This article is the second half of Take Back the Sky’s commentary on the recent poll discussed herein.
by Jeff Cunningham
Yes, you read that headline right: I am calling you out, questioning your geekhood, and challenging you to roll for initiative. I’ll set the stage, then you can step up if you’re so inclined. As Chris discussed recently, the University of Monmouth concluded a rather revealing poll (PDF) about the public’s attitude toward space travel not long ago. Before you ask, yes, they did break it down by demographics that include political affiliation, and there was no significant difference between right and left. So, just let go of those sort of thoughts right now. Nonetheless, the poll caused quite a stir online and in the world of aerospace. One editorial at Mashable was particularly damning in his remarks on what most have considered to be the most depressing statistic to come out of the report:
In general, even if Elon Musk or Richard Branson got down on bended knee and presented us with a ticket to the ISS, more than two-thirds of Americans would say no…Apparently we’d rather not trespass on “the high untrespassed sanctity of space” or touch the face of God, thanks.
Chris has already given some truly great insight from his perspective as an educator who works with the rising generations every day. Before I weigh in as an engineer, though, I think it’s best we go directly to the source, as easy as it would be for me to just rehash other blogs’ commentary. Here’s the actual wording of the survey:
1. In the 1960s, the United States space program spent a great deal of money and effort to land on the moon. Looking back now, do you think that effort has left society with longlasting benefits or were the benefits short-lived?
Most respondents agreed that the sacrifices that our parents and grandparents made in contributing to mankind’s greatest adventure in history continue to bless you and I today.
2. Do you think increasing spending on the space program today would be a good investment for this country or don’t you think so?
Increasing how much we spend on space exploration and–hopefully–colonization won out, if only by a narrow margin.
3. Would you favor or oppose the U.S. government allocating billions of dollars to send astronauts to places like the moon, Mars, and asteroids?
This question is really no different than the one before it, aside from being more specific about the intended goal and purpose of it all. This is where respondents suddenly recoiled and backpedaled. Interestingly, the proportion of those in favor of going out to specific destinations in the black experienced a marked decline by age: the older the participant, the more likely they were to oppose it. Any number of ways you could take that, I suppose.
There are a couple comments I’d like to make on this one before moving on, though. Firstly, I feel like the wording of the survey question triggered a very real fear response in people–specifically, the word “billions” tends to freeze any American’s heart these days, and understandably so, given the continuing state of the economy and unemployment and less-talked-about underemployment in the world today. The problem with this is that it’s not balanced by a sense of perspective with regards to NASA’s place within the United States’ national budget.
Yes, exploring space costs billions, but I’m not trivializing when I say it truly is a drop in the bucket compared to other programs that taxpayer’s money is spent on. The Government Accounting Office (GAO), the department that’s officially in charge of keeping track of government expenditures, reported that we spent more on air conditioners for our troops serving in the Middle East than we did on our space program in the year 2010. The following year, just as debates surrounding sequesters prompted threats of “government shutdowns,” the Office found that the State spent more on public television stations than on space (no offense to fans of Downton Abbey).
In fact, not once since the days of the moon race has NASA’s budget ever risen above 1% of the national budget. Most of the time, it’s been below one tenth of one percent. So, while you could argue or debate spending money on space because you feel its merits are lacking, no one really has any right to say that continuing to do so–or for that matter, spending more–would take away or detract from other programs at all. It certainly wouldn’t be felt by social welfare initiatives, which are just under one-half of our spending. Again, you can argue about the merits of either program all you want, but to say that NASA takes away from our Social Security, our healthcare, or from, say, defense spending, literally doesn’t add up (see what I did there?).
All the same, this statistic doesn’t worry me so much, because, believe it or not, this is pretty much the same as it was during the 1960s when a similar survey was conducted. Clearly, as history showed not long after, the more determined and courageous among us weren’t held back by a public’s collective fears.
4. How likely is it that ordinary people will be able to travel regularly to outer space in the next 20 or 30 years? Do you think this is very likely, somewhat likely, not too likely, or not at all likely?
This is also not too different from the prevailing mood during the space race–though the benefit of hindsight resulted in a slight increase from back then, now that the moon is proven ground. Again, public sentiment has never been a dependable indicator of future events, at least in this regard. Of more interest to me were the final two questions:
5. Do you think private companies and individuals should be able to build their own rockets to take people into space or do you think space travel should be left to national governments only?
I was pleasantly surprised and more than a little relieved that a significant majority of Americans responded in the affirmative, much more than I thought. Apparently, my prior lament about a risk-averse society’s tendency to restrict the rights of other, braver individuals and enterprises to take chances was unfounded. We’re not in any danger of outlawing private spaceflight “by the people, for the people,” any time soon. I’ve never been more happy to be wrong about people. Before you go thinking you’re off the hook, though, I’ll be coming back to this in a moment. What really got attention and made headlines, though, was the final question in the poll:
If you won a free trip on a private company’s rocket ship into space, would you take the trip, or not?
Here, respondents were free to ignore politics, ignore economical concerns, and were free to just dream. They couldn’t possibly have made the question simpler or used more neutral wording free of suggestion. The public responded overwhelmingly in the negative. Barely three out of ten would accept such an amazing free gift if it were offered them, and it has space-literate people everywhere throwing up their arms in frustration.
Before I give my own response, I should temper the discussion by pointing out that these final two questions encapsulate what is different and what has changed from the 1960s. The very concept that anyone but the government and militaries would be able to go into space without taxpayer money was so inconcievable that it simply never entered anyone’s mind, let alone entered public debate. I, for one, count my blessings that we’re in a position to be asking these questions in the first place.
Now, in a way, the fact that nobody would go into space given the chance is not surprising. If you think about it, exploration has always been unpopular. If you’re American and reading this, there’s a very good chance you’re descended from people who came here at great personal cost and sacrifice in a sense of desperation. When the New World was discovered, there wasn’t this sudden mass exodus out of Europe. Also, oceanic vessels like the Mayflower weren’t filled with first-class passengers, they instead carried a minority of the lowly and unwanted, people who were of the wrong church, people afraid of kings, all of them unwelcome in the land of their birth.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
—from The New Colossus, poem displayed at the foot of The Statue of Liberty
Just as brave souls embarked to colonize because they were rejected, just as many were rejected because they colonized. I myself am descended from a German family that over a century ago sought nothing but a fresh start and new opportunities in a new country–only to be rewarded when word got out in the village that they were leaving by being ostracized by their friends, disowned by their family as “traitors” to the nation, and excommunicated from their church.
In the mid-nineteenth century, history repeated itself. Those not welcomed in the cliques of the east coast of the United States, and those who just wanted to get away from the noise turned west and started driving, not really knowing exactly where they’d stop. (Mine wound up in Arizona and Utah. Thank goodness someone along the way had the wisdom to seek out somewhere less arid later on.) They were, for the most part, regarded as back-country hicks and rubes by their urban brethren for their simple, harmless wishes.
It’s one of many reasons I’m still so enamored with Firefly to this day, one of many things “they got right.” The settlers who opted for more wide open space instead of the Alliance’s gleaming cities are considered by the people of the core worlds as “uncivilized.” In their eyes, who in their right minds would turn away from developed communities, how can they not be satisfied with having the same culture and thinking in the same, “civilized” way they do on the core planets? They must be leaving because they’re stupid and savage, right? That kind of demonizing of different cultures no doubt fueled the flames of the Unification War, and continued long after Serenity Valley.
Thus, when I hear well-intended people ask, “Well, how can we, you know, ‘inspire’ people to like space again?” I have to shake my head. Remember, it’s no more popular now than it was in the 1960s, or for that matter, no more popular than the frontier was in centuries past, because exploration is by definition unpopular. That’s okay, though–we don’t need them. We don’t have to wait for a majority that will never come if we truly wish to go ourselves.
So, most of those of you who would, as much as the thought flabbergasts me, turn down a free round trip to space are probably simply very, very comfortable in your current lives right now. No need for adventure, no need to try new things, no special burning desire to go experience and find things out for yourself as opposed to allowing your conception of the world to be shaped by the “great cataract of nonsense” that C.S. Lewis called the media of his day (and what Mr. Universe termed “the puppet theater”)– and certainly, definitely no intent or designs on risking or sacrificing any of the many unprecedent comforts you enjoy to attain something higher and nobler. I have no quarrel with you. Believe it or not, you’re not who I’m writing this to.
No, my initial challenge is levelled at those who deep down in their hearts, sincerely want to go, but don’t dare say it or take the chance. I sincerely would like to know: Why? I wonder if it isn’t because these days, everyone is so downtrodden and discouraged that people doubt such things are possible.
To that, I say, you couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, not only have we witnessed the early stages of a new, second space race, something that isn’t making the news is that for the first time, space is becoming accessible to what Jayne called “working stiffs.” I don’t just mean people with lots of disposable income buying a joyride, I mean right now, anyone with a basic knowledge of electronics and is willing to sacrifice a few weekends can build a satellite in their garage, then have it and their experiment aboard it flown into space. As 3D printers become more widely available in educational institutions, libraries and private hackerspaces, anyone can teach themselves basic computer modelling from YouTube tutorials, then design and print high-powered rockets and high-definition telescopes. It’s a great time to be alive!
But maybe what’s really holding you back is that you don’t believe you can do it. On the one hand, I get as nauseated as the next guy by “you are special” pep talks. On the other, I saw firsthand as a teacher’s aide during my undergrad studies that our generation is very quick to simply throw up their hands and give up when confronted by so much as the slightest resistance in their path. Rather than simply persisting and perservering to acquire a new skill, we’re all quite complacent in saying “that’s for smart people” or “I’m just not a math person.”
That’s a failure not of a shortfalling nature, but failure by choice. That’s not what Browncoats do. The enduring message and theme of Firefly and Serenity is picking yourself up and continuing on in the face of loss, misfortune and failure. Like Mal losing all he held dear in Serenity Valley, like Zoe losing the one she loved and lived for, Browncoats never say “die”–certainly not before the fight has even begun! We live in an age of free information and abundant resources– the era of the Garage Space Race is upon us. You, sitting there at your computer or mobile device reading this, have one life and one chance to do something impossible, and it will make you mighty, succeed or fail, if you go all-in. I mean, think about it: With nothing but your computer, some hand tools, and the true never-give-in Browncoat attitude, you can fly the work of your hands in space, maybe even something that will take people there. Something that, not long ago, was the sole domain of governments– and, as Mal would say, “that makes them look all manner of stupid!”
After our campaign to ask Browncoats to write Elon Musk and Gwynne Shotwell, executives at SpaceX, to name their first manned Dragon spacecraft after Serenity, has run its course, I had one or two ideas on what to do next. One idea I toy with in my idle daydreams was something I call “The Browncoat Space Program.” Essentially, it’d be part video blog, part online class/tutorial, part open-source repository, a website or YouTube channel where I chronicle my own re-education in rocket science. Along the way, I’d post and freely share every last schematic, blueprint and diagram for everything I build, real hardware and projects that would empower any Browncoat to essentially found their own space program and lead an Independent rebellion out of their garage: Rockets of any size and scale, from grade school science classes to university students with nothing but a dream to get them beyond the Karman Line, a radio telescope made from upcycled components that rivals Mr. Universe’s setup and would allow you to hear thunderstorms on Jupiter, the aforementioned homebrew satellites (though you can’t take “Crybaby,” I’ve already called dibs on that), and, just for good measure and bragging rights, a fusion reactor.
I figured I’d think it over after Take Back the Sky ends with a successful launch party at Cape Kennedy, Florida, after I’ve gotten my household a little more established and secure, now that I finally have the job I’ve been looking for. After all, while tools don’t have to be expensive, they do cost money nonetheless. If, however, this is something you all would benefit from, something you’d all want right now, then let us know in the comments below or on our Facebook and Twitter feeds, and we’ll look at how we can incorporate it into Take Back the Sky. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and feelings.
Whatever the case, aim to misbehave!