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Beyond Buck and Wernher

a very rare photo of a Saturn 1B (Apollo 7) in full flight.

(this picture was included in a Time Life space book in the 1970s if you have a copy of this book please contact SpaceDaily)
The Spacefaring Web 3.08
by John Carter McKnight
Scottsdale - Apr 08, 2003
Space advocacy began a long lifetime ago, in the Depression-era rocket societies. Rather than progressing since those days, we seem trapped in them, endlessly assembling handfuls of local enthusiasts and dreaming of co-opting powerful financial or political patrons. To abandon old 1930s Buck Rogers dreams and Wernher von Braun tactics for a spacefaring 21st Century, we need new projects and methods of leadership.

The few modest suggestions below have two advantages - never having been consistently tried, they break us from the deranged pattern of endlessly repeating failed behaviors.

And rather than just copying the methods of the past, these tactics are actually designed to achieve our goal of building a spacefaring civilization. We just have to get past the slavish devotion to Buck's and Wernher's legacy to get there.

One of the most egregious failures of space advocacy has been to put to good, sustainable use the skills and energies of the people its polemics have inspired.

Thousands have read The Case for Mars, The High Frontier or other captivating expressions of the dream of space. Wanting to get involved, to contribute personally to the enterprise of taking humans into space to stay, they attend a conference or chapter meeting. There they find only two volunteer tracks awaiting them - burnout or bench warming.

In the first case, they learn that some crotchety old-timer is already doing everything in the group's defined mission. New projects, new opinions, fresh energy are an unwelcome threat.

The newcomer is invited to sit down, shut up, and ooh and aah appropriately at the speaker's pretty slides. If the newbie keeps coming back, repetition of this experience will quickly drain off that upsetting enthusiasm, transforming the eager believer into an unthreatening drone capable, in a year or three, of compiling the minutes or delivering a passion-killing presentation of her own.

In the other alternative, the eager neophyte stumbles into the revolving round table of Sisyphean maniacs, the group with a thousand simultaneous projects, all demanding about a hundred hours a week of effort per volunteer.

Each year perhaps two or three of the projects actually come to fruition, the others lost to email overload and adrenaline poisoning. After about six weeks in this group, our newcomer begins to remember trivia like spouse, day job, sleep, and the suppressed realization that the spacefaring millennium is unlikely to come before the repo men and mental health officials drop by. Real life beckons again and they flee.

We need to make better use of our people. The space advocacy groups compound their burnout and bench warming sins by forcing everyone into the tactical projects that worked so well in the 1930s, but not much since - Congressional letter writing, street corner leafleting and neighborhood stamp-club style meetings have long outlived their day.

Even more importantly, Buck and Wernher's grandpa tactics waste the unique strength of space advocacy - the intelligence, talents, training and resources of the extraordinarily capable individuals drawn in by the spacefaring message.

Any group that attracts science teachers, project managers, educated retirees and brilliant students in the numbers that even the most pathetic space society manages to do should consider those people its best resource.

Those people. Them, not their Maximum Leader, token celebrity or reprinted scientific-religious tract, not their traditional annual conference with its traditional annual speakers, not their doctrinal purity nor their achievements in alienating allies.

Rather, their inspired volunteers with their own goals, interests- and most critically, their own network of resources, from computer time to laboratories to money to friends. Not one space society encourages this networking of interests consistently.

The way to use the power of networking, to build out the Spacefaring Web, is to identify and maintain a wish list of projects that can be accomplished in a reasonable time frame, from three months to a few years. The organization should not actually undertake the projects as its own effort.

Rather, its job would be to provide leadership support and encouragement, using its contacts to pull initial teams together, intervening to kick out the narrow-minded drudges and balance out the life-swallowing maniacs. The effective organizer manages the team, neither dominating it nor cutting it loose to sink or swim.

Projects would include those marking critical advances in our understanding or ability to establish and maintain a permanent human presence in space. Science and technology would of course predominate, but there is much essential work to be done in law, marketing, finance, government and doubtless every other area of expertise.

The ideal project would involve a university as a key player, leveraging research funds, the university's fundraising and public relations mechanisms, student time and enthusiasm, and faculty publication needs.

The project would involve other key players, from the Big Aerospace manufacturing facility to the medical testing service, steel mill, agricultural research center, Air Force base - whatever local talent could be brought to contribute time or materials to a project with public relations or training value for that participant. Further, skilled retirees, especially those with project management experience, could contribute invaluable coordination.

