Communication is culture, says Dr. Linda Billings, an expert in social science and space outreach. So what culture is summed by the types of space advocacy that call for pioneering, colonization and conquest of nature? Linda talks about the importance of language and context when advocating for space, and how we should consider other cultural values and frameworks for effective public engagement.
Related Reading and References:
- Linda Billings’ Blog
- Ideology, advocacy, and space flight — evolution of a cultural narrative, by Linda Billings, Chapter 25 of Societal Impacts of Space Flight, published by NASA's History Office
- The public impact of planetary science, by Linda Billings
- Earth, life, space: the social construction of the biosphere and its expansion into the solar system and beyond, by Linda Billings
- How SpaceX's Starship helps NASA reach Mars
- Sign up for the Space Advocate monthly newsletter
Mat Kaplan: Welcome everyone to the September, 2021, Space Policy Edition with Planetary Radio. We are very glad to have you back. I'm Mat Kaplan, the host of Planetary Radio. The weekly show joined as always for this monthly SPE by Casey Dreier, who is the chief advocate for The Planetary Society and our senior space policy advisor. Casey, welcome.
Casey Dreier: Hey Mat, happy to be here on the very last show of the fiscal year 2021, which turns over in October.
Mat Kaplan: Both for the federal government and for The Planetary Society. It has a significance for us on at least a couple of levels.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. Happy new year, next month. Accountants everywhere will be relieved.
Mat Kaplan: We made it through, I think, I think we're going to make it through, in fact The Planetary Society, we may be in a steadier state there than we know of what's going on with the federal government with so much up in the air. Particularly with the reconciliation bill that is the follow-on to the infrastructure bill that's made it through. I almost said squeaked through the Senate, but it actually was better than squeaking through, wasn't it?
Casey Dreier: Oh yeah. One of the most bipartisan bills in a while, people love infrastructure. Unfortunately NASA did not get any money in that version of the bill, could still change, it's at the house now, along with this larger reconciliation budget bill that notably does not need bipartisan support to pass. And so it's one of the many things in the air right now delaying the budget for 2022, which again, technically starts on October 1st. I anticipate very likely we'll have a temporary extension of 2021's budget, and like usual, we'll get a nice Christmas present probably around December 20th, right before all the members of Congress desperately want to go home to their families for the holidays of that years budget. We'll see. But that has been the pattern in the last as long as I can remember doing this, almost 10 years now.
Mat Kaplan: What a way to run a superpower. Okay. No squeaking, but maybe a little teasing before we get onto a couple of other things that you and I will talk about before we welcome your guest, Linda Billings who I've known for quite a few years and I'm so glad that she's going to be you.
Casey Dreier: Yeah, Linda's a great, I'd say prolific writer and thinker, particularly on the intersection of society and culture with space exploration. She's advised NASA. She's done a lot of thinking about the role of the public, particularly for public engagement, but also public input in space advocacy, space exploration, planetary science. This is my first time speaking with her on the show, I'm very eager to do it. We have a broad umbrella topic again of this intersection of culture, language, and people with the needs and outcomes of space exploration. I think it's really interesting to consider how we talk about this, the cultural values that implies. What we're saying when we talk about advocating for space exploration, and then also again, what is this role of the public and how do we approach that and how that itself is a cultural value to some extent. It'll be a really fun conversation and I'm very glad she's here.
Mat Kaplan: I have always enjoyed talking with her. People out there who've been with us for a while on Planetary Radio may remember that Linda is a regular and a major player at the biannual Planetary Defense Conference which we at The Planetary Society are so supportive of. She's just terrific. I look forward to listening in. One other message that our people are probably expecting from us by now, in fact, you may wonder why we haven't gotten to it yet. planetary.org/join. Come on folks, if you're not already a member of The Planetary Society, help us make our next fiscal year a great one, not just for us, but for all of space exploration, all of the stuff, all of the great initiatives that the society has underway, the mission that you already almost certainly support if you're listening to this program, at least by listening to us, time to join up as well and become one of us who are the many tens of thousands strong supporting The Planetary Society's goals, the members that is, planetary.org/join.
Casey Dreier: Well, I always just to emphasize that this is equivalent of direct patrion support for the work that we do. As a member, we literally financially depend on our membership, very few organizations do that. And that really enables us to be independent and enables us to really pursue the types of space exploration, space science, these big ideas that we really stand for, our values. We couldn't do this without you. And so every membership makes a difference. Sometimes I think, membership, it's a pretty low lift if you don't want to be out there every day doing something, you can support the work of space exploration by proxy, by becoming a member and just enjoying the products we put out and knowing that your money is going to a good effort. Always love to just emphasize your engagement is as much as you want to give or not. Ultimately it is profoundly important that you're a part of The Planetary Society.
Mat Kaplan: I love that. Let me tell you about a few things that the members have made possible that won't cost a thing to others, including the production of, and the premiere of our brand new documentary, Sailing the Light, about the mission of LightSail 2, which who knows, might be over our heads, your head, right at this very moment. Amazing that it is still circling the earth after two years up there, sailing on the light of the sun. Here are a couple of other things that are enabled by our members, beginning with Casey Dreier's newsletter, which Casey, comes out monthly like mine, right?
Casey Dreier: It does. The space advocate newsletter, it is also free to sign up and you get a little essay by me on some topic of the day, something to think about, something you can reply to. I read all the replies. I can't reply to all the replies, but I always enjoy that feedback from members. I highlight some of the major space policy news items in the last month to keep you abreast of the situation, see what's happening and to make sure that when we ask you to take action or to really consider some issues, that you've been following these major issues of the day. The link will be in the show notes here. You can find it at planetary.org/spacepolicy. It's linked to from there, please consider signing up.
Mat Kaplan: In most months my newsletter comes out just one week after a Casey's, also free, hope you will sign up. Again, we'll have a link on this episode page, planetary.org/radio. You can always sign up at the bottom of that page as well. All right, Casey, let's talk about a couple of other things that have come up in the news, particularly in Washington, beginning with, and this is interesting to me, the appointment of a new executive secretary for the National Space Council following Scott Pace, who of course was your guest not too long ago on this show.
Casey Dreier: Yeah, that just means that the National Space Council seems to be moving along. It's been, I guess, how many months, seven, eight months now, since the new administration came in, that's not unexpected. It takes a while to set these things up to go through the security review, background checks, so forth, finding the right person. We expect I think a meeting of the National Space Council chaired by the vice president, Kamala Harris, sometime in the fall, not unreasonable at this point to expect that. Nice to see the staff coming together and nice to see this moving forward. Of course we don't have an agenda or we don't know what they'll exactly be focusing on, but we will let you know as soon as we do so. Things are happening on that front, which is again, always a good sign to see, space staying in the consciousness and awareness of the upper levels of government in here in the United States, despite clearly that a lot of competing things demanding attention right now.
Mat Kaplan: I guess we can safely say that Vice President Harris, at least up to this point has not demonstrated as much interest in space as her predecessor Vice President Pence did. Of course he was the leader of the National Space Council. Although I suspect most of the work was done by our friend Scott Pace. Do we have any other inkling about the role that the NSC will play or how it may change?
