For those of us in the aerospace community, it seems glaringly obvious that space exploration is societally valuable. We can point to hundreds of NASA spin-off technologies, such as mammograms, fire alarms and artificial heart pumps, which are now critical to a happy and healthy terrestrial life. We can note the value of conducting biological experiments in zero-G where the influence of pesky gravity is removed. We can site the importance of visiting other planets for shaping our own scientific and philosophical understanding of our place in the universe. And of course, we can emphasize space’s Awesome Factor of 1000.
Unfortunately, we in the aerospace community are a minority, a niche. While we may consider the Curiosity rover to be an invaluable tool of investigative research, others easily regard it as a billion dollar scientific plaything wastefully diverting funds from essential domestic issues. It’s true that our society faces no shortage of Earth-bound problems: poverty, starvation, governmental corruption, ethnic oppression. So what gives aerospace enthusiasts the right to demand funds for exploring the farthest reaches of our universe? How does knowing the color and scale of a nebula decrease civil unrest here on Earth? How does sampling Martian rock increase our quality of life?
These were the questions I was faced with when I journeyed to Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. as part of Citizens for Space Exploration. Our mission: advocate for government support of human spaceflight. Our team consisted of 90 aerospace industry leaders and 30 university students from around the country (the students were not required to be studying space sciences – only to have a love for space exploration). I was representing the University of Michigan, where I am currently studying aerospace engineering.
After arriving in D.C., our team received a debriefing from NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. He explained the current obstacles faced by NASA in the political arena and his hopes for securing continued funding for the Orion/SLS program. The next day, we, the space-nuts of Constitution Avenue, would be unleashed upon the U.S. Capitol, speaking with staffers, Representatives and Senators about why space exploration would benefit their constituents.
Truth be told, space is not a blip on Michigan’s economic map. No NASA centers call Michigan their home, no powerhouse aerospace firms have set up shop. Instead, Michigan finds its economic heritage and backbone in the automobile industry. It faces the challenges of a state in transition, recovering from an economic downturn that left Detroit in bankruptcy, its unemployment sky-high, and its crime rate ballooning. With this in mind, how could I claim that it’s in Michigan’s best interest to support NASA’s trip to Mars?
Talking to the various Michigan staffers, I was stunned by the level of mystery and misinformation surrounding the goals and impacts of NASA’s various programs. These staffers were the “gatekeepers” of their Congressional offices, responsible for passing along only the most relevant and important information to their Congressmen. As proclaimed by their cards, these staffers often held the titles of “Technical Advisor” and “Science Consultant.” Unfortunately, these same staffers often had little to no background in the scientific community. One technical advisor believed that NASA’s Mars mission was a one-way trip, intending to strand the first-generation settlers on the Martian surface. Another believed that NASA’s choice to study Earth’s atmosphere was nothing more than a power play by liberals.
Needless to say, I was alarmed. How could these individuals, who did not understand the basic objectives of NASA, possibly understand its benefits? Thus, my trip to D.C. became less about advocacy, and more about education. I brought a paper cut-out of the Orion capsule to help with my explanation of NASA’s astronaut transport vehicle. I explained the value of taking gravity out of the equation in understanding the adaptations and treatments of the human body. I explained that, as a student at the University of Michigan, the lack of aerospace opportunities in the state resulted in a mass exportation of STEM graduates to places like Colorado, Texas and California, inhibiting Michigan’s industrial rebound.
When spelled out in this way, many staffers and Congressmen were amenable to, or even highly supportive of, the idea of human spaceflight. I came to realize that there is a gap, likely unintentional but nonetheless pervasive, between our aerospace community and the broader public. It manifests in the increased politicization and draining of Earth science research funding. It’s apparent in conversations with classmates that know far more about the latest Kardashian news than NASA’s latest Mars mission. It rings clear in the hallowed halls of our nation’s leaders that hold the key to directing our country’s scientific direction.
So where did this gap originally come from? I don’t know. I do know that it cannot remain a part of the status quo. For the survival and growth of our technical community, we must not only be engineers and scientists – but also translators. We must translate the importance and relevance of our work for those who don’t speak the language of spacecraft jargon. We must explain the value of reaching for the stars, and not assume it’s evident. We know that our research with CubeSats and spacecraft navigation and space-bound organisms is fascinating, but it is imperative that we show others how it is intimately integrated with our terrestrial life and values. For though our research in space may tell us otherwise, we, on Earth, don’t live in a vacuum.
-By Ari Sandberg, SEDS-UM Member