March 17, 2003 

An Interview* with Brian Chase
Executive Director of the National Space Society
* via email

Brian Chase recently took over as executive director of the National Space Society (NSS). The NSS has over 30, 000 members, making it one of the largest of the major space advocacy organizations. It publishes a bi-monthly magazine - Ad Astra - and holds a large conference every year, hosted by one of its many local chapters.

The NSS headquarters is located not far from Capitol Hill and the organization has always put a high priority on influencing space policy. Mr. Chase comes with strong credentials in that area having served for several years as an aide to Representative Dave Weldon (R-Fla) whose district includes the Kennedy Space Center.

X Prize
Brian Chase on a recent
C-SPAN TV program.

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.

Ad Astra
Ad Astra
The NSS magazine

HS: What exactly are the duties and responsibilities of the executive director?

Chase: I oversee the operation of the Washington office and staff of NSS, and execute the annual planning developed by myself and the Board of Directors. I also serve as the external contact for NSS to such groups as the aerospace industry, the media, Congress, and federal agencies.

HS: There will now be a big public debate over what direction US space policy should take after the Columbia tragedy. The NSS has rightly come out with strong statements in support of continuing a human spaceflight program at NASA and is sponsoring a petition to that effect.

However, there will surely be a wide range of views as to how that program should be structured. For example, should the shuttles continue to fly while the OSP is developed? The shuttles have become a nightmare in many ways but especially for space activism. They fly only a 3 or 4 times per year, are incredibly expensive to operate, and have killed two groups of wonderful people in spectacular public explosions. Hard to think of any more effective way to convince people that spaceflight is totally impractical and horrifically dangerous.

Shouldn't the NSS make replacing the shuttle its top [legislative] priority?

Chase: There is no doubt we have to eventually replace the Space Shuttle. The challenge we face is finding the right balance of investing in new launch technologies while we fly the Shuttle fleet to complete assembly of ISSóa task that can only be performed by the Space Shuttle. So we believe the right approach is to fund the Space Shuttle through completion of ISS, but simultaneously make serious (emphasis on **serious**) investments in new launch technologies. We also believe the Department of Defense should be a partner in that process.

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.

HS: If the Iridium/Globalstar/Teledesic market had not vanished, I have no doubt that there would now be at least two and maybe three RLV companies serving that replacement [satellite] market. But since that market did vanish the surviving companies have looked to NASA and other government markets.

It looks to me, though, like a case of a receiver wide open in the end zone waving his hands wildly for a pass but the quarterback doesn't throw it to him because he's not the receiver the quarterback wants to throw to!

Join the NSS
Join the NSS Now!


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.

NSS Roadmap
NSS Roadmap to Space

HS: In your Space News interview you said that you hoped to develop ties to other advocacy groups. Can you discuss this a little? Are you thinking along the lines of combined lobbying action on space bills of interest?

Could this also mean joint sponsorship of particular projects?

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.

When Wernher von Braun founded the National Space Institute (NSI) he saw it primarily as a way for the general public to influence space policy in Washington. It offered a magazine and encouraged members to write letters to support NASA funding but didn't give much else for members to do and didn't sponsor many projects of its own. Later the NSI merged with the L5 Society, which had much more of participatory approach with a strong local chapter structure.

How do you see the balance in the NSS of political advocacy, project sponsorships, and participatory activities? Do you believe the NSS's primary role still lies with influencing policy in Washington? Do you think that specialization among the groups is probably the best strategy?

Resources related to space advocacy & other topics discussed here

* Space Activism
* Space Legislation
* Space Law
* RLV News
* New Space Businesses


Chase:
You bring up a good point, which is that many groups have built their own niche role in the space advocacy community. If I had to design an organization up front, and the space advocacy field werenít splintered, I might say the best approach is to try to bring all of the various interests under a single organization. But thatís not the situation today, and I donít think itís realistic to expect groups to give up their role.

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.


Model for the
Phase 5-E AMSAT spacecraft heading to Mars in 2007 or 2009

HS: As proven by the enormous attention and grief shown for the Columbia tragedy, the US public continues to display strong support for space exploration. Such support for space, though, is often said to be wide but shallow. For example, there remains little support for a human mission to Mars.

However, even in periods of relative inattention to space, the surveys always find at least 10-15% of the public checking the "Increase space funding" box. This indicates a group of 30 or so million people who have a keen interest and passion for space exploration.

I've often wondered about the contradiction between this very large potential pool of space enthusiasts and the very modest membership levels in the NSS and other activist organizations.

Are 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.

Chase: I 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.

HS: This paradox of high interest/low involvement is actually what inspired HobbySpace. I decided that most people feel "alienated" (so to speak!) from space. That is, they do not feel that there is any way they can participate in space activities. They believe space is something only done by NASA and giant companies and that they can only be spectators.

I set out to show that there are in fact many ways that the public can participate both directly, via projects like AMSATS, student satellites, and space radio, and indirectly, via activities like rocketry, memorabilia collecting, space art and music. These aren't as dramatic as billion dollar programs but they provide people with a genuine sense of taking part in space exploration.

Tito in the ISS
The ultimate in public participation in space.
I really believe that Ad Astra, for example, could be a 200 page monthly magazine available on every newsstand if it devoted itself to these kinds of participatory activities.

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.


National Space Society

Brian Chase can be contacted at Brian@nss.org.