Casey Dreier: Not really yet. I think that's still being discussed. I think we will get some clarity once we start seeing what their agenda is going to be. Vice President Harris, hasn't been as overtly focused on space as Vice President Pence was, but you've seen actually a number of times her meeting with astronauts, tweeting very positively about NASA achievements, particularly with the landing of perseverance. Of course she's from California, home of JPL and NASA Ames and NASA Armstrong. I see this as an opportunity to build excitement, perhaps in a receptive individual who can do something, feel good and positive and very non-partisan to really enhance national engagement with space at a very high level. Again, I think we'll see more clarity with that, hard to predict exactly anything in advance in this, because I think they're still figuring out themselves.
Mat Kaplan: No doubt. I read up a little bit on the the man who has been selected and as we congratulate him on his selection as the executive secretary, Chirag Parikh, I hope that I'm pronouncing that correctly. It looks he's a pretty accomplished guy with a good deal of experience in the executive branch in DC.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. He was in the National Security Council and has been a well-known and I'd say nearly universally beloved figure in the DC space community for years, very, very well respected. Our colleague Brendan knows him well, and was very excited to see him placed into that position. This is, I think very well received and people are looking forward to the work that he's going to do there.
Mat Kaplan: I put a lot of stock in Brendan Curry's opinion about this stuff since he is definitely a Denizen of the Beltway, Inside the Beltway. That's great to hear. We all know of course, that in previous meetings of the National Space Council, lots and lots of major aerospace companies were very well represented at those. Let's talk about a particular development that has stirred things up, continues to stir things up as we speak, Blue Origin, still very much wanting to send people to the moon.
Casey Dreier: Mat, I love your segues. You're a pro at these segues. I just feel nicely guided to this. That was great. This has been actually a requested topic for us to discuss a little bit. And the last show we record, we actually recorded it before the news was released that the government accountability office ruled in favor of NASA in the challenge presented to it by both Blue Origin's national team and Dynetics, the two losing teams in human landing system for the Artemis program contract award, the GAO ruled in favor of NASA, which had chosen SpaceX as the single provider. I think it's important to remember what the GAO does and doesn't do. This is why I was never that, worried is the right term, but I would have been very surprised if this had gone differently.
Casey Dreier: The GAO's job is to determine if NASA followed the rules in its own contract procurement, that they didn't accept bribes or didn't show false favoritism, that they were legal in how they followed government rules and their own rules for awarding the contract. And if you read the contract that NASA put out, the proposal, it's very clear that NASA has the right to select up to two or fewer, right? It could be zero. They're very clear about that. They don't have to select any if they don't want to. That was Blue Origin's main argument, was that classically NASA had always selected two providers in such competitions and that they didn't get a fair shake in that. And then also once they went with SpaceX, Blue Origin didn't have a chance to compete on price. But again, none of that was actually a product of the contract proposal itself, right? And so the GAO just ruled, look, NASA followed the rules here.
Casey Dreier: They could choose one and they could talk about pricing with one. They didn't have to choose two. And so that was it. It was amazing. I think the day after this came out, NASA, actually we saw contract activity, I think awarding SpaceX, something like $300 million, immediately moved from NASAs account into SpaceX, because obviously they're starting, what? Five months behind, four months behind the pace that they had intended to be at. For project landing on the moon again, that is nominally still set for 2024, which I think is a bigger question, how much we should even pretend to acknowledge that anymore, of that being realistic. It was never in a sense of realistic. It was always wildly ambitious. I think once we saw the actual funding request for that timeline come out, right? The initial 1.5 billion bump and then modest increases after that, it was just never, almost functionally impossible to do it.
Mat Kaplan: You mean it's not just that the space suits won't be ready?
Casey Dreier: Yeah. There's also there's of course is a separate issue, right? That we also had a NASA inspector general report saying that, by the way, the next generation space suits that you need to walk on the moon will not be ready by 2024 and we'll prevent the landing. That's an amazing topic in and of itself. Something actually for those of you who are deep cut readers of NASA inspector general reports like me and I'm assuming many, many of the millions of people are, the issue about spacesuits has been known for years. There was 2017 report that came out also saying that the space suit program is way behind schedule, aimless, not really pursuing what it needs to do, and it just didn't have the funding it needed. I go back to this all the time, funding and money and dollars are really a statement of priority at the end of the day.
Casey Dreier: You can only spend a dollar once. And so when it comes down to it, what programs get those dollars and what don't, despite rhetoric, despite good intent, whatever, you see where the money goes and where it doesn't, that tells you how important something is. Something that really struck me from the report about the spacesuit program, was that the space program was moved from was originally managed by the ISS, the International Space Station as a sub program. It was moved into the gateway program the other year, which is known for not landing on the moon, right? Specifically an orbital space station at the moon, but was then underfunded by Congress. As a consequence the spacesuit program was then underfunded. I'm trying to remember off the top of my head, something like 30 to 40%, which again, did Congress know they were doing that when they were not funding the gateway program to the full extent of the request?
Casey Dreier: If that was the case, why didn't NASA try to backfill as much as they could the suit program, if they were really, really serious about 2024? Again, the fact that they didn't, either Congress either didn't know or didn't care and that NASA didn't try to the extent maximum by law, for small programs like that, you can move, shift some money between accounts, not a ton, but some. Suggest that at a certain level 2024 is not taken seriously even inside NASA. You step back even one more step and you really makes you remark upon Apollo and respected all the more, right? When you think about how many things have to come together at the exact same time that are also insanely complex, right? A spacesuit is basically a one person spaceship, like I said, it's an entire spacecraft that holds one person very snugly and spacecraft are hard to make, let's keep people alive.
Mat Kaplan: Interesting, interesting issue. I like this, putting it into context of the entire program. I think I haven't actually considered that and I think that's a really good way to look at it.
Casey Dreier: After the GAO ruling and in a move that I think a lot of people in the space commentating business and broadly in the community found disappointing to a certain extent, is that Blue Origin is now suing the government. Going beyond this protest, is now trying to pursue other legal means to prevent this contract from moving forward. We don't know exactly the implications of this yet at the moment that we're recording this, this does not yet prevent NASA from continuing or SpaceX from continuing work on the human landing system contract, but it doesn't help, right? It doesn't help trying to get to the moon by 2024, even though I think we've established that's impossible, but I think it's really good to still have a timeline. A lot of people are questioning, what's the real goal of Blue Origin here and will they burn a lot of bridges by suing who they want to be their customer? Right? NASA, to force them to embrace the Blue Origin technology in addition to SpaceX.
Casey Dreier: We should be clear, Bill Nelson, the administrator of NASA, is going around to Congress right now, trying to secure something along the lines of 15 billion extra dollars through this reconciliation package, partially in order to pay for a second human landing system contract. There's I think an overall desire, NASA would be happy to have a second one if they had the money. This context I think is just so important as to what is driving this. When NASA opened this competition for proposals, for the human landing system, it was under the Trump administration and they had released a budget, projecting something on the order of $20 billion being spent over the next five years on human landing system projects, $20 billion over five years, right? That's a good chunk of money.
