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.
That represents the single most important qualification I have to write the essay you are about to read.
That means I am not a rocket scientist or an engineer. I don’t work for NASA. I am not part of the burgeoning New Space industry of private firms building everything from rockets to Cubesats to dreams of mining the asteroids. I am not in government. My day job has nothing to do with the space program – and has provided no support in the writing of this essay.
I am, in the end, simply an interested citizen. Probably like you. Nothing more. Nothing less.
For some, that will suggest no qualifications at all.
They would be wrong.
A truth that is widely acknowledged within the space community is that the American space program is starved for 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 his first voyage of discovery having planted a flag in the New World only to find upon his return that he was grounded to the Med for the rest of his career due to budget constraints. No return trips. No follow-on colonies. Imagine the dismay. That’s where we are today.
We can do better.
New tools are being created. The economics appear to be finally shifting. Bigger things are possible. What’s 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 my vote is not given lightly, reflexively or ideologically. It is a mainstream vote, beholden neither to the left nor the right. It is grounded in the common expectations and hopes for the nation in which we live, reasonably aware of the trends shaping the future our children will grow up in, and ever in quest for an answer to how we might create a new wave of prosperity for all even as those trends look increasingly uncertain, unequal, and potentially untenable. I’m as concerned about the future as most everyone else – and just as eager for a viable path forward and a new narrative flow that can support the American Dream.
Mine is not a vote that is cavalier about spending. It is a vote fully aware of the responsibilities of a citizen, including stewardship for future generations when it comes to running up deficits and debt. But neither is it 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 and we are a greater and more prosperous nation today because of them.
Mine is a vote dissatisfied by the governing ideologies of our time, which can effectively be summarized and reduced to two words each: Take Less; Give More. Both ideologies are stale and out-of-date. Neither 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 status quo from Brexit to Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders shows how desperate voters are for change and how willing they are to take big risks. Don’t let the 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.
According to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 76% of Americans believe their children’s generation will be worse off than we are today. (Source) Another poll by Pew Charitable Trust on trust in our governing institutions found just 19% of Americans trust their government all or some of the time and 67% think the federal government is having a negative effect on how things are going in the country. That Pew survey also found that 75% of Americans see Congress as having a negative effect on Americans and 63% have little or no confidence in the collective political wisdom of the American people. (Source: Beyond Distrust: How Americans View their Government, November 23, 2015, Pew Charitable Trust)
Think about those stunning votes of no confidence in our future, our governing institutions, and ourselves. 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 stepped so successfully. The political shocks of 2016 should not have been a surprise. But they were. Hindsight is 20-20.
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. That bolder future is worth fighting for. That battle has just begun.
Therefore, mine is a vote in search of a vision that resonates against a lengthy and growing list of challenges, a list that is crowded with urgent and morally compelling needs. It is a list that 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. And that’s just a start.
In that 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 wanting in the face of so many earthly realities. When you compare the desire for enduring questions and inspiring moments against the needs of hunger, jobs, and security, a bigger effort in space continually fails to make the cut.
This essay attempts to buck that trend. It is about what it will take to earn my one vote 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 realities and issues of the day, 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 and political shocks, we are still capable of that – and more. 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. We have gone nowhere as a result.
Yet, change is possible. This essay may fall short, but here are the stakes it is shooting for: A vision for an American 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.
Therefore, it is my contention that to be an outsider with just one vote to give is more strength than weakness. My one vote (and yours) – given reluctantly, mindful of the responsibilities of stewardship and the breadth of our needs as a nation, and considerate of 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 built one vote at a time.