I am occasionally asked by members of the general public that I speak with about space such questions as: What is space activism, and what does it entail? How much of a commitment would I have to make? How scary is it? The most succinct answer is that space activism is whatever that member of the organization wants it to be, but the truth is far more complex. Here in North Texas the local NSS chapter wants to have fun, but also serve as a conduit for space information to the public.
On the national level, some folks are fine with mailing in their annual dues and reading Ad Astra, perhaps discussing an article with someone at work or letting them borrow the latest issue. These are usually the bulk of the members, and provide the pooled seed capital that lets the organization do its work. They're a necessary part of the team, and the more the better. Some of NSS's members work directly in the space field, putting American assets into space, and that's a big part of making space activism possible. We also have many teachers who work directly at inspiring succeeding generations of explorers. And we also have many, many folks all across the country (and around the world) who have absolutely nothing to do with space but who are interested in human beings exploring this wondrous cosmos in which we find ourselves.
The latter often (but not always) comprise the bulk of chapter memberships. These are the folks who pay both national and local dues, and participate in chapter activities. Some chapters work on specific projects, other chapters are special interest, and some are clubby get-togethers for the space interested to talk over recent events. The chapters, some of which pre-date the national organization, are NSS's way of reaching out to communities to help educate the general public about the benefits of space and why we should go there. This is an immensely difficult task for a group of volunteers, but it can be a very enriching and rewarding experience for the effort, and it helps build demand for space activities that get all of us into space.
NSS of North Texas (NSS-NT) is blessed with a number of committed members, and this strong core allows us to engage in a large number of activities in the community to build awareness of space activities. However, having the same members doing the same thing all the time quickly leads to burnout, something that those who manage volunteers have to be very careful to avoid. This is especially true as our chapter is ramping up to host for the 2007 International Space Development Conference (ISDC) here in Dallas next year, and is going to need every bit of manpower it can find. The chapter has adopted many strategies and tactics to help make this an easier task, and these generally fall into the following four categories:
Increasing the membership of the chapter is arduous work, but has to be constant as life circumstances draw active members into other priorities. So here in the D/FW metroplex we try to make it fun. We do a lot of educational outreach displays, but we also get to do some neat stuff too, like special guided tours of the Monnig Meteorite Gallery in Fort Worth. Nevertheless, getting new people to join is a slow process.
One way to increase the pool of those available to put on space-related events and displays is to partner with other space-related organizations. For North Texas this means the Dallas Area Rocket Society (DARS), Texas Astronomical Society (TAS), Dallas Mars Society, and local Solar System Ambassadors (SSA), and we're trying to make contact with other, less obvious organizations like the Dallas Personal Robotics Group and Women in Engineering. This provides a way for space activists with different objectives to work together, because in the end we're all trying to get out beyond low Earth orbit, and also to meet new friends. One of our chapter members is working to start a Planetary Society chapter in the area, and NSS-NT is supporting him in those efforts. We're also trying to build more awareness of the Moon Society in the metroplex.
Another thing we're finding is that Science Fiction expos and cons are increasingly interested in the kind of near-space, near-future Science Fact content that our organizations can bring to panels. We're getting a very positive response from many in the Sci Fi community interested in helping with the ISDC in 2007, both in the organization and the logistics of the event. We're now having to consider a line of red polo shirts for the volunteers.
Working together allows not only for a cross-fertilization of ideas, but also in memberships, as people find they may want to belong to more than one organization. All volunteer organizations, not just space advocacy ones, bemoan a lack of active members, and partnering allows the few active members there are to team up to be more effective. This also has a more impressive impact on the general public. A couple of guys at a table might be intimidating geeks (they drone on and on on some esoteric topic of plasma physics), but when you have someone from NSS, and the Dallas Mars Society, and a couple of SSAs, as at the recent opening of 'Roving Mars', suddenly you are talking about a lot more credence in the minds of the public.
We also like to have fun, so it's not uncommon for those of us who have attended Adult Space Camp or flown on G-Force One to wear our flight suits to the events. This helps to draw in the curious, and the right combination of patches can lead to all sorts of interesting discussions. We do generally try to wear NSS logo apparel at our displays, in conjunction with signage, to get the National Space Society name out in the community.
We've also worked to develop strong ties to our local museums, planetariums and academic institutions. By providing space-related displays for different events and occasions we help to provide more value-added for attendees at those institutions. This also means a varied list of activities for chapter members to be involved in depending on their particular interests. Our friendship with the Science Place at Fair Park, and their Planetarium, has led to displays for Space Day, an eclipse party, a three-night night Festival of Stars at a local community center, and for the second year the Dino Dash/Discovery Fest in May. The Frontiers of Flight Museum at Love Field has hosted two World Space Week events, as well as a Boy Scout Space Exploration merit badge clinic.
