An Interview* with Brian Chase
Executive Director of the National Space Society
* via email
After a short stint working for the United Space Alliance, Chase returned to work as Weldon's campaign manager and deputy chief of staff at the representative's Florida office. Mr. Chase considered running for office himself before deciding to take the NSS position. Mr. Chase trained as an economist and worked as a cooperative education student at Johnson Space Center during college. Upon graduation he worked at both JSC and NASA Headquarters before moving to Capitol Hill with Rep. Weldon.
Mr. Chase generously responded to my questions about space activism, space policy, the Columbia aftermath and efforts to replace the Shuttle, and priorities for the NSS. As a long time member of the NSS I appreciated this opportunity to sound out our new chief space advocate.
I've assembled here our exchange of emails in a conversational format:
HS: The space activist community is notoriously rowdy and fractious. Everybody has strong opinions on how to get humanity into space and the battles over conflicting visions can get rather brutal sometimes.
What drove you to jump into this fray? .
Chase: Like most space activists, I have been fascinated with space exploration since I was young. I worked as a NASA cooperative education student in college and started my career as a NASA civil servant. Iíve had opportunities in my life to see space policy from a number of angles, including working at NASA field centers, NASA Headquarters, on Capitol Hill, in political campaigns, and at an aerospace contractor, so I thought coming to NSS was a great way to blend those experiences together and try to forge a real place for space advocacy in the Washington political environment and to strengthen our international network of chapters and members. Itís not an easy job, but what we are fighting for is too important not to try.
Shouldn't the NSS make replacing
the shuttle its top [legislative] priority?
NASA has a dismal record of flying X-vehicles, which is a critical part of developing new launch systems, and DoD has a strong record in this arena. This doesnít mean we should allow the military objectives of DoD to override NASAís objectives, but we should not have artificial barriers that prevent the best minds and the best experience to be brought to bear on the challenge. The other problem we face is the choice of who should develop these new systems. Ideally, they would be wholly commercial ventures that avoid the clutches of government bureaucracy, but the commercial market isnít strong enough to finance that option. So weíre left with some form of federal involvement, and the task at hand is structuring the program to avoid NASAís failures in the past.
As to whether the OSP or some other crew transfer vehicle should be flown with the Shuttle, the answer is yes. We need the Shuttle to complete ISS assembly, but we also need to accelerate development of a system that can complement the Shuttle by handling crew transfer and leave the Shuttle to heavy lift cargo requirements. The next step is developing a next generation launch system that will completely replace the Shuttle and can serve as either a cargo lifter or as the first and second stage for the OSP.
For example, Kistler has its K-1 vehicle 75% complete and needs two or three hundred million dollars and two years to finish it. So it drives me a bit nuts when I hear O'Keefe and other NASA officials saying fully reusable technology remains decades and tens of billions of dollars away.
I just heard from Gary Hudson about the lost struggle by HMX, Kistler and a couple of other small companies to get NASA to fully back and fund the Alternate Access to Space program. The AAS was pushed on the agency by Congress and the OMB but NASA dragged its feet (and pocketbook) and it looks like the AAS will quietly die away and the money eaten up by the OSP.
After recent events, I really feel there are people in Congress who are eager to hear that we can do better than a $12+ billion / 7+ year program. How can we get the word to them that there are in fact alternatives? And if Congress does [manage to] push something like an AAS type program onto NASA, how do we keep NASA's feet to the fire so that the program doesn't die of neglect and abuse?
Chase: The Alternate Access to Station program is one I have particular interest in, and Iíve been talking with some of the companies that have been engaged in that effort. I do think we need to look at dual paths; while we develop an OSP-type system for crew, we also need an alternative for cargo access, which wonít be accommodated on the OSP NASA has proposed. We have an existing fleet of ELVs that can do the lifting, we just need a robust cargo delivery system.
The biggest challenge here is developing an automated rendezvous and docking system, but there is no reason we canít complete work that has already been done in this area. I do think we need to ensure the best and brightest ideas need to be brought forward for both OSP, and AAS-type program, and the follow-on next generation launch system. I will make sure NSS helps to promote the technology development that has already been done, and anyone that believes they have technology that can be rapidly applied to the problems we face should redouble their efforts to be visible to Congress in the months ahead.
Chase: As you stated in your first question, I believe the space advocacy community is much too fractured, and we have to find areas of common ground where possible. Iíve spoken with most of the space advocacy groups and weíre keeping the lines of communication open, and where we can find areas of agreement, we plan to work together.
