Opening up the space community

Some of my fellow space community members will at times complain that humanity just doesn’t get what we do and its importance to all of us and our collective future. They expect adoration from the general public without any effort, as though photographing Earth or the cosmos from orbit and figuring out how to survive on the moon, among other things, are such awesome endeavors that people should naturally appreciate them, support them and fund them.

The reality is that space, like other fields, can’t sell itself. We have to do a better job of welcoming newcomers to our community and helping the general public understand the many substantive public policy and other decisions that lie ahead related to space. The future of humanity and our planet depends in large part on our success at exploring space and using it for peaceful purposes.

Our domain of course gets some visibility in the popular culture through Hollywood movies and in popular music, though much of that remains centered around the glories of the Apollo era. There are still astronaut groupies, and one can still make a career out of going into Earth orbit and following that up with speaking gigs and writing about the overview effect. There are people who I care for dearly who are astronauts, and yes, their jobs are pretty cool. But it’s beyond ridiculous to idolize them, or anyone for that matter.

Speaking of which, I’ve been in the same room as Elon Musk on a few occasions. I recall in particular the 2017 International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, where he was scheduled to make a presentation one afternoon. The schedule was cleared before and after he spoke. As we waited for him in the speaking hall for hours, security prevented us from leaving and reentering, which meant we couldn’t go to the restrooms. When Musk walked on stage, he spoke about his plan for making us a “multiplanet species” with his “BFR,” which we now know as Starship. He updated us on the rocket’s architecture and SpaceX’s impressive launch rates. In short, there were no amazing insights imparted. I kept thinking about all the technical presentations that could have added substance to the conference during the hours when the venue was dedicated to one speaker. I’m still taken aback at how Musk is worshiped almost messianically by technology wonks. No doubt he’s responsible for making great and significantly impactful contributions to humanity, such as sparking the electric car market and cutting the cost of space launch through reusability. Bravo. But his Twitter account shows that he is not perfect. At the end of the day, he is human like the rest of us, with both shadow and light within.

I raise the examples of astronauts and Musk because hero worship will do nothing to ensure the environmentally sustainable, peaceful use of outer space. We need to find creative ways to bring more talent into our community, and to conduct education and outreach that manages to bring substantive issues to the public consciousness.

Regarding space community conferences and symposia, we need to work harder to lower registration costs for students. The International Academy of Astronautics in Sweden has partnered with the University of Texas at Austin, where I teach, to host an annual Space Traffic Management Conference here. We charge students 1 euro, and the cost to non-students is 100 euros. I understand that not all conferences can be delivered at this price point, but surely they can do better for students. Our goal must be accessibility, not exclusivity. And once we get people to an event, we need to be welcoming. Right now, there’s no shortage of hubris and elitism in the space community. I’ve witnessed folks turn an upward nose to people unless they have some scientific or engineering background, or credentials from having worked for certain companies or organizations.

Knowing that space is about humanity, I work hard to not act like a member of an exclusive club. I’ve given talks at law firms and to realtor groups about the problems we face in space environmentalism and sustainability, and why those are really their problems too. Interestingly, I’ve had colleagues question me about engaging with these non-space people, telling me that I am wasting my time.

Also, when we do outreach, we should avoid exclusively targeting people and kids who don’t need it, such as those who are members of STEM groups and kids at magnet schools. These kids don’t require much convincing. Alternatively, I’d love to see organizations get more Black, Indigenous and Latinx people and other underrepresented populations into the space community. Instead, I see organizations that go no further than posting on their website about how much they care about diversity, equity and inclusion. Or in their internship postings, they will encourage these underrepresented groups to apply. This is grossly insufficient, and suggests a lack of awareness and even an absence of true desire to make space equitable to the masses. Better would be to go to the communities of people they wish to recruit and work with them directly to make it easy for them to participate and be engaged — and even hard to say no. This means participating in their schools and after school programs, helping parents offset the burden of child care so that their kids can attend special programs.

Overall, it’s time that we set aside hero worshipping and our elitism, and make it our cause to normalize and demystify space for the public and broaden our community. The future of our species and our planet depends on it. 

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About Moriba Jah

Moriba Jah is an astrodynamicist, space environmentalist and associate professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at the University of Texas at Austin. An AIAA fellow and MacArthur fellow, he’s also chief scientist of startup Privateer Space.

Opening up the space community