Monday, September 15, 2008

Anti-Nuclear Activist Decides to Take On the National Space Society

Caveat: The opinions expressed below are strictly my own and do not reflect those of the National Space Society, the Huntsville Alabama L5 Society, or anybody else concerned that I'm shooting from the hip. I am, mind you, but I'll own up to it. My comments are in italics.

Here's a link designed to annoy me:

The National Space Society (NSS) is talking about building a "space movement." The organization is heavily funded by weapons corporations like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Honeywell, Northrup Grumman, Aerojet and others. About support from these corporate giants NSS says, "By supporting NSS, these companies have shown their commitment to strong citizen involvement in our nation's space program."

And just what do these aerospace corporations want in return for funding this "grassroots space movement?" They are asking NSS to lobby for massive federal expenditures to move the arms race into space, to fund the space technology infrastructure to put mining colonies on the moon and Mars, and to support the development of space-based solar power technology that would put centralized solar production in corporate hands rather than development of decentralized solar technologies on homes and businesses back here on Mother Earth.

Re: moving the arms race into space

This has been going on since the 1970s or 1980s, when the Soviets used a laser to "blind" one of our satellites. Somehow, when the U.S. decides to shoot back, it's always our fault for "militarizing" space. As witness the U.S. ASAT test, in response to the Chinese shooting down one of its old satellites. Funny how that happens.

In any case, the NSS is much more interested in sending people than weapons into space. I for one have no moral objection to my country of birth defending itself in any environment where its people work or reside, but that's another argument altogether. Regardless--our primary emphasis is on the peaceful exploration, development, and settlement of space. Many of our writings have suggested that the vast resources of space--energy, materials, what have you--might make everyone on Earth so rich that resource wars become unnecessary. We hope ardently for such a future.

As one NSS leader puts it, citizen involvement in space drives power at the Congressional "negotiating table for funding."

No advocacy movement worth its sodium chloride is without lobbying or voter education efforts. How much money do people protesting nuclear power have at their disposal? Our annual legislative "blitzes" are done by private citizens on their own dime.

Because of the growing budget deficit in the U.S., the weapons industry worries that space technology funding will take a hit. They are now moving to preempt that problem.

The space technology budget will take a hit regardless--there's more than the deficit to worry about. There are unfunded entitlement commitments ("Socialized medicine, dude!") that will send the deficit from the upper troposphere to the ionosphere in my lifetime. Space activities--military or no--are among the few things that are considered "discretionary," and thus subject to cuts. It's easier to face down a few hundred thousand scientists and engineers than a few million cranky grandparents in need of their meds.

With heavy funding from the industry the NSS is undertaking a "five year Strategic Plan" and "building a stronger Space Movement is a key component of that plan."

As my pal Jim Plaxco notes ably in the responses below the post, NSS does NOT receive the majority of its funding from corporate sponsors, nor are all of those sponsors are involved entirely in defense activities. And once again I must take exception to the author's automatic disparagement of defense companies as fundamentally immoral. They provide the tools that allow our volunteer military to defend this great nation of ours. The companies and their employees bear a heavy burden, and they know it quite well.

NSS says, "Recently, the space community has become concerned about the relatively low level of support for space among America's youth....In order to strengthen the Movement, additional emphasis will be placed on chapter development and grassroots organization. We will not only appeal to people via intellectual argument, but also to their emotions through the use of space art and other media."

Naturally we are trying to reach new audiences. I myself have written several papers and presentations on the subject of targeting specific audiences to broaden the appeal of space exploration messages. Heck, that's how I got my master's degree! Is that wrong? I think not.

The aerospace industry understands how things work. If you want to control the discussion and change public perception, then you must create the grassroots thunder. NSS confirms this by saying, "The media, the public, politicians, and historians all view something to be of greater importance when it is a movement as compared to when it is not."

So, what? Space advocates aren't allowed to advocate for space, but anti-nuclear activists are allowed to advocate against nuclear power? How arbitrary. NSS does not receive "marching orders" from Bethesda or Chicago. Our policy discussions are often freewheeling, strenuous, and heated, but they are NOT focused on who's getting money for what.-

And since there is not presently a "pro-space movement" the industry has decided to create one.

On the contrary. The National Space Society traces its roots back to the L5 Society and the National Science Institute, both of which came to being as grass-roots organizations of private citizens in 1975. L5 and NSI merged in the late 1980s to become NSS. Often the organization has struggled. If we were so much in the pockets of, beholden to, and funded by, these rather profitable aerospace/defense companies, we would have succeeded better than we have to date. Some, but not most, of our officers are employed by "Big Aerospace." We are doing this for the most part on our own dimes, giving of both our time and treasure. This is a non-profit organization we belong to, not another large conglomerate, for gosh sakes!

