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The space industry must reckon with America's politics

The space industry must reckon with America's politics
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Amid protests against racial injustice and police brutality in 2020, the United States witnessed the return of its crewed launch capability with the SpaceX Demo-2 launch

But as some reflected on the historic launch, space leaders recognized that such an event itself was not a relief for those affected by racial injustice and inequality. In the days following the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riots, some space professionals were relieved at being able to return their focus to their everyday work and to look forward to positive developments in space expected for 2021. Similar to the Demo-2 launch during the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, the space industry cannot pin its hopes on technological advances and engineering feats while ignoring the erosion of American democracy. 

As a community replete with professionals, including astronauts, inspired by science fiction visions of the future, the space industry must reckon with contemporary American politics. Technological and engineering marvels that have enabled recent advances in space do not guarantee a future society based on values, equity and ethics. Technological progress by itself does not ensure economic, social and cultural progress. As such, space professionals, and more broadly those in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, have a moral responsibility to stake out personal and professional positions against the chaos witnessed at Capitol Hill and the politics that enabled it. Space professionals must not only speak against America’s culture of misinformation and conspiracy, but also speak and act in support of facts, critical thinking, objective observation and the scientific method of discovery and learning.  

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Many in the space industry argue that space programs receive such strong bipartisan support between Democrats and Republicans because of the ability of agencies, such as NASA, to remain nonpartisan. Unfortunately, this mistaken thinking has been adopted and promoted throughout the space community. Nonpartisan does not mean apolitical. Space is necessarily political as the priorities defined for the sector, at least for the publicly funded agencies, require the use of advocacy and power to direct the use of limited and available resources. It remains naïve to assume that space is not affected by America’s politics, and that politics cannot be affected by space.  

Space professionals understandably may hold concerns over being perceived as partisan and supporting one political party over another. However, speaking against lies and the undermining of elections with conspiracy theories does not constitute partisan behavior. Arguably, speaking against the most toxic elements of American political culture and speaking in favor of constitutional processes are perhaps among the most nonpartisan acts one can take. Others in the industry may fear advocating on something for which they are not experts, or may fear invoking the displeasure of their employers or their public or private funders or those from whom they contract work. Corporate America, perhaps a constituency most sensitive to similar concerns, has rightly moved beyond these fears and taken justifiable action against those who fomented the chaos on the Capitol. The space industry, and those within it, must act in a similar manner.  

America’s political, social and economic order cannot carry on with business as usual without recognizing the existential threats posed by these insidious political trends and personalities. The space industry, as a respected institution and to which many turn to for inspiration and wonder, can help to deconstruct these dangers by speaking out and can assist in building a better and more robust society in the future by actively contributing to conversations perceived as “political.” The United States requires now more than ever individuals who can work and speak comfortably on technical and policy issues alike. Social media invoking questions around freedom of speech; automation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution affecting employment and the future of work; artificial intelligence and machine learning use in surveillance highlighting concerns over privacy — all represent important conversations in which inputs from STEM technical experts are required for informed policy debates.

Similarly, space professionals are needed on a range of similar political questions such as on access to space and for balancing corporate satellite interests with scientific astronomical observations, or ensuring space activities adhere to international space law while respecting national sovereignty. Although importantly in this moment, voices from the space industry are most needed to join the nonpartisan, albeit political, condemnation of the attacks on America’s, admittedly imperfect, democratic system. 

Space professionals must resist taking solace and comfort in their labs and offices while ignoring the political happenings around them. In order to support a future based on values, equity and ethics as found in the science fiction works that inspired so many, the space industry must collectively speak and take a position against the dangerous elements that contributed to the Capitol Hill attacks and which continue to undermine the legitimacy of America’s political system. 

David Lindgren is a space policy researcher based in the Washington, D.C., metro region and has published on topics ranging from international space law to the application of space activities for development. You can follow him on Twitter @djlindgren