked on this quest. Let’s reach out to the Lockheed Martins and Northrop Grummans and ATKs and their friends in NASA and focus them on the far frontier technologies we will need to travel between worlds rather than on redundant rockets and lies about “lifeboats” that can be done better, cheaper and faster in other ways — some of them in their own shops. And let’s acknowledge those like Orbital Sciences Corp. and Boeing who are actively pursuing commercial human spaceflight — but could use a little help keeping government competition from killing their business plans as they throttle up for takeoff.
Let’s get the old guard of Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and the shuttle into the labs and factories of new space so they can see their legacy in the faces of a new generation. Let them and the public see this new revolution is not a story about a few rich playboys and their toys. It is about new jobs, new ideas and new hope for this nation’s future. It is about the boy next door who watches Discovery and builds crazy gadgets, the girl who studied math and science and is now one of thousands of young people who are pushing ahead into the frontier as a similar generation began to so many years ago. It is a story about putting down the computer games and remote controls as government employees “do space” for them, and stepping up and out as participants and designers of a future they can create and own themselves — a future of hope as this nation leads the human expansion into space.
And own it they will, one way or another, as the old guard will inevitably lose this revolution. New space simply doesn’t need them as much as they need new space. These firms are going to open the frontier, government contracts or not — although it would be nice if taxpayers didn’t have to waste billions funding a dying myth that instead could be used to help them along.
Just like those heroes who take on the odds in battle, so too do Americans like a good frontier tale. And that frontier is about to be opened, by the people of this great nation, with or without the support and participation of their government. It is, after all, the American way.
Rick Tumlinson is co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation.