Keith's note: We're only a few days away from the "Pioneering Space National Summit" here in Washington DC - an event only a hundred or so space people will attend. Yet the semi-revealed organizers of this event seem to think that they can come up with a plan for America to lead the way in "Free Space" (whatever that is). As I noted in my rant "Yet Another Plan For Outer Space" last week, this effort is almost certainly doomed to be irrelevant before a single word is even uttered. You see, space people just can't fight the periodic urge to stage these self-indulgent exercises in futility - exercises that matter only to other space people. The real world outside the meeting venue (such that there is a 'real world' here in Washington) will move on as if nothing ever happened.
Space people enter any discussion with the default notion that space is important because space is important. There is no alternate answer to them. Space is a niche issue. Pick whatever poll you want. When the 300+ million people who actually pay for all the space stuff are asked what things matter to their daily lives space is at the bottom of a very, very long list. Administrations weigh niche issues like space against these larger popular issues when they exercise their political calculus. Would it not make sense for this space crowd to do the same and factor in a reality quotient by involving voices that have not been drinking the space Koolaid for decades? Of course not. Why be relevant to the real world? Space is important because space people say it is important.
You can see this by virtue of who has been invited to this event and who has not (no I am not referring to myself). Its like choir practice in an echo chamber. If you down select the opinions involved in your policy discussion by virtue of including some - but excluding others - you get a more focused end result. But you also get an answer that is lacking far too much in breadth and scope to be taken seriously. Many of the people attending this event are probably showing up for the drinks and snacks. When you see an event like this emerge out of nowhere - with stealthy patrons and funding - you just have to know that agendas are at work behind the scenes.
One theme that is circulating among the people who have been invited are window dressing for an apparent push to get everyone to throw their support behind SLS. I wonder how many in attendance know that there are efforts afoot to sculpt this get together into something other than advertised.
Oddly, one of the most effective organizations in terms of generating popular support - some of it actually from outside the space wonk world - the Planetary Society - is not listed as participating. Other groups such as AIAA and AAS and the Coalition for Space Exploration were added at the last minute - much to the bewilderment of many who work at these organizations.
And who is the intended audience for the eventual output of this event?
This White House has two more years of their own space policy to implement or not implement. So whatever this event produces will be useless to the Obama Administration - indeed I have been hearing that this event will provide little more than amusement. And if the Administration ever does need some external voices to lend support to the direction of their space policy all they have to do is make a few phone calls and reserve the Oval Office. So scratch the Obamanauts from the distribution list.
Will the output of this event be of any use to the 2016 campaigns? Doubtful. Space has never been a factor of any significance in a national presidential campaign. This crowd is not going to change that. Besides, whoever wins the election won't even get around to thinking about their space policy until all of the larger policy boxes have been checked, and broader policies have been put into place within which much smaller things like space policy will be framed. In addition, when the new Administration does adopt a space policy - formal or otherwise - it will be a space policy of their own invention since (by definition) theirs has to be different than whatever was done before - regardless of the merits of their space policy or the one that preceded it. The Scott Paces and Lori Garvers of the next White House team already know what they want to do. So ... nix the 2016 campaigns.
Who is left? The aerospace industry is almost totally absent from this event. The companies that are most likely to generate their own space policies by virtue of their own impressive resources i.e. SpaceX and Blue Origin are nowhere to be seen. If this was important to the aerospace community you'd see them being far more visible given that they regularly buy $100,000 ads in the Washington Post for things that are far less important than national space policy. So ... scratch big aerospace.
Who is left? Who is the intended audience for the end result of this event? Why the space people, of course. Because at the end of the day space people like nothing more than to get together with other space people to tell each other how important space is - because space is important according to space people. It makes them feel good to have attended the pep rally to get ready for the big game - even if no one outside of their club even knows that there is a big game to begin with.
The "executive committee" (whatever that is) consists of Jeff Bingham, Mark Craig, Mary Lynne Dittmar, Jeff Greason, Paul Spudis, and Rick Tumlinson. They apparently have a plan to herd all of the space people in attendance into a room and extract a "basic SpaceMap for the United States" from them that will "identify strategic knowledge gaps to overcome for this nation to" ... blah blah blah in space. None of the better organized presidentially- or Congressionally-chartered committees with big budgets and formal mandates have yet to do this during the past several decades. How is this ad hoc group that appeared out of nowhere expecting to do what others have failed to do before them?
"So Keith, what would you do?" You see, I can read your thoughts. My answer:
1. Not this event.
2. Figure out the bigger picture within which space policy functions before you try and create a "SpaceMap" - one that includes input from people who could care less about wonky 'cis-lunar infrastructures' or 'flexible paths' - but who want to know that they will have a job and that their children's lives will be as good - if not better - than their own. Once you have a real world notion of what all of that is then you can proceed from that epiphany to actually tackle the issue of making space relevant and important in a way that transcends the space community's self-imposed universe.
3. Drop everything you have tried until now. It does not work. Blockbuster space movies affect nothing in terms of space budgets except to spur more blockbuster space movies. Telling people how their lives have been changed by space goes in one ear and out the other. If you cut NASA's budget to zero tomorrow would their space-derived cellphones and smoke detectors go away? Space people need to stop talking to other space people and talk to other people instead. You need to find a way that regular people as well as space geeks can personally participate in the exploration and utilization of space. When space becomes a personal adventure - or one that their children truly perceive to be their calling - then you will see people beating a path to Washington to demand more money for space.
4. If you want a "come together" moment that is supposed to represent the space community as a whole then it needs to represent the space community as a whole. Otherwise, call it what it is: a subgroup of a larger group that cannot even agree on the basic things it wants America to spend billions of dollars on after decades of arguing and arm waving.