Casey Dreier: By the time this was selected in April of this year, the Biden administration had come into power and had released their budget for NASA, cutting back their intention to spend on the human landing system, by something like 75%. They cut it down from $20 billion to around four to $5 billion over the next five years. This isn't necessarily NASA saying we don't want to, I'm sure NASA wanted to have more money. This is a very likely to me, a higher level decision from the white house or office of management budget that they're not interested in spending $20 billion in this particular program. Given that, and as explained, I think in NASA's selection document for this project, they really cannot afford to providers. SpaceX made a good case for a technical capability, but also on price. It could not beat it on price.
Casey Dreier: And even in the context of this, Blue Origin is going a lot of different ways here. In addition to suing the government to try to force them to select them or select them as a second provider, they're also saying, hey, we'll cut $2 billion off the cost of this now. Right? I think they propose something along the lines of a $6 billion project. They say we'll cover the first two billion now. Regardless of your opinion I think it's perfectly legal to lower their cost and adjust that, you would still be talking about adding an additional $4 billion to NASA's budget over the next four years in order to pay for that even reduced price, right? On top of what they're planning for. That's a good chunk of money, right? That's a 20th of the agency's budget either to be augmented or to be taken from something else in order to do this.
Casey Dreier: And so, it's a better deal, but we're still talking about $4 billion in a couple of years, which is more than what we would spend on the Europa Clipper in the same amount of time, more than what we would spend on the gateway program in the same amount of time, it's a sizeable commitment. There's a long and successful history of companies suing their way to get into government contracts. Elon Musk did this, with SpaceX. He sued the Air Force in order to open up competition to provide national security launch services, and he won, right? It's a huge boon to SpaceX's business. After these things fall out, we tend to forget the process of how they got there. I think we can say Jeff Bezos knows this history, and maybe it's a hit in public opinion now to the extent that people are paying attention, but you look at SpaceX, SpaceX hasn't paid a price for suing its customer, right?
Casey Dreier: They're getting lots of great business now from now the space force and other parts of national security. I don't see really a long-term consequences. People may say that, but at the end of the day, the government generally cannot say we deny this company because we don't like them, right? That's not a legal way to turn away contracting business. Maybe that could be slightly higher at the personal level through unconscious bias. But if you're looking at it from a purely balancing act from Blue Origin, there are very few downsides to this and a huge potential upside. And so they're swinging for the fences.
Mat Kaplan: I'll just note as we end our consideration of this, at least for the moment, because it's an ongoing story, that we have also witnessed SpaceX stacking the Starship on top of the super heavy booster in preparation for what they're hoping will be FAA approval for the first orbital flight by that giant rocket, which of course is the basis of the SpaceX human landing system that NASA has already funded.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. As I've said, that human landing system project through SpaceX is actually a very savvy way for NASA to invest in both the lunar landing system and humans to Mars in the long run. We'll link to that article justifying that in the show notes, but there's a lot of reasons to be excited about this beyond the obvious ones, of just seeing just the spectacularly large ambitious rocket program, literally forming in front of us, in front of our own eyes.
Mat Kaplan: All right, Casey, we'll leave it at that. It's time that we heard from your guest for this month, Linda Billings.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. Dr. Linda Billings is an expert in space communication, a great thinker in strategy and engagement with the public for space issues. She's worked for NASA. She's worked as a consultant for a variety of aspects, typically in astrobiology and planetary defense. What I love about Linda's writings on her blog, we'll link to that and on Twitter, is that I think she's one of the rare people in the space business who is free to share her mind and have strong opinions that I always find really interesting and challenging, even if I don't always agree with them. I'm really delighted she's joining the show today to talk about these big issues in terms of the cultural milieu that creates the language that we use for space advocacy, ways in which we can engage with the public and ways in which NASA can improve or focus its broad communications to enhance these overall goals for space exploration and what that means.
Mat Kaplan: All right, here is Casey Dreier's conversation, recorded not too long ago with Linda Billings. We will see you on the other side.
Casey Dreier: Dr. Linda Billings, welcome to the Space Policy Edition. I'm happy you're here.
Linda Billings: Thank you.
Casey Dreier: I would like you to start by expanding on something that I read in one of your papers. I'll link to all of these papers in the show notes. You said that space flight advocacy can be examined as a cultural ritual. That was a very resonant idea of cultural ritual. What do you mean by that?
Linda Billings: I mean that it's a perpetuation of a belief system. I know some of the items you wanted us to talk about were space advocacy metaphors. There are some really powerful metaphors and etiologies that have been persistent actually since before there were space programs. Some of these ideas originated from Russian cosmism, which is the Russian mystical philosophy of the late 19th century. This idea of destiny is a religious idea. The idea of progress is a religious idea. This concept of the frontier, the whole frontier manifest destiny is a Christian religious idea that the Puritans brought with them to the United States and then US politicians shaped it to justify their conquest of properties that were already inhabited. These ideas, the way they're perpetuated becomes a ritual. People in the space community over the last 50, 60, 70 years have not really thought about where these ideas come from and what they're doing with them, how they're perpetuating them and to what purposes.
Casey Dreier: I love that idea, and again, the language is great. I think about this, it evokes this idea of incantation to me. People go and they recite these story or tropes and ideas that they've internalized and clearly resonate at some level with them, but I think really do deserve some thought and examination. Something you said there, let's step back. What's this Russian cosmism? And how did that come into influence this broader sense of, I think we're really talking here generally about human space flight advocacy?
Linda Billings: Yes, absolutely.
Casey Dreier: Also these cultural roots that you talked about, progress and manifest destiny and frontierism.
Linda Billings: Russian cosmism, actually Tsiolkovsky is of course in the space community revered as the person who advocated the idea that humans must leave the planet, that we can't stay in the cradle forever. But Tsiolkovsky was inspired by a Russian cosmist of a previous generation from the late 19th century. I'm sorry to say, I can't recall that philosopher's name. I'm part Slavic in heritage. Slavic people have a really strong attachment to mystical thinking, particularly Russian Slavic people have a really strong attachment to mystical thinking. I really don't understand how and why Western space exploration communities have embraced this belief system.
Casey Dreier: It almost seems imported at a certain point, right? The history of some of this as you've talked about and other McCurdy and lobbyists have also talked about notably, that people like Willy Ley and Von Braun were immigrants coming into the United States, who were these leading proponents of this manifest, pseudo religious destiny aspect of space exploration, right? It came into the country it seemed like, from people who I think had a very savvy, it almost required almost an immigrant's perspective into a culture that they were adapting to, to see these undercurrents of what resonates really strongly. I wonder if that's how it came in with that idea.
Linda Billings: That's really a very interesting point that you're making, because Robert Goddard simply wanted to build and launch rockets. As far as I know, I'm no expert on the whole history of the beginnings of space exploration, but as far as I understand, Robert Goddard simply wanted to prove that he could build and launch rockets. But then Von Braun and Willy Ley, and I have one of Willy Ley books on my bookshelf here, they came with this underlying belief system that it was almost a necessity that they build rockets that could take people into space. That idea of, well, it all connects to destiny, progress, necessity, but it's a belief system. We don't know that. I remember hearing a speech, I can't remember how long ago it was when Al Gore was in the Senate, he gave a speech at the annual Goddard symposium.
Linda Billings: He talked about exploration, how it's in our bones, in our bones. It's not. And Stephen Pyne and other historians have done a wonderful job of explaining how exploration is a cultural phenomenon. It's not a genetic phenomenon, is a cultural phenomenon. We understand, I was actually looking up today about the history of China's exploration initiatives. China was exploring by sea in the 2nd century BC, and then another dynasty took over, I think in the 16th century and shut down exploration. It's really a cultural phenomenon, not a genetic phenomenon.
Casey Dreier: I was going to touch on this idea of how much of this is uniquely in American conception of space flight. Do you see these same ideas of these kinds of tropes of again, manifest destiny being used beyond borders? Is that something that's used in China or I would say in places like Europe, which you could argue historically would have been receptive to that, right? Because they were perpetuaters of colonialism to a big degree in history. But how much of this is unique to, is a Western culture, American culture? Where do you think when we're doing this cultural ritual, if we're using these types of arguments, how unique is it to the United States?
Linda Billings: That's a very interesting question. I think the US space community has strongly embraced this way of thinking much more strongly than other countries in Western Europe. And it's not just Western Europe, the Japanese have a space exploration program and the Indians have a space exploration program and the Chinese have a space exploration program, but you don't hear that same rhetoric about this is a necessity, we need to conquer the frontier. That whole frontier conquest thing is very American. It actually comes out of that Christian ideology of manifest destiny that God put us on earth to conquer, wherever we go. My brother and I had an interesting experience. We went to the DeSoto National monument, which is just north of us in Florida. Hernando de Soto was a Spanish conquistador who murdered and enslaved native peoples and did all kinds of other terrible stuff.
Linda Billings: The man who was talking to us after we watched a film about what happened, when de Soto came to this part of Florida, which was very good and very balanced. But this man, this docent who talked to us afterwards said, this is such a wonderful thing, where the Spanish came to Florida and said, this is our land. This is ours. My brother and I were freaking out, like, what? We were shocked really. It was a very interesting and disturbing experience. We have to think about how different people have different perspectives on interpreting history.
Casey Dreier: As people listen to this who are space advocates or want to be space advocates, and I've thought about this a lot myself, in terms of what language we use at The Planetary Society to argue for investments in space exploration. It seems to me just going back to this history of this cultural ritual of this particular perspective, again, of this expansionary consumptive pioneering aspect, it's very enduring and almost ossified, perhaps at a certain level, though it still retains a certain resonance though. To your point about your experience at that exhibition, there does seem to be particularly within, let's say the US political system, an openness to that framework. Do you think that's becoming an increasing divide between the people in the political system with the power to drive space exploration, to a changing public idea and understanding of our cultural roots and meaning and motivations for why we do what we do or that even the stories that we tell ourselves?
Linda Billings: Good thoughts. I liked the word you used, ossified, because I have long thought that this thinking in the space community, I have used the word calcified, but it's the same thing as ossified. We're really stuck. I want to mention that I am now a member of two communities of scholars and scientists, the JustSpace Alliance, which was co founded by Lucianne Walkowicz, who was the 2017 Blumberg chair and astrobiology at library of Congress and my colleague Erika Nesvold and I'm now a member. And then I'm a member of the Society for Social and Conceptual Issues in Astrobiology. There's a lot of really, really wonderful thinking going on in these communities. Most of the people in these communities are advocates of space exploration, but they don't like the direction that we've been going in.
Linda Billings: The challenge that we're facing and we've actually been having a discussion in the JustSpace Alliance just this past week or so, about how we raise up the issues that talking about to the level of decision-making. That's always been the challenge. This work has been going on for some time, and I've been funded by NASA miraculously for 20, 25 years to do this kind of work. But the work that we do does not raise up to the level of say the NASA administrator or the director general of ISA. We're struggling with that challenge of how we can bring the work that we do and the thinking that we're doing into the public discourse, which is very much dominated by the military industrial complex, the hardcore advocates of human exploration who make a lot of money, whether it's the old school, Lockheed Martin, Boeing companies, or the new school, Blue Origin, SpaceX companies, it's a real moneymaking enterprise.
Linda Billings: If you look at, you can find this easily, it's usually about a year behind, but you can find lists online of the top 100 NASA contractors and the top 100 federal government contractors. Last I looked Lockheed Martin and Boeing were the number one and number two top NASA contractor, SpaceX was something like six or eight. Top 100 federal government contractors, Lockheed Martin was number one and I think Boeing was number three. I can't remember who was number two. SpaceX was on list. These companies are in the business to make money. I'm not sure how much thought the corporate executives put into thinking about what the public benefit is. That's one of my primary concerns. What is the public benefit of the human exploration enterprise?
Casey Dreier: Hold that idea, because I still want to hit on a few of these cultural contexts of this. Because I want to get into this idea of public benefit and how it's spoken about and talk too.
Mat Kaplan: Much, much more of Casey's great conversation with Linda Billings is just a minute away. We hope you'll stay with us.
Bruce Betts: Hi, again, everyone it's Bruce. Many of you know that I'm the program manager for The Planetary Society's LightSail program. LightSail 2 made history with its launch and deployment in 2019, and it's still sailing. It will soon be featured in the Smithsonian's new futures exhibition. Your support made this happen. LightSail still has much to teach us. Will you help us sail on into our extended mission? Your gift will sustain daily operations and help us inform future solar sailing missions like NASA's NEA scout. When you give today, your contribution will be matched up to $25,000 by a generous society member. Plus when you give $100 or more, we will send you the official LightSail 2 extended mission patch to wear with pride. Make your contribution to science and history, at planetary.org/sailon. That's planetary.org/sailon. Thanks.
Casey Dreier: I keep going back to this idea of, again, as a space advocate, your argument here is, I think, and it's important that we should be aware of when we participate in this type of ritual. If you resonate with these ideas of adventurism, right? Or exploration in say, maybe the most positive conception of it. Can we remove that from the uglier history of colonial exploitation-ism, and how much does that history, that ugly history, how much do we have to worry about that applying to, in a very practical sense to areas that have no people? Right? To be exploited? These are empty spaces. I guess, does it become a philosophical argument about, are these spaces ours to exploit or is there a fundamental value to them that exists regardless of how we use them, that we need to respect, is that the core issue here in terms of how we approach these issues around language and cultural rituals at the space advocacy?
Linda Billings: I think it's a very important issue to discuss. I no longer working with the Planetary Protection officer at NASA, but I did for many years. We had very vigorous discussion, again, and the problem is, it's within a very small community of people who care about these issues, but our concerns do not go up the ladder. Right now, of course there are many interpretations of the outer space treaty requirements for planetary protection. But as far as I know, the consensus is that right now the outer space treaty does not call for protection of extra terrestrial environments for their own sake. We've been discussing this for some time and there have been a number of people who've written papers about, do we need to establish planetary parks on Mars and protect pristine environments?
Linda Billings: My feeling, the longer I've been involved in the space community, is that we should leave pristine environments alone, period. This is not a dominant way of thinking in the space community, but it's an important issue. And so in these two groups that I'm participating in, we have a number of ethicists, particularly environmental ethicists, who've really been doing some deep thinking about whether and how we should protect pristine extraterrestrial environments. Do we have rights to go wherever we want and do whatever we want? It's a very gloomy issue. Obviously.
Casey Dreier: I don't know if you've read any of the works by James Schwartz.
Linda Billings: Yes, absolutely.
Casey Dreier: He was on the show a few years ago and I thought that was a fascinating insight into how we value. Do we have inherent value for, or let me rephrase it. If we have inherent values, we apply value to scientific understanding, then if you follow that thread, we should value pristine environments to explore, right? We shouldn't alter them in any way, if we take as inherently valuable scientific knowledge, because any modifications to those would destroy the amount of scientific knowledge we could theoretically return. That's really good. That's really challenging, I think to how a lot of space advocates think about ourselves, right? Because there's this very human desire among I think a very self-selecting group of people, but there's a human desire of just doing, it's like a physical desire to be a part of the world.
Casey Dreier: There is an exploration interest I think that comes from culture that people have. I guess ultimately it comes down to finding responsible ways to do it. That word does a lot of work. Right? What's a responsible exploration? Is it planetary exploration through robotics with the most adherent planetary protection guidelines? Or is it humans going to a place and saying, well, we think we're taking reasonable precautions, but we're going to have to take a certain risk. It's really hard to define that answer to it. Right? I think to bring it back into, your background is in mass communication, right? Your training and specialty, sociology. Is there a risk of continuing to use this type of, again, pioneering language, historical manifest destiny, pseudo religious narrative to the public? Is the public ideals changing in the space advocacy communities, language not keeping up with it, or does it mater ultimately?
Casey Dreier: As long as it adheres and motivates a certain number of people that they resonate and want to participate in it. Do you see a fundamental risk here?
Linda Billings: I do. Very well said. Thank you, Casey. I do think there's a risk and I always go back to public opinion polls of the wazoo about public opinion about space exploration. But I always go back to the Pew Research Center, which is a very reliable source of public opinion information. In 2018, they did a survey, they picked out nine topics, the people who did the survey trolled, I shouldn't say trolled, just looked at a lot of mass media content about space program. And so from looking at this large quantity of mass media content, they picked up nine topics that they felt were salient to the public based on mass media coverage. And so they put together a list of nine priorities for NASA, and then they conducted a very well done public opinion survey. Public opinion researchers are the first to tell you about the weaknesses and shortcomings of public opinion results.
Linda Billings: But what they found was that on the list of nine priorities for NASA, number eight and number nine, were humans to the moon and humans to Mars. Number one was getting a grip on climate change. Number two was planetary defense, which we in the planetary defense community were shocked and pleased about, and we actually set up a phone call with two people who conducted that survey. That's how we know that that's how they call together that list of nine priorities by looking at a large, large quantity of media content about what was going on in the space program. There's this disconnect between decision makers and the political process and public opinion.
Linda Billings: I don't think anybody has really, certainly NASA, I'm sorry to say, has not made an effort to gauge public opinion or get an idea of public priorities about the space program. I've been involved in three projects actually, the National Commission on Space in 1985, 1986, where we traveled all around the country and asked people, what do you want in a space program? We published a report and it was basically ignored by decision makers. And then when Dan Goldin was first appointed administrator of NASA, he wanted to do a series of town meetings across the country. It was wonderful to hear what people thought. It was really a very rewarding experience, but Dan Goldin took our report back to headquarters to a strategic planning group and they ignored it.
Linda Billings: And also Dan Goldin deputy, told us we couldn't distribute our report because it looked too nice. It was crazy. In both cases, we reached out to people who wanted to maintain contact with us and we couldn't. And so I know one of your questions was about public engagement and particularly looking at, I'm the commentary editor for peer review journal called, Science Communication. And so I've looked at a lot of commentaries about public outreach efforts. And the ones that seem to be most successful are the ones that are local, where you can establish relationships with people in your own community and maybe maintain those relationships. Because as I've mentioned, the efforts that I've been involved with NASA, there's no follow up.
Casey Dreier: I'm really interested in that aspect too, and this relationship again, of what are we trying to achieve by communication to the public. I think that seems to drive a lot of what we want outcomes to be. You mentioned this public survey, which I love showing. I always show this to training when we do our congressional visits. I show this in talks that I give. There is another survey, I forget if it was by Pew or another organization that basically replicated the same thing, it just came out a year ago. Basically saying, you could basically take that in terms of what public has the most interest in and what has the most funding is the opposite. You just flip it upside down. Because the human space flight to moon and Mars tends to get half of or third of NASA is funding. Whereas earth science, planetary defense, as you well know, is even smaller.
Casey Dreier: There's this inverted relationship between what the public is interested in, at least in those surveys and what gets the political support and funding. This is where I keep going back to these ideas of how we communicate and these cultural aspects of it, where the role of general public opinion seems very poorly correlated with what actually gets funded. There seems to be very, very little political price to pay for that. If you were just trying to be maybe a more of a Machiavellian space advocate, would you purposely try to say fine, I'll just say whatever it takes to have, there's maybe a handful of people that have true influence and power in terms of directing funds. Should we try to just convince some of the people most of the time to fund our pet things and not worry about this larger public opinion, because it seems there's a low price to pay for it.
Casey Dreier: Or should we really say, we need to convince the public that this is important for us, which actually seems in some ways is a much harder job. Is this a bad dichotomy, as someone who's studied communication and the role of public engagement, is this bad that there's a disconnect between what we do and what the public seems interested in?
Linda Billings: It's very bad, because the aerospace industry is very wealthy and very politically connected. This was years and years ago, I think in the 80s where someone in the small business office at NASA told me that Lockheed Martin had something like 130 registered lobbyists in Washington D.C. SpaceX and Blue Origin are now in the pool. Virgin Galactic, SpaceX and Blue Origin do not have to buy advertising. They get huge media attention for every little move they make and it's out of proportion. Again, is this responsive to public benefit, to public interest? I think that there's been a bit of research, some of which has been funded by NASA over the years, to look at who the interested public is. I think it's a small and steady community of interested people who follow NASA on Twitter. They follow NASA on Facebook. They watch all the launches online. But it is this actually building public support for the space program? I don't see any evidence that it is. I think what builds public support for the space program is industry lobby.
Casey Dreier: Maybe you can get away with that disconnect up to a certain point, either of size or notoriety if you stay below a couple tens of billions of dollars a year. But if you go above that and start talking, quote unquote, real money, then maybe once it breaks into this larger public consciousness, it may be a weaker position to be in if you don't have a broad public base to support you. I wonder if we're seeing that a little bit with good portion of public backlash to some of the recent activity by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, where it was not seeing, I think a lot of people in the space community were surprised by a very negative public interpretation of what happened. And that may be a product of this. Once you hit some saturation point people maybe actually don't what you're doing.
