Pitfalls of "Traditional" Funding for Space Ventures

by Thomas Andrew Olson

"NASA's obstacle is not a technology barrier - rather it is a barrier of financial abilities. Space activities require decades of planning. Short-term constraints of a political agenda do not address this necessity."

-- Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, in "Roll Call"

To date, the only large-scale ($5 Billion+) funding idea proposed by either government insiders or independent space-advocacy groups (even those supporting privatization efforts) is what we think of as the "Government Funding As Usual" - or GFAU - model - in other words, attempting to organize sufficient political momentum to gain the extra public (tax) dollars required for human planetary exploration. The only return on investment for this public tax funding would be the technological spinoffs promised, in due course, to filter their way back down into the private sector economy.

This method of doing things might have been a reasonable sell to Cold War America in the early 60's, when national pride and national security was at stake. After July 20th, 1969, however, when the U.S. officially "won" the Space Race, the American public, inundated daily with media reports of domestic unrest, political corruption and the Vietnam body counts, rapidly lost interest. Funding was dropped for political expediency, and our first real beachhead in space was lost, not to mention the loss to science and business interests. Although long term improvements to individual living standards as a result of "spinoff" technologies were clearly demonstrable, the taxpaying citizen either missed the connection between them or was simply unimpressed by it.

Today we have a generation coming of age who has never known a Cold War. The current world situation and the U.S.' "War on Terror" notwithstanding, most nations in the world no longer perceive any other single nation as being a genuine threat to their way of life. As national security and pride are no longer the issues they once were, mass impetus for taxpayer funding of manned interplanetary exploration and/or settlement has flagged. The American lunar experience set the standard for "public political attention span" – i.e., 8-10 years. No other project or program initiated by governments of western-style democracies has managed to retain active public attention for anywhere close to that length of time.

The GFAU model is a "non-inclusive" approach

GFAU perpetuates two very powerful myths:

  1. The NASA-promoted myth of space as being the exclusive playground of a small cadre of highly trained techno-elitists with government backing, and

  2. The myth that only governments can afford to go to space. These are myths that we believe deserve a vigorous, proactive challenge, if we are to make good on our commitment to making the space frontier available to all who wish to commit themselves to its exploration and economic development.

The largest drawback

In seeking only government/taxpayer funding, space advocates are constantly doing battle every year with all the other agenda-laden special interest groups who have, in many cases, decades more experience at fighting those public-trough battles than space advocates do.

As an example: Most Mars Society members are professional people in the sciences, engineering, computing, or the arts, and have, effectively, little experience in hardball political wrangling (although they are getting better all the time). Compared to the entrenched social-agenda special interests, however, the space activist constituency is relatively small, and to date, not nearly as loud or as well financed.

All their opposition need do to overwhelm the space advocate's call for a renewal of a 60's-era "New Frontier" is to trot out statistics on falling U.S. education standards, photos of hungry kids and homeless people, energy delivery problems in California, corporate "mismanagement", and a decaying infrastructure. Combine this with a liberal dose of the words "national debt" or "entitlements" and it's all over. The opposition gets the funding, space does not. If events surrounding current space appropriations bills are any indication, the political will to make a manned mission to Mars occur won't be forthcoming either from this, or any future U.S. Congress in this generation. (former NASA chief Dan Goldin, in 2000, declared the agency could place a man on Mars by 2020, but NASA has neither the Congressional mandate nor the budget to do so.)

Ergo, to have a chance at the "D.C. game," space advocates would need to expend a disproportionate amount of their valuable resources on lobbyists, PR firms, and other consultants - with no real predictable results to show for the expense.

In terms of practical reality , politicians only respond to two things - dollars and bodies. If the Mars Society had 250,000 paying members as opposed to the 5,000 they currently claim, politicians would be more likely to sit up and take notice.

On the other hand, a large international investment pool, with millions of dedicated involved people, we believe, would actually have more potential clout in the long run than the typical political action committee, and through the backdoor, so to speak. As investors are naturally concerned about the safety and value of their investments, they would be more likely to take a few moments to e-mail their congressman, if need be, if a particular piece of pending legislation would be damaging to their economic prospects.

Does this mean that any sort of political lobbying is a waste of time and money for space advocacy groups? Not necessarily. It all depends on what you're lobbying for. If you're just pushing to get NASA a bigger budget and a Mars mandate, that may be a big uphill struggle, with no long-term benefits for society as a whole. However, if you lobby for legislation that makes it easier for market-oriented commercial infrastructure initiatives to grow and flourish, that's a different story entirely, as the society as a whole will benefit economically from the building of that new sector. It creates jobs and builds wealth.

"Special interests take care of the politicians who take care of them. There's one problem: most special interests thrive at the expense of taxpayers or the competitors that they're protected from. Most special interests don't want a level playing field. They want to fix the game so they always win."

-- Jo Jorgensen

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