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A Challenge To Space Leadership

For the first time since the 1986 Challenger disaster, Congress and the White House are open to the prospect of a real transformation of space policy.
The Spacefaring Web 3.04

by John Carter McKnight
Scottsdale - Feb 12, 2003
Advocates of real human space exploration are doomed to impotence and irrelevance. Crippled by petty infighting, slaves to personality cults, disorganized and rudderless, the space community is incapable of acting to change the American public agenda. I challenge the leadership of the space movement: Prove me wrong. Organize to make a difference now.

For the first time since the 1986 Challenger disaster, Congress and the White House are open to the prospect of a real transformation of space policy. Thirty years of benign neglect of NASA's status-quo drift might end. We could take the firsts substantial steps out of manned spaceflight force-in-being maintenance and into exploration. We might actually be poised to leave the cradle.

Or the sleeping dragon of spacefaring may snort once or twice, shift about a bit, and return to its generation-long nap.

What will shape the outcome? Not the return of Camelot, not a spiritual conversion to that old-time space religion by a benevolent emperor, two favorite dreams of the sleeping dragon. Odd, that a community grounded in science would cling so to wishful thinking and sympathetic magic, when the answer lies in simple physics. Politics, as much as rocketry, is shaped by basic equations of power.

Congress is like any object: it will remain at rest unless acted on by an outside force. Force, as I recall from freshman physics, equals mass times acceleration. Political change is effected when masses move into action.

As the classic primer on political action, Saul Alinsky's Rules For Radicals, puts it, "[c]hange comes from power, and power comes from organization. In order to act, people must get together. Power is the reason for being of organizations…. Power and organization are one and the same." There are so many space organizations - surely that's a sign of power?

Well, no. There are a number of space constituencies, advocacy groups, and communities of interest - but not enough organization for a neatly-kept pencil box. The consequence? No power, no force - no change.

We've been down this road before. Less than five months after the Challenger disaster, President Reagan's National Commission on Space issued a report so bold, so clearheaded, so comprehensive and radical as to overwhelm the modern imagination. Pioneering The Space Frontier - no less! - begins by defining a mission

"to lead the exploration and development of the space frontier, advancing science, technology and enterprise, and building institutions and systems that make accessible vast new resources and support human settlements beyond Earth orbit, from the highlands of the Moon to the plains of Mars."

It builds from there: that's about the most timid sentence in two hundred astonishing pages. Quite unexpected from the standard-issue pabulum-generating blue-ribbon panel drawn from Washington's usual suspects, the Iron Triangle of industrialists, lobbyists and public officials. But nothing came of the commission's bold, logical agenda for space development.

Why? Politics, the space community moaned. Physics, if the truth be told. No mass, no acceleration, so no force for change.

Still trapped in Industrial Age passivity, expecting the technocratic nanny state to provide for it, the space community let its own inertia prove up Newton's First Law: Congress, unacted upon by sufficient force, remained at rest.

The only thing different today is that some of the space movement's leaders are dead, while others, still in power within their organizations, are older. I leave it to medical experts to determine the difference. In practice, there is none. If the leaders of the space organizations formed a pickup band, they could call it "Maximum Entropy."

The mass is there. Polls continue to show a latent support for humans in space, even for continuing the projects that nobody cares about until a disaster occurs, the Shuttle and the International Space Station. In the aftermath of Columbia's loss, new voices have been heard in the op-ed columns of and in local newspapers around the country. The Mars Society - San Diego ( is in the midst of a media blitz of unparalleled professionalism, with a positive, inspirational message of ordinary folks taking responsibility for the future and moving into real action. The talent, enthusiasm and passion are there. But we're solo warriors rather than an army. We're not organized.

Alinsky drew a distinction between leaders and organizers. "The leader," he claimed, "is driven by the desire for power, while the organizer is driven by the desire to create." The leader is certain that he holds absolute truth. The organizer, knowing that "dogma is the enemy of human freedom," seeks "the conversion of hot, emotional, impulsive passions that are impotent and frustrating to actions that will be calculated, purposeful and effective." The organizer turns potential energy into work, expending it to produce change.

Leaders the space movement has aplenty. Organizers? Not a one, though their bodies can be found littering the roadside to the space frontier - recognizable by the leader-sized bootprints on their backs.

This is why, without exception, I've been told that real change in the aftermath of Columbia's loss is impossible. What we lack in momentum we make up in small-mindedness. We may not have a common agenda, but we do own well-defended sandboxes and rice bowls.

One grim observer adds that political influence requires money, the sort of vast contributions that are routine expenses for space-defense contractors seeking refuge in viewgraph engineering from unfair demands to produce flight hardware.

We don't get off the hook so easily, though. Space advocates are primarily well-educated suburban professionals, with more resources than most in America. Yet many of our most effective political forces lack these advantages: drawing heavily from rural or inner-city residents, or from people with lower incomes or educational levels, gun owners, religious conservatives, opponents of abortion rights, open immigration, biotechnology or free trade dominate American politics - because they can organize.

These groups know their physics better than we do: they can assemble mass and accelerate it, turning the potential energy of the powerless into work for change.

We sit and wait while our leaders posture, wondering why we haven't left Earth orbit in thirty years. We deserve to stay in the cradle of mankind: we lack the independence and gumption to leave.

You - you, the officers and directors of the space advocacy groups. You, the veteran space journalists. You, the pundits and academicians, the notable and quoted. You, the veteran chapter members and NASA project managers. You, who were at conferences with Sagan and O'Neill, Heinlein, Von Braun. You, who're personally offended by this indictment of your imagined leadership abilities. Yes, you. Get up and prove me wrong.

Give up the petty factionalism that would make a Hezbollah militiaman blush. Toss out the canned speeches and faded viewgraphs that predate the first Bush administration. Kick down your battlements of dogma. Abandon your inflated membership statistics, your pretensions of relevance and effectiveness. Organize.

Stop preaching to your choirs and start talking to ordinary folks. Tell the truth in clear, direct language: we need to build outward into space to stay, now.

Go on now, prove me wrong. Because the next time we lose a shuttle, nobody's going to give you another chance.

The Spacefaring Web is a biweekly column © 2002 by John Carter McKnight, an Advocate of the Space Frontier Foundation ( ) Views expressed herein are strictly the author's and do not necessarily represent Foundation policy. Contact the author at

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