There is much money to be made if the public can be convinced that we should spend our dwindling tax dollars on space technology. The Mars Society says that the Earth is a rotting, dying, stinking planet and that we must move our civilization to Mars and that Congress must appropriate funds to "terraform" Mars. And what does terraform mean? It means turning the dusty dry red planet into a replica of the Earth - alive and green and habitable. Just imagine how much that would cost? Imagine the profits for the aerospace corporations to be given such a mission.

Yes, there is money to be made in investments in space technology. But there are also benefits to be had. The author is described as a Vietnam-era veteran. I'd venture to say that many of his comrades in arms have benefitted from medical advances derived directly from the space program. Subsequent soldiers have had their lives saved by "eyes in the sky" (satellites) or reduced the number of civilian casualties in a combat zone by using GPS-guided smart bombs instead of manually guided weapons.

As far as the Mars Society's suggestion that we're rotting, I'd take issue with that as well (I give my time and treasure to them as well--without a lot of subsidy from "Big Defense"). TMS believes that our species would be better off having more than one world upon which to live in case we're whacked by an asteroid or some other threat preventable by our defense industry. And as for terraforming Mars, I'd like nothing better, but that is hardly an aerospace activity only. Getting there? Sure. But transforming a frozen, lifeless, nearly airless ball of rock into someplace comfortable for human habitation will require nearly every science we have, and a bunch we haven't come up with yet. And jeez, man, can't you at least see the value, the glory, the greatness in such a transformation?

Space technology development is very expensive. Just one illustration - the International Space Station was originally supposed to cost the public $10 billion, but the price tag has grown to over $100 billion and it is not yet finished. By the time the space station is completed it will be an outdated technology and on we will go to the next round. Already the aerospace industry is working on the successor programs to the space shuttle and the space station. But in order to get these massive projects funded it must create a citizens base - a movement.

Point taken on the International Space Station. It has undergone many redesigns and partner changes, which have resulted in higher costs. But that was the nature of the process, not solely the technology itself. If ISS were to be used to facilitate commerce in Earth orbit and exploration beyond Earth orbit, then it will have fulfilled its purpose and perhaps even made a return on our national investment. A movement was not needed to keep ISS flying; congressional support was, and it survived its last fight by a margin of one vote. If Mr. Gagnon is so against ISS and believes so little in its potential, perhaps he'd like us to hand the keys over to the Russians or the Chinese when it's finally completed. I'm willing to bet that a lot more than NSS's 20,000 members will rise up to protest.

Some years ago I attended a pro-space development conference at Cape Canaveral in Florida. I went to a workshop on Mars where the speaker was the head of the tourist facility at the Kennedy Space Center. Why him, what did he know about Mars? His message was simple - unless we get the kids, who will be taxpayers in 20 years, to support these space missions to the moon and Mars, we are sunk. So, he said, we are doing a complete renovation of the space center tourist facility on a Mars theme and increasing our efforts to bring school children into the space center.

If you don't understand what it takes to interest and motivate young people to stretch their brains, I won't try to explain it to you. Suffice to say that a hands-on, interactive environment is precisely the sort of thing that might--I do not say must--spark the imaginations of young people. I helped develop a proposal for the Mars Society that would create exactly that. Even if the kids don't decide to become astronauts, they might become doctors, mathematicians, chemists, computer programmers, or any of a thousand other occupations that are necessary to maintain this nation's competitiveness and standard of living. By the way, who do you think will develop the next computer that allows you to blog? One might hope that it's an American.

On the other side we have the Global Network organizing international opposition to these plans for "everything space". We understand that we can't have social progress in the U.S. and pay for "everything space" at the same time. We are also hearing from our GN affiliated groups in Sweden, England, France, South Korea, Italy, Australia, Japan, India, and other nations that their countries are being dragged into the space technology game because the U.S. needs allies to help fund this very expensive new direction. The challenge becomes global as we try to hang onto our national resources to protect life for the future generations right here on planet Earth.

Ah. At last we come to the heart of it. Mr. Gagnon represents a group that is against placing anything nuclear-powered into space. This includes batteries for things like Voyager and Cassini, which have vastly increased our appreciation and understanding of the universe. It might interest you to know that one of the grassroots chapters of the National Space Society--to its credit--organized a counter-protest in support of Cassini when it was launched in the 1990s. And the world has been richer for them: the counter-protest and the Cassini probe itself.

Yes indeed, we do need a space movement. It's just a matter of which kind we need. And the real question each of us must answer is "which side are you on?"

This hardly requires answering.

If you want a space program that will only go as far as hyper-non-polluting propellants and batteries conceived in conditions of peace will take us, then you are restricting the human race to the Earth and the Moon. Mind you, there are solar sails and other "green" space exploration products that could be sent into space, but that hardware has often been developed by "defense" companies and other such suspicious characters.

If you want a space program that goes farther (boldly!) and achieves more, then you might consider joining the National Space Society. We support a peaceful, expansive, high-technology society of free peoples living and working beyond Earth orbit. And we might be just a little safer, to boot.

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