Linda Billings: Yeah. How many people can afford, what is Virgin Galactic now charging? 250,000 for a real flight?
Casey Dreier: 450 now. Yeah.
Linda Billings: Yeah. It's crazy. It's very, very frustrating what's going on. And again, I think there is a huge disconnect between public interest, public opinion and political goings on, so to speak. The industry has huge influence in the political arena. I don't think it's serving the public interest. I really don't. Most of the space advocacy groups excepting The Planetary Society, as you know, has been heavily advocating for the human exploration of space. It's hard for us on the outside looking in to determine the true nature and the true power of the space advocacy community.
Casey Dreier: It's definitely changed I think over time. But again, I keep going back to this, you mentioned this earlier, the media coverage generated by what SpaceX and Blue Origin and others do. You have a quote that I lifted from, I forget one of your papers, it's "Communication is a ritual, culture is communication, and communication is culture." By that metric, I just looked up just to double check this before this talk, when Elon Musk went on the Joe Rogan podcast, this very popular podcast, just on YouTube the video of that discussion has 42 million views. That may be more than everyone who watched the landing of the Perseverance rover, that is a huge number. Maybe they are just there to watch him smoke a joint or something, but that's a lot of people, right? By this conception of communication is culture, there seems to be, Elon Musk I'd say it's very notable proponent of this manifest settlement destiny, right? Human destiny must extend into the cosmos and Jeff Bezos is.
Casey Dreier: Forgive me for just hitting on this, because I'm really trying to work through myself, this understanding of how people do seem to at least some degree resonate with this message, right? Maybe it's persistent for a reason because enough people care about it, but maybe it's because they don't integrate this deeper history or it's a very shallow representation of it. But it just strikes me to see that kind of engagement with these activities. It's clearly touching a nerve, right? It's expanding greater than a lot of, I'd say NASA efforts to engage with people are. Do you see a pattern or why do you think people are reacting so strongly, I'd say particularly to what Elon Musk is doing?
Linda Billings: Very good question. That's an appalling figure, 41 million. I think you might be touching on an important point that the engagement with this messaging, shall we call it, is pretty shallow, I hope. I do think that this messaging appeals to a certain demographic, and pardon me, but I think they're mostly white males, mostly Western white males within a certain age range. I have no evidence to prove that case. None of my friends who are all college educated, men, women, white, black, color, share this belief that this is a necessity and that we have to do this. And so I don't think anybody, because believe me it would be a huge job if somebody would have to pay researchers to do this, to really explore what people do with this kind of messaging. What are you actually doing with it? Are you just listening to it and you're finding it entertaining or is it affecting the way you live your life? Is it affecting your goals and objectives in the work that you do? We really don't know, as far as I know, we don't know yet.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. It's really interesting, I don't have obviously an answer either. My hypothesis that may feed part of this, which I think can sit in perfect parallel with what you were also saying, but I wonder if there is an aspect to the story that if again, if you go past the historical context of it, which I do think is really important, but if you just look at it in the current context, doing something in the physical world that is new and has never been done before may itself strike a chord I wonder. You talk about this in a cultural representation. I just finished Ross Douthat book, columnist for the New York times on this concept, a Decadent Society. It's a classic in this style of, I'd say a societal critique, particularly from a certain political and cultural perspective of being in this decadent aimless society.
Casey Dreier: But he ends this book with saying, space exploration is a possible path out of decadence by basically redoing everything you just critiqued about by embracing that, right? This expansionist struggle against the elements is like creating some internal fire in individuals that reveal itself in terms of cultural rebirth and expansion. I wonder, again, if that just touches on what you Elon Musk talks about and even to a degree with Jeff Bezos talks about, touches on this desire for clarity of meaning, purpose, changing the natural world around us to be better, even if the reality of living on Mars would not be particularly pleasant or free to any extent. And so I wonder if that plays into this compared to, let's say a world particularly now dominated by pandemics and climate change and global strife, that it's almost a seductive counterpoint to embrace just at a surface level.
Casey Dreier: It could also be entirely true what you said as well, but I don't have a good answer for it, but it's strikes me is how people are engaging with this.
Linda Billings: That could be very true. And I read Ross Douthat, although I have not read the book. Of course, he's right of center, the New York Times and the Washington Post do a really good job of sorting out people all over the opinion spectrum. He very seldom offends me, I should say. I'm definitely left of center myself. People are scared. People are scared. What scares me is that there might be a lot of people who will have no opportunity in their lifetimes to leave this planet, nor will their children think that this is the way to escape the disaster that is developing on earth. You have all these different communities, people, all over the world, there are people who are suffering from the effects of climate change, who can't really think about what are we going to do about it? Their homes are underwater. They're subject to flooding.
Linda Billings: I always think about Bangladesh, if you look at a map of Bangladesh, 160 million people in a country, the size of Illinois and everybody lives on the water, it's a giant river Delta. And with rising sea levels, they're all at risk. We've seen recently what's happened in Haiti. You have an earthquake and then you have another storm and you have landslides and you have flooding. It's horrible. And so how can people living in those conditions worry about whether we should save humanity by going into space or cleaning up earth. I don't know. I've never been to Haiti and I've never been to Bangladesh, but I think that most people just don't have the bandwidth to think about how we get ourselves out of this mess. The idea as you mentioned, for humans to live anywhere in space, whether it's in Mars or in an earth orbiting spaceship, it's extremely, extremely challenging.
Linda Billings: If you look at how much it costs to keep a single astronaut on the International Space Station for a day, for a day, is something like $190,000. And so how are we going to transport large numbers of people? And again, my concern is that the way that Musk and Bezos and others are talking about taking humanity into space, they're talking about people who can afford to pay their way, which is unjust.
Casey Dreier: You propose an alternative cultural incantation for space flight, to the one we've been going through and critiquing. What would you think would be a better approach to how to engage people with this message and the people who make these decisions? How do you summarize that?
Linda Billings: I would like, I don't think it's going to happen, but I would like for the space community to rethink the way they talk about space exploration as a way to learn about how we might improve life on earth, rather than talking about the escape mode, which again, my concern would be escape scenario is that it's only for select group of people. And so what can we learn by exploring other planets? And we already have. Back in the 70s we learned about global warming and climate change from our studies of Venus and what happened at Venus as far as we can understand. What else can we learn about what's happened on earth and what's already happening on earth? What can we do, and I think we've all given up on reversing climate change. We're talking about mitigation and adaptation, but what can we learn from exploring other planetary environments that can help us improve the quality of life for people on earth?
Casey Dreier: I like that. And I also like, you talked about the idea of search for life too as a motivating factor and almost like this humble curiosity about how we fit into this larger cosmos. That framing of it struck me because it's almost the opposite in terms of ego, I'd say more going out and saying we have a right to change the physical world around us to our whims, but your conception of this would be more, let's understand how we're actually even smaller part of a bigger hole than we even think we are, as we found life somewhere else. Right? It's almost like seeking one of Carl Sagan's so-called demotions, right? We're not at the center of the universe, we're not even the center of the solar system. We're not a unique species in the sense that we're just mammals. And now if we find life somewhere else, life itself wouldn't even be unique. That's a humbling curiosity to approach the cosmos with.
