Involving the Public in Space Missions
Federal agencies with science and technology related missions should pay heed to Amy Kaminski’s argument, made in “Making Space for Everyone” (Issues, Fall 2021), for more public engagement. I want to instill a sense of urgency to institutionalize public engagement strategies that involve people in substantive agenda-setting exercises specific to each agencies’ mission.
Many agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and the Food and Drug Administration, are arguably experiencing an existential crisis as their roles in society are rhetorically minimized. This public trust crisis has two origins. On the historical front, federal agencies have had a legacy of unpopular paternalistic relationships with the public. My research team’s work shows that resistance to public engagement within federal agencies is still prevalent in agencies such as the Department of Energy. On a more recent front, federal agencies have suffered pervasive misinformation campaigns, the impact of anti-intellectualism, and the political revitalization of purposeful bureaucratic sabotage of their valid functions.
Because of these dual sources of mistrust, one understandable, the other insidiously calculated, people outside the DC beltway are increasingly losing touch with the useful services federal agencies provide. Any positive messaging and relationships that agencies have with the public are dwarfed by the mammoth scale of contemporary misinformation campaigns—and, as Kaminski points out, by high-visibility privatized commercial ventures such as SpaceX that obscure the fact that they are in fact supported through publicly funded infrastructure. As a result, federal agencies are in danger of operating from a weakened position of action (losing credibility), defaulting to modes of self-preservation. Consequently, many Americans have come to believe implicitly the false dichotomy that an economically “efficient” private industry and a “dysfunctional” federal government are antithetical to each other.
Unlike private industry, with their profit-motivated corporate social responsibility programs, federal agencies have the advantage of coming from a standpoint of genuine concern. However, this disposition needs to be fostered within institutional cultures that have historically embraced technocratic approaches that disenfranchised various segments of the public. Examples include the US Forest Service’s fire suppression policies, the Department of Energy’s Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal project, the Bureau of Land Management’s hydroelectric dam projects, and climate change policy, to name a few. While most federal agencies have since made well-intentioned efforts to better account public concerns in their decisionmaking processes, the paternalistic façade remains as a default posture. And as Kaminski notes, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration may be an exception, but most of its efforts are generally motivated by a desire to safeguard funding. Only recently, with the formation of the Expert & Citizen Assessment of Science & Technology project (a group I work with), has NASA experimented with involving the public in more substantive agenda setting exercises.
Public engagement comprises a diverse suite of tools federal agencies have at hand to counter technocratic legacies and misinformation that seeds distrust. However, as the scholar and activist Andrew Stirling argues, public engagement must go beyond instrumental trust-building and self-preservation exercises. Substantive public engagement takes seriously public hopes and concerns and develops interdependent relationships that nurture a sense of public ownership of government projects that serve them. This will help government agencies build social capital and align with public priorities.
Director of the Science, Technology, and Society Program
University of Maryland College Park
“More than 600 people have now been to space,” the New York Times reported on November 10, 2021. The current global population is roughly 7.9 billion people. How do these numbers indicate that space is, or could be, for everyone?
As Amy Kaminski writes, “Being a space traveler, formerly the domain of military test pilots and scientists, has very quickly become not exactly democratized but certainly open to more people, the harbinger of a future where space could be for everyone.” I do not agree. “Commercial” space flight, for now, is open only to the ultrarich, or otherwise privileged people. It will likely remain so.
Kaminski continues: “The combination of public involvement and entrepreneurial ferment is an outgrowth of NASA’s commitment to public engagement over the last 60-plus years, which began with the agency seeking to show the world its wondrous achievements and value. This has included making people feel like—and eventually become—a part of the action.”
In my view, over almost 40 years of observation, involvement in numerous space-related efforts, and some considerable exploration of NASA’s historical archives, NASA’s public affairs/public engagement/public outreach efforts have been focused largely on building public support, and I do not see much evidence that these efforts have achieved what Kaminski cites as the agency’s goal of increasing public inclusion.
“NASA’s efforts were never centralized or perfect, but they were driven by passionate and creative individuals scattered across the organization,” Kaminski writes. This may be true. She adds, “R&D agencies can reflect on … their outcomes to understand how … public engagement can be integral to realizing the value and relevance of federally funded science and technology programs.” I agree, this work needs to be done. But I am not confident that NASA will do it.
I base my skepticism in part on my research for a paper I was invited to present on “50 years of NASA and the public” at the agency’s 50th anniversary history symposium in 2008, published by NASA and available free online (NASA SP-2-10-4704). I found that NASA was from the beginning, and still is, employing a propagandistic model of communication. While several “public” space exploration advocacy groups, such as the National Space Society, the Mars Society, the Space Frontier Foundation, and the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, have been engaged in lobbying for NASA’s human and robotic exploration efforts (mostly human), the brunt of lobbying has been conducted by the aerospace industry—which supports these groups financially and otherwise.
Kaminski claims NASA’s space shuttle was sold to politicians and the public “with a new socio-technical vision for spaceflight—one that would make space accessible and beneficial to a wide variety of people through the new vehicle.” This may be so, but did this really happen? “Putting that vision into practice meant recognizing more segments of the American public as resources critical to the program’s viability and giving them opportunities to play more participatory roles in the program,” she adds. Did this really happen? In my view, NASA’s human space flight programs, which consume at least half the agency’s budget, were, and are, more about politics than about public engagement. Political benefit is clear. Public benefit is not.
Consultant to NASA’s astrobiology and planetary defense programs