The View From Here

The View From Here

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

Hau'oli Makahiki Hou! That's Hawaiian for Happy New Year. Having spent my holidays at home in the islands, you'll forgive me trying to keep aloha alive as we dive into 2008. This year will be as ripe with space-related celebrations and anniversaries as it will be stressed by political, economic, and technical uncertainties. It is a presidential election year, which means that political developments are likely to become completely surreal by the time they trickle down to us in the space community. Our space ohana (family) is going to need to hana pu (work together) to make it through 2008.

With the political mudslinging already in full force, it seems to me the best way for us to approach 2008 is with a simple, true, American message: Space is Good for People, and Leadership in Space is Good for the United States.

That's a very simple message, but it resonates at the grass roots level. As the presidential election has become polarized around a very few lightning-rod issues, it seems to me that trusting in the collective wisdom of grass roots America is, perhaps, not such a bad idea.

My home district of Ka'u, on the big island of Hawai'i, is one of the most sparsely populated and unplugged remote areas of the country. No high-speed Internet and only one (sporadic) cellular phone service. Yet when I "talk story" with my extended ohana there, everyone wants to know what is going on in space. What's happening in the universe? When will the International Space Station be passing overhead again? When are we going back to the moon? Will we ever get to Mars? What is up with the Chinese? What contributions are the telescopes on Mauna Kea making to our understanding of our place in the universe? Have you been to space yet, Elliot? When will I be able to go?

This is not so different from any small town. Take, for example, Galena, Alaska, - the Space Foundation recently visited Galena as part of a Space Week Alaska tour organized by the Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation. Aside from the obvious temperature difference (106 degrees as this is written . . . -32F in Galena versus +74F in Na'alehu), these two small towns have a lot in common. The population is small (919 in Na'alehu and 675 in Galena according to the 2000 census), unemployment is high, and kids don't see a lot of opportunity in their future.

Until you get them talking about space.

A Space Foundation team went to Galena as part of a weeklong program in November, in part to bring the excitement of space to Fairbanks-area teachers and students, and in part to talk about the global space economy to Alaska business and community leaders anxious to develop new business opportunities. It turns out that Fairbanks has a lot to offer our industry, but that's another story.

During the course of the week, our education team put on programs for nearly 2,000 students in grades K-12. We conducted a weekend-long teacher training workshop for about 50 Fairbanks school teachers. We held lectures for engineering, history, and Native Alaskan students at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks (UAF). And we presented economic data, industry analysis, and political context for Rotary Clubs, Chambers of Commerce, and the Economic Development Corporation. What struck me was the consistent enthusiasm for space activities, whether I was speaking to a group of Native Alaskan third graders in Galena, chemistry students or nanotech experts at UAF, or senior executives from the petrochemical and tourism industries.

Speaking in broad generalities, here is where grass roots America is (as measured in Fairbanks, Galena and Na'alehu) with regard to space:

  • Most people are extremely proud of what America has done in space. They understand that America is a greater nation by virtue of what the country has accomplished in space.
  • Most people have some sense that we realize tangible benefits from space, primarily in the form of high technology, although things get slippery when you start to ask for specific examples.
  • Most people think we spend a lot more on space, especially on NASA, than we actually do. They tend to think we spend upward of 25 percent of the federal budget on NASA, and they are mostly OK with that. When they find out we spend less than one percent, reactions vary from "wow, what a deal" to "that's outrageous and why-in-the-hell aren't we spending more?"
  • Despite the underlying base of support for NASA, there is a pronounced frustration that the U.S. isn't doing more, especially in terms of going places. There's acceptance that the ISS is a necessary stepping stone, but there's also a sense of urgency that we get on with it - and get back to the moon and on to Mars.
  • There is a desire to see more linkage between the exploration of space and the stewardship of the home planet. People understand that our knowledge of Earth has vastly expanded through our exploration of space, and they are very anxious to see our space programs contribute solutions to the problems of global warming, climate change, and protection from Near Earth Objects.
  • The space, science, and engineering communities get high marks for their stewardship of our space programs; Congress and the Administration, not so much.

What is most encouraging to me is that there remains a fundamental optimism and belief in the limitless possibilities of the American Dream when you talk to Americans about space. Remembering my own childhood years in Na'alehu, there wasn't anyone in my home town who had ever gotten into the space business, but neither was there anyone telling me that I couldn't do it. Na'alehu is an isolated place. It is 90 minutes to the airport and then a 40-minute flight to the nearest big city, Honolulu. Even then you're a five-hour flight from Honolulu to the real metropolitan areas of the mainland U.S. You get the same sense of isolation in Galena - 400 km as the crow flies from Fairbanks, which in turn is a nearly four hour flight to Seattle.

But these two tiny villages do share some things in common. They are heavily populated by disadvantaged indigenous peoples. They are economic "has been" communities - Na'alehu a mere remnant of the booming sugar town it once was, Galena a mere shadow of the pre-BRAC Air Force F-16 base that once defined it. Sleepy towns where not much happens, and there's not a lot to hope for. Yet, get in front of a civic group or a classroom full of kids, start talking about space, and see what happens. Once again, the world is full of possibilities. The idea that the future is what we make it seems perfectly plausible. And the idea that we should make the future bigger, brighter, and more opportune than the past still burns as bright as ever.

Visits to places like Fairbanks and Galena give us a great opportunity at the Space Foundation. We can integrate and deploy all our resources - education, research, analysis, policy, space awareness, and public outreach - into a seamless program that brings space down to Earth for entire communities. The return on investment for us is more than just a sense of "mission accomplished." When we connect with America's grass roots, we're reminded of the collective wisdom, optimism, and faith in the future that characterize our people. It is a rejuvenating elixir that stands as a potent antidote to the negative journalism and pusillanimous political punditry that permeates so much of the space environment.

The view from here is that grass roots America is right: Space is Good for People, and Leadership in Space is Good for the United States.

Let's start 2008 firm in that commitment, and unabashed in our commitment to speak that truth to anyone who will hear it.

This article is part of Space Watch: January 2008 (Volume: 7, Issue: 1).