HS: What about creating some sort of Space Advocacy Council or Association in which the different organizations meet to coordinate actions in areas of common interest? Many activist movements as well as industries have such broad associations, [for example,] the Space Transportation Association includes several competing launch companies.
Chase: That is an idea worth considering. What is required in those kinds of organizations is to find some measure of common ground, and if we can do that, we will be more effective. Iíll definitely consider that option as I talk with other advocacy groups.
HS: The major space advocacy/activist organizations have much in common but also many differences. The Planetary Society, for example, resembles a mini-version of the National Geographic Society. It relies on its membership base (~100k) and other sources to fund various projects. such as asteroid monitoring, SETI programs, and solar sails.
The Mars Society, while fairly small (~5k), is much more participation oriented. It sponsors a number of hands-on projects like the Mars Analog Stations that members actually help to construct and operate. The MS also has very active local chapters, who typically have projects of their own.
Some organizations will survive, and some wonít. And along the way, new groups will likely form. I think a more workable approach in the environment today is to form alliances, which is what was alluded to above. We need to find areas of agreement and work together in a concerted fashion to bring about change. Letís face it, even if the entire advocacy community and the aerospace industry agreed on an objective and worked together to change it, that combined effort would still be a fraction of the size of other interest groups in the U.S. So we have to form coalitions and alliances whenever possible to be effective advocates.
As to the specific role for NSS, I envision two key objectives. One is to improve communication among members and chapters, and provide new ways for those who want to be activists to do so. I am planning major changes in the NSS WWW site that will connect people together in ways not done before (or, to my knowledge, anywhere else in the space advocacy community), and we need to take advantage of Internet tools and resources to conduct political advocacy, work on projects, etc. My hope is that these tools will allow chapters to recruit more members and focus on projects that can make an impact in their community.
While there may be some specific projects NSS opts to sponsor, I also donít want to reinvent the wheel. There are some outstanding efforts and projects underway now in a variety of organizations (as featured so effectively on HobbySpace), so I would prefer to partner with those organizations and drive people to those projects, and likewise those organizations can encourage people to join NSS to take part in nationwide advocacy efforts. The second is focusing on the policymaking processóat this point, I think we will be stronger by focusing on our unique strengths, and I want to capitalize on that. NSS is the only space advocacy organization with a fully staffed Washington office, and I think we should capitalize on that fact. I do want to provide more opportunity for people to be involved in the policy and political process, because itís how our government functions in a democratic society. So my overall plan tries to balance the policy objectives with the strength of our chapter network to conduct real, grassroots activism and projects.
HS: When the NSI started in the early 1970s, there were NASA and the major aerospace companies and their respective employees and that was about it as far as a core space constituency.
Since then there has gradually developed a very broad and diverse "private space" world of dozens of activist organizations and small startup companies carrying out increasingly ambitious activities, all completely independent of NASA and the conventional aerospace industry. This parallel universe was well described, for example, in Paula Berinstein's recent book "Making Space Happen..."
We've seen companies like MirCorp and Space Adventures essentially invent space tourism with their sponsorship of the flights of Tito and Shuttleworth. TransOrbital will send a commercial spacecraft to the Moon within the coming year via a Russian rocket. TransOrbital itself was a spinoff from the Artemis Project, an activist group studying ways to commercialize lunar exploration. There are 24 teams competing for the X PRIZE. XCOR has built a rocketplane in preparation for more advanced vehicles. Elon Musk is sponsoring a new rocket with $50 million. And so forth. I come across new companies and projects like this all the time.
How does the NSS fit into these two worlds? How does the growth of the entrepreneurial space industry affect NSS advocacy? I could imagine a number of situations where what is good for the small startup space companies, may not be desirable for NASA and the major aerospace companies.
For example, rather than NASA designing vehicles in house and then choosing one of the majors to build it according to its specifications, the startup launcher companies simply want to get a list of general performance requirements and decide for themselves how best to fulfill those requirements.
Chase: I am a huge proponent of moving vehicle development and operation out of the hands of NASA and the government. The more private sector involvement, the better. NSS gets very little funding from the aerospace industry, so we strongly encourage competition; the vast amount of our budget comes directly from members. In terms of policy, I will always advocate for ways for private companies to play a larger role. The biggest challenge those companies face is finding a market to enable their business plan to close, and we need to eliminate government regulations and policies that inhibit or prevent their entry into the market.
HS: Yes, as I recall, the NSS played a big part in getting the Commercial Space Act of 1998 passed and that legislation is clearly friendly to small aerospace companies.