Such a project creates innumerable constituencies for space-related work where none existed before. Suddenly the local law school is a space player, with its environmental law journal turning out a special issue on Martian settlement.

Ironworkers at the foundry are thinking space, spending an occasional Sunday working with the chemists on the closed life support system project.

A plastics manufacturer is thinking space, consulting on advanced spacesuit design. Local web designers are thinking space, contributing time to the project site for an autonomous rover team.

What began as a local hardcore of a few enthusiasts is suddenly a citywide network of inspired newcomers to space. Nobody's trapped spending their precious hours away from the day job staffing a phone bank, handing out leaflets or printing up form letters. Each is pursuing their own advantage in flexing their skills, but contributing real work bringing the spacefaring future genuinely closer to being.

The next step is to create broader networks: international university partnerships, industry-wide alliances. Quickly the bright idea and strenuous organizing efforts of a few - turn into a global effort - if you will, the Spacefaring Web.

Yes, this is simply the application of basic free-market economics to the market for volunteer labor. The ineffective old-line groups are trapped in the 1930s command-economy delusion - the Ten Year Plans for the government to take us to their pet destination, the Triumph of the Will exhortations to loyal Party members, the command-economy inefficiencies of Congressman-writing production quotas.

The rest of the world has abandoned these proven failures for the successful tactics of free choice and individual initiative. Perhaps it's time for Buck and Wernher to do the same.

There is, however, a need for real engagement with the government. Pre-modern neighborhood canvassing and earnest amateur presentations to local-office staffers are not what's needed.

What the space community should do is to follow the example of effective special-interest groups, using a professional, expert staff to lobby for laser-focused initiatives.

This professional team should pursue a few million for a settlement-enabling project out of JSC here, a tax break for private suborbital vehicle development there, transfer of space-related ITAR oversight back to the Commerce Department, and so on.

Each one of these goals should be chosen both on the basis of its innate utility and on its ability to build coalitions, leveraging the access and negotiating strength of other beneficiaries, from NASA centers to export-dominated industries, think-tanks, civil rights groups, environmental organizations, or other potential allies with more money or experience than us.

Many of the people receiving a demand for their time and energy for another Congressional outreach drive would, if they could, choose to send off a dollar or twenty to hire a skilled, connected professional to engage actually relevant Senators or staffers on one narrow issue that might make a real difference.

Denying them such a choice wastes their own time and takes business away from lobbyists who might like to contribute their own real work to the spacefaring cause.

Finally, the area where Buck and Wernher's consistent egregious failures most grievously hamper any progress is effective public communications. This particular dead horse gets a regular flaying here: suffice it to say that space advocates have shown astonishingly little understanding of the mechanics of meme transmission in the post-Marconi world.

We seem unwilling or unable to learn the basics of modern effective communications, and for some reason have failed to attract any real numbers of marketing, PR or communications professionals to the spacefaring cause. So, as with our political efforts, it may just be time to professionalize by hiring the talent we lack.

Short of the funds to hire an ad agency or PR firm, organizations might want to think of taking the chunk of their budgets currently poured down the ratholes of crudely-designed membership magazines full of stale articles, repetitive conferences, achingly didactic education-outreach efforts, and spend the money somewhere - anywhere! - else.

Sponsor a scholarship fund to send Board members, chapter leaders, even lottery-chosen rank and file volunteers, to communications seminars. Anything around will do - they don't have to be high-end professional workshops, just something to break the Buck and Wernher mold and introduce a few tested 21st Century techniques.

Send anybody but the Maximum Leader - who already knows everything anyway. Send anyone the organization has who knows they don't know how to communicate effectively to ordinary people. Send anyone who thinks it's important that their neighbor knows its possible to live and work in space, anyone who might be more interested in sharing passion and enthusiasm than doctrinal purity or thrust-to-weight ratios.

At the very least, a scholarship will provide a member with the opportunity to develop an interesting and useful skill - and as we've seen, virtually nothing the space groups currently do can claim even that. At best, winners will return with the ability to drag their organizations kicking and screaming into communications effectiveness.

Buck and Wernher did all right in their day. They created a compelling dream of what our future can be, a dream powerful enough to keep on inspiring despite the tactical stasis of their time-trapped inheritors. They moved governments and ordinary folks; enough to keep us venturing into orbit at least. But their legacy has taken us that far and no farther.

To build up - a real industrial civilization in Low Earth Orbit - and out - real ventures to Mars and beyond - we're going to have to retire Buck and Wernher's legacy, taking up modern means for modern ends.

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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