The visions we offer our children shape the future.
It matters what those visions are.
Often they become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Dreams are maps.
Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994
I believe the times demand new invention, innovation, imagination, decision.
I am asking each of you to be pioneers on that New Frontier.
John F. Kennedy, July 15, 1960
I have one vote to give.
That vote is my single most important qualification to write about America’s future in space.
That means I am not a rocket scientist or an engineer. I don’t work for NASA. I don’t work for SpaceX or Blue Origin. I am not part of the New Space industry of private firms building everything from Cubesats to dreams of mining the asteroids. I am not in government. My day job has nothing to do with the space program.
I am an outsider, an interested citizen. Probably like you. Nothing more. Nothing less.
For some, that will suggest no qualifications at all.
They are wrong for two reasons. First, my vote is potentially a good bellwether for your own. If that sounds presumptuous, I will try to convince you why I believe it to be so. Second, a bold future in space will very likely require a massive and sustained commitment of public funding that makes the Apollo era look small scale by comparison. To get that public money, someone is going to have to convince you and me (and many others) to vote in favor.
So, let’s back up and start with some context. A widely acknowledged truth is that the American space program is limited by funding. Since the moon landings, our astronauts have not sallied forth to conquer the solar system. We have been stuck in Low Earth Orbit barely a few hundred miles straight up. The reason for this mostly comes down to money.
Imagine if Columbus had completed that very first voyage of discovery having planted a flag in the New World only to find upon his return that he was grounded to the Mediterranean for the rest of his career – due to budget constraints. No return trips, no colonies. Imagine the dismay. That’s where we are today.
We can do better.
Now, it’s true that new launchers are being created. The private sector is innovating. The economics are finally shifting. Bigger things are possible. But what is still missing is funding and public will.
Funding and will come down to politics. Politics comes down to votes. My vote and yours.
One vote may not sound like much in the grand scheme of things, but in a democracy, votes decide everything. An aggressive, large scale program in space depends almost entirely on how many votes it can attract.
Why am I suggesting my vote is a bellwether for yours? Because my vote is not overly tribal or ideological. It is a mainstream vote, beholden neither to the extremes of right or left. Probably like yours in that sense. My vote is painfully aware of the many crises we face today and the long-term underlying trends shaping the future our children will grow up in. It is a vote in search of an answer to how we might create a new wave of prosperity even as the crises stack up to make that future look ever more uncertain, unequal, and dangerous. Just like you, I’m eager for a viable path forward and a new narrative flow that can support an American Dream for all us.
Probably like you, I am not cavalier about public spending. In just over 10 years, we have faced two great crises and we are still in the midst of the second, a global pandemic. The bill has yet to come due for this one, but it is going to be very high. Our public finances will be more challenged once this is over than at any other time in our nation’s history, since World War II and the Great Depression. Thus, my vote is keenly aware of the responsibilities of a citizen, including stewardship for future generations when it comes to running up deficits and debt.
But neither is mine a vote afraid to make big investments and big bets on the future. We are, after all, the country that made the Louisiana Purchase, built the Panama Canal, paved the Interstate Highway System and landed men on the moon (several times). There were once leaders bold enough to make these big bets on our future – either despite or because of the crises of their times – and we are a greater and more prosperous nation today as a result.
Mine is a vote dissatisfied by today’s governing ideologies, which can rather cynically be reduced to two words each: Take Less; Give More. While my bias is strongly towards one, neither truly offers a convincing answer to the issues of our age or a compelling vision for a better future. Nor am I alone in this point of view. The willingness to dramatically reject the establishment status quo in 2016 from Brexit to Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders shows how desperate a large swath of voters are for change and how willing they were to take big risks. At best, the U.S. election of 2020 represents a temporary return to stability. But it was so narrowly won that even this may not be possible.
Meanwhile, the underlying forces have not changed. The Populist pendulum is still swinging. Don’t let individual personalities or specific campaigns obscure how widespread the loss of confidence in our future has become. The numbers have been staring us in the face for the better part of a generation and the underlying trends continue to get worse.
Pew Research polling in 2020 found a dramatic collapse in opinion on how things are going in America with just 12% satisfied with the current direction. Yet, prior to 2020, in case you think these numbers are just pandemic driven, satisfaction in the country’s direction was just 31%.1
Likewise, a separate study in 2020 by Pew found just 20% of Americans trust their federal government to do the right thing all or even most of the time.2 But that was almost no change from a Pew Trust survey in 2015 on trust in our governing institutions. That one found just 19% of Americans trusted their government all or some of the time and 67% thought that the federal government was having a negative effect on how things are going in the country. That same 2015 Pew survey also found that 75% of Americans saw Congress as having a negative effect on Americans and 63% had little or no confidence in the collective political wisdom of the American people.3
Another study in 2019 found that 60% of Americans believe America’s standing and role in the world will be diminished by 2050, 79% predict American’s standard of living will be the same or worse (44% thought worse), and 65% believe political polarization will have increased over already toxic levels.4 A previous study in 2017 found just 37% of Americans believe their children will be better off financially in the future.5
Think about these stunning votes of no confidence in our future, our governing institutions, and ourselves. While 2020 is a particularly bad year, these numbers are not unique. They have been bad for a generation and growing worse over the last decade. What that tells us is that the biggest vacuum today is not the one in outer space, but the one at the heart of our nation’s politics and our democracy. It is into this vacuum that outsiders have been able to step so successfully. The political shocks of 2016 should not have been a surprise. But they were. Hindsight is 20-20. The election of 2020, however, merely cements the deep political malaise we are in and accentuates how polarized and angry the electorate has become, driven by an overwhelming contempt for political elites and the status quo.