I would hope that the NSS helps in a similar way with the development of a regulatory regime for the nascent suborbital RLV industry (one of my favorite topics!) The initial steps taken by the FAA's space transportation office in areas such as test flight licensing look quite promising. Nevertheless, there are still a number of issues to deal with and my impression is that they really want a dialog with the industry and the public about them.
Chase: Yes, we need to ensure regulations being developed today wonít inhibit markets in the future. The FAA is an often overlooked body in the space policy debate, but they are working on regulations now that could impact space access for decades to come, and itís important to maintain an open line of communication with them. Iím always open to discussions in which NSS should be engaged, and my door is open to any company or group of companies that has a proposal for NSSí involvement.
you going to place a high priority on expanding the NSS membership?
How can you reach
out to this "silent plurality" of space supporters? Doesn't the effectiveness
of the NSS advocacy in Washington depend on increasing the membership?
Chase: Yes and yes. I agree with you that there is a large majority of citizens who support space exploration, and capturing their interest and involvement is critical not just to NSS but to all space advocacy organizations. The biggest obstacle is reaching those people with a message; the most effective means of reaching them, television and radio, is prohibitively expensive, and the next most effective means, direct mail, is not far behind in terms of cost. The next best option is via the internet, especially in our age of ever-increasing connectivity. My plan is to focus on the Internet option first, and that will tie in some of the changes I mentioned [above]
Additionally, I am planning some targeted direct mail efforts into areas with likely or known populations of space supporters in an effort to increase membership but, more importantly, to engage people in space activism on a broader scale.
HS: You might also start with NASA!! In Berinstein's interview with Wendell Mendell he said "You won't find anybody at Johnson Space Center who reads Ad Astra...at least at the higher levels." I believe this is true not only of NASA but of much of the space industry. I don't think I'm exaggerating to say that most of the people at these organizations are not [even] aware of the existence of a space activist community.
I also think you should look to the computer industry where I believe a lot of programmers secretly wish they were rocket engineers! The famous Slashdot: News for Nerds site, for example, is nominally for posting computer and technology items but the daily entries almost always include one or two space related items. Also, John Carmack, one of the founders and top programmers for ID Software, has built his Armadillo Aerospace into a strong contender for the X PRIZE.
I think there is a lot of such "latent" space enthusasim out there just waiting to be tapped.
agree, and one of the membership development plans I have is to go after
known (or likely) space supporters, which often translates into specific
geographic areas. Thatís not to say that I donít consider anyone not
living near a NASA field center not to be a critical part of the space
advocacy movement, because I want a diverse, nationwide group involved
in our efforts. But, at a minimum, we should able to bolster membership
from areas near space installations (both NASA and Air Force), so I
will be focusing early efforts on those regions. And then, as we grow
our membership base with those areas, it enables us to reach out to
other parts of the country.
For example, why not include a regular section on space memorabilia? (It could be edited by NSS director Robert Pearlman who runs CollectSpace and is a world expert on the topic.) How about sections on space inspired art, music and literature? How about regular sections on AMSATs and student satellite projects, space related software, etc.? Note that most of these topics would also attract advertising .
Chase: I am always open to new ideas for
Ad Astra, and Iíd welcome suggestions from your readers. My hope is
that Ad Astra can again return to a monthly publication, and perhaps
involve organizations even beyond NSS to provide exposure to a wide
range of activities within the space advocacy community. I think it
would be great if Ad Astra could serve as the standard bearer publication
for a large segment of the space advocacy community, and it would enable
the entire community to get its message out to a much larger audience.
And anything that attracts advertising is a great feature too!
HS: In an interview with Paul Blase of TransOrbital, he noted that unlike the ham radio community, which contributes generously to AMSAT projects, the space activist community doesn't really get behind space projects and help them financially. Of course, many hams actually use the AMSATs but don't you think he has a point? Couldn't we do more to help both the amateur and entrepreneurial commercial space projects get off the ground?
Chase: I think that would be great, and if we can raise the money to do that, Iíd love to help companies like that. But we also have to be realistic and ensure we are maximizing the use of resources in the space community. If we can become more cohesive as a space advocacy community, then we have more resources to use for projects like that. But I think it takes a coordinated effort, not a piecemeal one, to both fund existing advocacy efforts and provide funding like that. Again, the key here is working with each other, not against each other, and trying to find common ground.
HS: Thanks very much, Brian. Best of luck with your plans for the NSS.
Brian Chase can be contacted at Brian@nss.org.