Casey Dreier: And so I liked how that framing of it touches on a different aspect of the human spirit, right? Seeking humility, seeking curiosity more broadly than seeking in a sense, the more critical domination or ownership.
Linda Billings: Yeah. Well said. I have not done any scientific analysis about how people think about these things, but just in my casual conversations over decades with people in airports and on buses, wherever I am in my social groups, I get the impression that people find comfort in thinking that we're not alone. And they're not really concerned about whether we make contact, but just this idea that we now have an understanding of our place in the universe. We live on earth, we're a planet in our solar system. The solar system is one of many planetary systems in our galaxy. Our galaxy is one of billions of galaxies in the universe, as far as we know, and somehow or other I feel people who are not scientists, but think about these things, they get some sense of comfort of knowing that we have a place. This is our place.
Casey Dreier: It's an awful burden to be the only alive things in the universe, if that's the case. Right?
Linda Billings: Yes, absolutely.
Casey Dreier: That would be a relief of that. How would you like to see this change happen in terms of how we talk about space flight and space advocacy? In some ways, again, we've been talking a lot about human space flight, robotic space flight, scientific space flight, tents I think adapt and embrace a lot of this alternative approach that we were talking about. Should this be a top-down change? Is that the most effective way in terms of altering communication or does this have to be a grassroots shift in terms of how people receive this information? What's the most effective way as space advocates if we want to deepen this conversation about space flight?
Linda Billings: Good question. The French sociologists, Michel Foucault said, power operates from the top down and the bottom up. It has to work both ways, but for the foreseeable future, I do not see it operating from the top down. We have three X astronauts in charge of NASA right now. And as you mentioned earlier, the majority, more than half of NASA's budget goes to human space flight enterprises. This has been the case for decades. I don't see that changing because of industry influence, because human space flight enterprise is the moneymaker. Lockheed Martin, I'm not sure about Boeing, but Lockheed Martin is certainly involved in some big science missions, but the real money is to be made in human space flight. The industry is, as we discussed a little earlier, very influential in the political arena. Whenever you watch a hearing about massive programs, you will see individual representatives and senators advocating for the human space flight contracts that are in their districts or states.
Linda Billings: I've been watching this for, like I say, for decades, sorry to say, I don't see that changing, but I do think that we all in the ethicacy community need to continue working for the bottom up. The Planetary Society is influential and you all are doing great work and we have to keep it up. And as I mentioned, these two communities that I've belonged to where, one of the challenges we face in the communities I'm working with is that, we can publish our work, but it ends up behind a paywall. We're in peer review journals. I have a chapter and a volume called social and conceptual issues and astrobiology edited by Kelly Smith and Carlos Mariscal, who are two of the founders of the society for social and conceptual issues and astrobiology. They did a great job pulling this together, but again, it's an expensive book.
Linda Billings: We have our next meeting coming up in March 2022. And then Steve Dick was the 2014 Blumberg chair and astrobiology at the library of Congress. He pulled together really quickly and wonderfully and edited volume called the impact of discovering life beyond earth. He actually persuaded Cambridge University Press, who he published with before, to publish this as a trade book. It was only $30 rather than $60. But the volume that Amy Kaminski edited that was just published this year on public engagement in planetary science, it's $60. And so what I've been doing because all of my work has been funded. All of my published work has been funded by NASA, that I'm posting preprints in archives. I have three archives that I use researchgate.net, academia.edu and Social Science Research Network.
Linda Billings: And so I'm posting as much of my work in pre-print form so far, no publisher has come after me, but I feel my work is publicly funded and it should be publicly available. I think that a lot of my colleagues Casey, you mentioned Jim Schwartz. I know Jim Schwartz has posted most of his papers in these pre-print archives. And so we're trying to make this work available, most if not all of us in these communities, if we ever get a query from a journalist, we very seldom turn it down. We're just trying to get the word out about these different perspectives, about space exploration and the future of humans in space.
Casey Dreier: Do you think NASA should be responsible for its own public outreach or is it a conflict of interest at the end of the day?
Linda Billings: My impression is that most of NASA's public outreach efforts are about boosterism. They focus on promoting missions and building up public excitement. I'm not sure, I don't know this, I have no information about this, but I suspect that there is very little, if any effort at NASA to gauge the outcome of these public outreach efforts, I'm just not sure. And again, the aerospace industry also engages in public outreach. I think it's all about, this whole idea about inspiring and exciting people about space exploration, but what is actually the benefit? What is the outcome of these public outreach efforts? I'm just not sure. I've been involved in some of these efforts, the best public outreach effort that I've been involved with was for planetary defense. I actually was not involved directly. The late great asteroid initiative, actually funded a project with an outfit called the Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology.
Linda Billings: These people, ECAST, they call themselves, do really, really good work on all kinds of public policy issues. And so they organize a bunch of day long, they were more than focus groups, they were very well put together. People from the planetary defense team participated as experts and the ECAST team selected public representatives. They did a really good job of picking geographically diverse locations for these events and demographically diverse participants. We have a final report, which is publicly available somewhere. I think it's on the planetary defense website. But we learned a lot because that effort was designed around is to provide people with expert information and then listen, listen. This is a huge key in public outreach efforts, listening, how important listening is, not the talk, talk, talk hat, but to provide information and then to listen.
Linda Billings: That was a wonderful example, the ECAST project, I recently suggested because the astrobiology program and also the chief scientists at NASA, Jim Green are very much focused on developing standards of evidence and determining how to communicate with public audiences about life detection. And so I suggested to Jim, last week, that he consider an ECAST project which hopefully he could fund. I'm not sure he was at all interested, but I hope he looks into it, because I think it would be really, really useful to get a sense, if it's done right and the ECAST people always do it right. I don't know anybody there, I'm not getting any kick back here. They do really, really good work. I think we need to continue to rethink the way we do public outreach going forward.
Casey Dreier: If it's so hard to measure the outcomes, how can we improve what we do? What's the strategies that the field of mass communication and sociology, how did that influence what we can do without necessarily being able to quantify it? Because that seems to me a fundamental, and obviously we here at the society, we struggle with that too. How do we measure what's effective and what's not? How do you approach that?
Linda Billings: Good question. I think I mentioned earlier through my job as commentary editor for science communication, I've read a number of papers over the years about local or regional public outreach efforts. If you work on a project that's relatively contained, you can actually, if you're dealing with less than a hundred people, or maybe a couple of hundred people, you can actually communicate with that group of people and determine, what did you learn from this project? Do you want to stay in touch? Do you want to talk to somebody? I think those more contained efforts are more effective than these big splash efforts that try to communicate with large numbers of people. Again, as I mentioned before, the problem with these large scale efforts is that there's no follow-up. There's no way, and of course at NASA you can start a project and then two years later it's finished. And then everybody who was in charge is gone, they're in another job or they left NASA and so you don't know who to stay in touch with. This is again, but I think these local efforts can be more effective.