I believe my children – and yours – deserve better. They deserve a future that is bigger, bolder, and more prosperous than the world we live in today. Not less so in every way. They deserve a country with a common sense of purpose where the divisions are at the edge, not cleaving our country down the center. That bolder, better future is worth fighting for. That battle has barely begun. It will be fought against the backdrop of a deeply divided and wounded nation.
Therefore, mine is a vote in search of a vision that resonates against a lengthy and growing list of urgent and compelling challenges. That list starts with better jobs, higher pay, and a pathway to higher economic growth and progress for all. It includes the need to educate our children, provide for our people, save the environment, and defend ourselves against hostile forces, whether nations or individuals. It is a list that includes racial justice and righting the wrongs of our nation’s past. And that is just a start.
Why raise all of this in an essay about our future in space? Because in this broader context, space is interesting, but the traditional metaphor of space exploration, the guiding paradigm and language of our space program for several generations, comes up terribly short in the face of so many earthly realities. When you compare the desire to answer ‘enduring questions’ and provide ‘inspiring moments’ (a set of rationales recently given for more space funding) against the more urgent needs of hunger, jobs, justice, and security, a bigger effort in space continually fails to make the cut. That’s the problem. That’s why the standard fare on America’s future in space results in a path to nowhere.
This essay attempts to buck that trend. It is about what it will take to earn my one vote (and hopefully yours) for a bolder and vastly more expansive program in space.
It is my belief that what I will vote for, being the tough grader that I am and grounded in the crises and issues of the day (and their long-term implications), may also be something many more would consider. It is, therefore, an essay about vision, will, and funding. It is about changing the game and connecting with the public at scale. It is about the boldness that America is capable of and the velocity with which we can pivot when roused or inspired. And don’t kid yourself: Despite the editorials and self-doubts, the political shocks and the deepening polarization, we are still capable of being bold and rising to the occasion. Perhaps more so now than ever.
Many commissions and experts have attempted to chart a new future for America’s space program. These efforts by experts and insiders have been detailed, thorough, and smart. But let’s be honest: Not one has succeeded in creating a vision that tangibly connects with the public, bends the trajectory of public will, or changes the course of Congressional funding. Not one has been able to cut through the noise. Not one would pass muster if pitched on a street corner in any city in the nation. We have gone nowhere as a result.
Yet, this change is possible. This essay may fall short, but here are the stakes I am shooting for: A long-term and sustainable vision for a space program that Americans can be rallied around and that helps answer some of the most compelling and urgent issues of our age paired with an action plan and strategy for getting the votes. A bold vision for space is not intended to be in lieu of acting on any of the great challenges we face today, from climate change to economic justice, but inexorably linked and causally connected. In this essay, I will attempt to prove to you that when it comes to political vision and pubic engagement, we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can solve the climate crisis and rectify our nation’s economic and racial injustices at the very same time that we embark on a bold effort in space. The truth is a great nation does not just talk about doing great things, a great nation does them – all of them – simultaneously.
Therefore, it is my contention that to be an outsider with just one vote to give is more strength than weakness in these challenging days. My one vote (and yours) – given reluctantly, mindful of the responsibilities of stewardship and the urgent needs of our nation both now in the midst of a crisis and tomorrow when the bills come due, and with a deep concern for the future our children will grow up in – is potentially the best qualification of all to write this essay.
The future is up for grabs. It will be created one vote at a time.
- _______, “Public’s Mood Turns Grim; Trump Trails Biden on Most Personal Traits, Major Issues“, Pew Research Center, June 30, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2020/06/30/publics-mood-turns-grim-trump-trails-biden-on-most-personal-traits-major-issues/#national-satisfaction-drops
- _______, “Americans’ Views of Government: Low Trust, but Some Positive Performance Ratings“, Pew Research Center, September 14, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2020/09/14/americans-views-of-government-low-trust-but-some-positive-performance-ratings/
- _______, “Beyond Distrust: How Americans View their Government,” November 23, 2015, Pew Charitable Trust, http://www.people-press.org/2015/11/23/beyond-distrust-how-americans-view-their-government/
- Parker, Kim, Morin, Rich, and Horotwitz, Juliana Menasce, “Looking to the Future, Public Sees an America in Decline on Many Fronts, Pew Research Center, March 21, 2019, https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2019/03/21/america-in-2050/
- Stokes, Bruce, “Global Publics More Upbeat About the Economy, Pew Research Center, June 5, 2017, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2017/06/05/global-publics-more-upbeat-about-the-economy/