jump to navigation

Space Can Never Be Too Large September 17, 2014

Posted by craftlass in NASA, space.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment

I like space. I like things that are in space, and things that people send into space from our planet’s surface.

I like space agencies, both domestic and foreign. I like commercial space companies, new and old. Heck, this near-pacifist doesn’t even hold it (entirely) against the giants like Boeing and Lockheed Martin that they build all sorts of things designed to aid war and the harm of humans, because they also utilize their extensive capabilities and bank accounts to get people and things into space (and I’m not stupid, I know that weapons and deployment systems are necessary in our imperfect world, no matter how much I may hate that).

Space trumps almost everything, in my personal opinion. Exploration not only adds to our knowledge of the past and present, but is the key to our future. It goes beyond politics and current events or momentary needs and problems.

I also like the space community, a catch-all for people who are professionals in the industry and the space geeks like me who simply cheer them on. Most of my close friends come from this community and it’s the first one I’ve been part of where I genuinely enjoy socializing on a broader level. I’ve never been a big fan of large parties, but put me in a room with any number of strangers who share this love of space, and I will enjoy meeting and talking with pretty much everyone in that room.

“…Any chance to talk rockets, thrust, and issues
With someone who actually has an opinion
Even if we can’t find anything to agree on” – from Life of a Space Geek, by the author*

Now, as with any community, you’ll find various factions and cliques and fandoms (and geeks do excel at building fandoms, to be sure). These things naturally develop in social groups and since the development of what is known as New Space, there are more opportunities to build fandoms as well as more things to argue about. I know people who are staunch believers that only governments should be working on space exploration. I know people who think governments should get entirely out of the endeavor and leave it to corporations. I know die-hard fans of each company and government agency that has taken on the enormous take of getting people and things to space. I know people who think we should stop spending billions on human spaceflight and focus on purer scientific exploration, and people who barely realize there are planetary and pure science missions because they are so focused on human spaceflight.

I completely respect everyone’s right to their opinions and I’ve learned a lot by paying attention to the wide variety that are shared. Spirited debate is a very good thing.

But me? In the end, I just like space.

I look at space agencies and corporations and I see problems with every single one of them, some small and some major. The more I learn, the more I’m both disappointed and impressed. I also see that they are all working hard, in their own individual ways, to push exploration ever further. My favorite thing about New Space is that it added a whole lot more competition to the mix, which not only pushes each New Space company but puts pressure on more established companies to innovate. I’m thrilled that NASA can focus on getting humans further than ever before because the industry will soon be able to take over most of the goings-on in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), even if I have my own criticisms of each decision along the way. I’m even excited for companies formed to work on the possibility of mining in space, because that sort of technology not only applies to the fortunes of Earth, but will become vital to our chances to potentially move on from the planet that gave birth to our species. Money can also be an excellent motivator, and competition for it only increases the drive to succeed.

That said, I’ll admit I cried my eyes out the moment that STS-135 touched down, signaling the end of the shuttle program. What can I say? I’m just a fan of space and spacecraft and endings are sad even when they are ultimately for a greater good.

As someone who will never work in the industry itself, as I have no interest in working for a government and a lack of appropriate education for any position anyway, I have the privilege of standing back and watching the tales unfold. I can play armchair quarterback and spew my criticisms and praise without fear of it harming my career prospects. My only contributions to space are some quirky tunes like the one quoted above and an almost perverse obsession with talking about the subject with anyone who will give me a moment of their time, including strangers I happen to strike up a conversation with on the street or subway. Sometimes I also write prose about it and contribute to the podcast Talking Space. I study methods of space outreach for fun and to become more effective at it. I give out a lot of stickers and solar glasses to random people I meet. One of my favorite people at NASA, Jon Verville, once called me (and, yes, Jon – I heard what you said behind my back and I don’t think I’ve had the chance to thank you for it, so thanks), “The ultimate space cheerleader.” I’ll take it, because that’s the only involvement I aspire to.

The truth is, I don’t want to pick sides in any of these races. Once you go there it can be very hard to look objectively and critically at your favorite, or to see the good in the opposition.

I get it – people like to pick teams. I used to be a sports fan and still have deep loyalties to certain teams even though I rarely even look at scores for the major American leagues anymore. It seems to be part of human nature to pick factions, and we’re all just human.

Yesterday, NASA formally announced the two companies that have made it to the next round of Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) contracts, Boeing and SpaceX, as well as the levels of funding for each contract, with Boeing receiving a much higher amount. In my opinion, the press conference wasn’t very informative beyond those facts and I’m awaiting more concrete information before I react strongly. Before the press conference there were a lot of rumors flying around, some accurate, many not-so-accurate, and the only real consensus seemed to be that Boeing would get one of the contracts. Despite that consensus, there was quite a bit of fury over that selection, particularly from those who prefer new industry over the traditional players, and, conversely, from those who feel that there is too much blind support for certain newer companies. I’m not saying that people were and are wrong to feel that way, because that would be ridiculous, but the level of anger from some people ultimately seems unproductive to the larger goals, especially when you consider that there isn’t much that any of us can do to change what has been decided and publicly announced.

I was immediately reminded of an exchange I had at the first SpaceUp Houston in 2011. A panel of representatives from commercial spaceflight companies was held on the Saturday evening of the weekend, followed by a concert by yours truly. As I was waiting to take the stage I was approached by a man from Boeing (apologies for not recalling his name, I even tried to look it up but couldn’t find the list of panelists). He was wondering, “Bake Sale for NASA, huh? So how do you feel about commercial spaceflight?” My response was simple and is still true, “I am a proud supporter of anyone who can get anything off this planet, especially people.” (N.B.: these are paraphrases, I have a good memory, but not that good).

So, go ahead and feel your feelings, support who you like, and share what you think. Please level your critiques of the process, especially if you are an American citizen whose tax dollars will go to these companies, as you also have the (rarely used enough by citizens) right to voice your opinions to your representatives in the federal government. I would never ask people to be quiet about any of this, debate and outrage and excitement are the tools that the layperson can wield.

I would just like to remind everyone that someday this will all be a blip in the annals of space history, and don’t let your anger or support for any particular player turn into blinders or, indeed, into personal anger at your fellow space geeks who might have different opinions. If human beings are going to continue this progress, those of us who love and support these endeavors need to not only keep up our enthusiasm but find ways to spread it around outside of the space community.

In the world outside of social media, it can be a very lonely thing to like space, and this global community has made everyone involved grow not just in knowledge, but in the confidence that helps us to more effectively stand up for what we believe in. If we don’t advocate relentlessly for space observation and exploration in all its forms, who will?

*Life of a Space Geek will be part of a forthcoming album that I’m about halfway through writing, about the last few years of the shuttle program and the people involved in it. Sorry there isn’t a recording to link to yet!