Casey Dreier: That's been my experience as well actually, I really resonated with that idea. Actually that is really encouraging for members of The Planetary Society, for example, that they can actually do something valuable in their community by engaging other people or people. I think you had examples of giving talks at your local church or community centers on the issues in space, because that creates, then it's not just something you read in the paper or online or about famous people doing X, Y, or Z in space, you see a person in front of you and you can connect at a more social humanistic level to a big picture rather than something that seems very esoteric. And so I wonder if there's, it's a tough problem to scale, but if you have lots of people distributed around the world, perhaps there's a way to empower those individuals to carry that forward, whether they're scientists or passionate amateur fans of space exploration.
Linda Billings: At the Planetary Defense Conferences, which as you know take place every two years, we always have a session toward the end of the week called public education and communication. This year for the first time in my experience, we had some really good presentations and learned that again at the local level, mostly all over Europe, but not all over Europe, people are doing really good things in reaching out to the public, trying to inform the public about planetary defense. And again, they're at the local level, so you can stay engaged. I have been probably, I started about four or five years before I moved to Florida, working with elementary school classes, just to talk about space stuff, space and science. It was a wonderful experience and I've been really sad that last year and this year, of course, volunteers have not been permitted in the schools here in Florida, but I'm looking forward to getting back to the kids because they are so, so smart and ask the best questions and they really take me to task.
Linda Billings: At one class I worked with, we actually had, one of the girls made a shoe box with a slot in the top because they had so many questions before the end of our session, that they had to write their questions down on a piece of paper and put them in the box. And then I would take them home and look up the answers, every little bit helps. I've told many of my colleagues in both communities and a lot of people in both the astrobiology and planetary defense communities do a lot of local outreach. They accept every opportunity to speak to whether it's an amateur astronomers group. Mike Kelly, one of my planetary defense colleagues goes every year to Mars Pennsylvania for Mars day. They enjoy it. They really enjoy it. They enjoy going into the classrooms. My astrobiology colleague Lindsey Hayes, who has two little kids at home, she's done some work with elementary school classes.
Linda Billings: It's very rewarding. And I think it all contributes to the greater good, just to get kids because as I say, kids are so smart. You just encourage them to think about things they've never thought about before.
Casey Dreier: You mentioned your work with planetary defense for near earth objects, how has the last year watching the US and the globe respond to a pandemic? How has that influenced your thinking about communications during a potential issue with planetary defense or a potential issue with a threatening asteroid?
Linda Billings: Oh boy. It's influenced my thinking. Well, it's influenced my thinking, but my thinking was along these lines before the pandemic that we can put down the best laid plans for an actual impact event, which we do, we have a national strategy and we have top level government working groups developing plans. But we don't know, we cannot predict when such an event will occur. We don't know who will be in charge. We can't predict. As a social scientist, this is always what I'm thinking. It's all about context, context, context. We can't predict what the global cultural environment will be like. We can't predict who will be in charge. Say an impact event could occur in Europe, in Asia, in the Pacific ocean, in north America. We don't know who will be in charge. And so it's not that I'm saying we should not put plans in place, of course we should do that. But implementation, as we've seen with the pandemic, we thought we had plans in place, but we really didn't have sufficient plans.
Linda Billings: We're paying very close attention to what's happened with the pandemic in terms of communications and expertise, it's very important. In the previous administration what happened was there was a lot of undermining of the expertise of the CDC and it's not necessarily gone away right now. We're trying to establish right now in the planetary defense community, the International Asteroid Warning Network as the group of experts that you can depend on. IAWN as we call it, is well-known now, well enough known in the planetary defense community, but not well-known in the public eye, and so we're still working on that.
Casey Dreier: Thinking about the future here, if you were able to implement a policy or a set of policies to improve the relationship between the public citizens and their space program, what were some of the most important things that we could do to enhance that, to improve that, to make it more satisfying and responsive on both sides?
Linda Billings: Well, for instance, the NASA Advisory Council should have at least one citizen member and all of the committees of the council should have at least one citizen member, it has not happened. I would also mention that the work of the NASA Advisory Council, which can be very good, is headed if the NASA administrator agrees with its recommendations. And if the administrator does not agree, it's not headed. That's only one step. But again, I mentioned the ECAST project and there are other organizations that work on citizen engagement and public policy making. As far as I can tell, except for that one exercise which stretched out over a few months, the ECAST project for the asteroid initiative, there's been little to no effort on the part of NASA to engage the public in a long-term ongoing, meaningful effort to participate in decision-making.
Linda Billings: I wrote some papers some years back about public participation in policymaking. One of the things that I found in my research is that it's difficult and it's messy, but I believe it's useful and I would argue personally necessary to make good public policy you need to involve people who are going to be affected by those policies. By and large, government has not done a tremendous job at doing that.
Casey Dreier: I think the idea of real public engagement, as you said, it's this messy process, that's just what democracy is. It's by design, right? It's messy in the implementation, but then at the end of it, you have by that process created a larger coalition of buy-in on all sides because he went through a messy process. I find that a very intriguing idea and something that really could be fascinating to see in purpose. Dr. Linda Billings, I want to thank you for joining us here today on the show. I really enjoyed talking to you and picking your brain on some of these topics. Can you share with folks listening, how they can find your writings and find you online?
Linda Billings: Yes. You can find some of my writings, I should actually post more of them, on my blog site, doctor Linda, D-O-C-T-O-R, Linda, L-I-N-D-A dot wordpress.com. You can always email me [email protected]. And then you can find some of my papers if you just search by my name at researchgate.net and academia.edu. Anything you can't find there, just let me know. Like I say, all of my writings have been publicly funding and so they're patient be publicly available.
Casey Dreier: We will link to those in the show notes. I want to thank you again for your time. Thanks for joining us.
Linda Billings: Thank you, Casey.
Mat Kaplan: Absolutely fascinating. A conversation like none other that I have heard on this Space Policy Edition. That of course was Casey Dreier talking with his guest Linda Billings. Casey, I thoroughly enjoyed that.
Casey Dreier: Thanks Mat. Glad to know after five years, I can still surprise you. We're not the old, bored married couple yet.
Mat Kaplan: No, not yet. Thank goodness, always a little life in the relationship. I'm not a bit surprised actually, because Linda has always been that outspoken, articulate spokesperson that she just gave so much evidence of. All right, we're going to call it quits here for the month of September on the Space Policy Edition. We will remind you one more time, planetary.org/join. If you're enjoying what you've just heard, if you love what we do at The Planetary Society, you heard the praise that Linda had for our little organization. You want to praise us, great. We welcome that and we will sure also welcome becoming a member of the society. Once again, planetary.org/join. Casey, I'll leave it at that. Thanks again for a great conversation.
Casey Dreier: Yeah, we'll see you next fiscal year.
Mat Kaplan: And for all of you, I hope that you will join us again on the first Friday in October for the next Space Policy Edition of Planetary Radio. Of course, I'll be coming to you every week, new shows every Wednesday in this series that is approaching its 19th anniversary. Thanks for joining us, everyone. Ad astra.