We'd like to do a couple more of the merit badge clinics prior to the ISDC to get some practice for having one in conjunction with the conference. Frontiers of Flight is more than happy to host them and has phenomenal facilities for doing so, the difficulty is in getting sufficient volunteers organized over the two weekends it takes to actually work through the requirements (which, coincidently, the chapter recently revised and updated for the Boy Scouts. The acknowledgements are in the back of the new merit badge pamphlet). It takes a surprising number of people with different knowledge bases to cover all of the requirements. The logistics are significant, and that's tough to make happen with an all-volunteer force. Partnering has helped, and DARS did a great job with requirement #3: Build and launch a model rocket, but had three volunteers just from their organization the first weekend and four for the weekend we finally found a place from which to launch. (Thanks UT Dallas!)
While partnering with other local space organizations helps to make things easier (and they may end up with a net benefit of more added members), the job of selling space to the public remains a daunting task. Nevertheless, there is one thing the public can't resist and that is free goodies. Our chapter works hard to make sure that everyone who visits our displays leaves with fistfuls of free information.
The kids are easiest, with coloring pages. Over the years our chapter has accumulated a sizable library of photocopies that can be used for reproduction purposes. We try to theme the coloring pages to the particular event that we are doing, such as the Moon for the 'Magnificent Desolation' opening weekends, the ISS for a St. Mark's Planetarium event, and Mars for the opening of 'Roving Mars'. Some of the pages are quite advanced and suitable for older visitors.
We also have accumulated craft materials for a variety of projects, and run experiments like balloon rockets. We have a number of kid-appropriate video programs, from cartoons to documentaries. The Snoopy Space Station video is particularly popular. Posters are always a favorite (and chapter members get first dibs on the coolest ones), and a never-fails attention getter is our recent addition of some donated space Lego pieces which include some very rare cratered grey base-plates that really set the mood for the kids to let their space imaginations run wild. We tell the parents that our hope is that kids who build Lego rockets will grow up to build real rockets. Unfortunately, we're not yet at the level where they can keep their creations.
For the grown-ups we've developed a list of local, Texas, Southwestern and national space-related institutions, whom we contact to request informational brochures and literature. Just like the partnering organizations are happy for the occasion to get their name out at space events, most everyone we write to sends us a small quantity of something to distribute. Thus, the McDonald Observatory gets more exposure in the D/FW area, as does Space Camp, NASA Spinoff, Estes Model Rockets, and so on.
One thing we have found that the general public is more inclined to pick up a glossy brochure than an obviously downloaded and ink-jetted, or photocopied 8.5x11. Many organizations have tried to cut costs by making a pdf file available on the internet, but that just transfers the costs to our chapter member volunteers. Spending the money for these organizations on something the public probably isn't going to pick up isn't a sound investment. In some cases it's unavoidable, but generally you're going to be much better off with shiny brochures and posters. The coloring pages are the obvious exception, signage a less obvious one.
Last but not least is the importance of how the NSS, and our space endeavors, are viewed in the eyes of the person on the street. The overall level of awareness of space activities tends to be fairly low on most priority lists, and the public is woefully under-informed with regard to current and potential activities in space. There are any number of reasons for this, from lazy journalism to the relatively unengaging fare found at NASA TV, but the results are nevertheless the same - space endeavors don't get the support they merit because people don't know that they should be supporting these things.
One hook that we play up is technology. The chapter is lucky enough to have some high-tech displays, like shuttle tile material, a sample of aerogel, space blankets, and even an engineering test model of a micrometeoroid strike at 6 km/s on an ISS radiator (result: it would still work, but the backside? Wow!). The space blanket is especially popular, and at last year's Discovery Fest at the Science Place we got to team it up with Raytheon's infra-red camera for some neat experiments with young volunteers. It gives us an opportunity to talk about the wonders of vapor-phase deposition with the grown-ups, and how important the technology is in our society. The aerogel sample we have is especially fascinating for grownups, especially once we start discussing its properties. A quick description of the Stardust mission, then some of the more unusual properties like resistance to thermal transfer.
People understand the importance of technology, and how important it is to continue to advance the cutting edge of technological capability. It's something Americans are particularly good at, and the new realm of opportunity that awaits us will enable an enormous leap in capabilities and prosperity. The Vision for Space Exploration specifies three priorities, Science, Security and Commerce. We try to cover all three, as they are all important for our space future.
Something else that is building the perception of the National Space Society is the International Space Development Conference each year. At last year's event in Washington, D.C. I was able to learn a few things at Rusty Schweickart's B-612 Foundation presentation about asteroids that I was able to apply at a HOBY Leadership seminar session on space less than a month later. This year's ISDC in Los Angeles is shaping up to be an outstanding event, chock full of great speakers, great presentations, and great events. One of the many great reasons to be an active space activist.
Ken Murphy is vice-president of NSS of North Texas and co-chair of the ISDC 2007. He graduated with honors in 2001 from International Space University, and served in 2002 as Program Assistant at the NASA Academy. He works at a private investment bank in the Dallas area.
NOTE: The views of this article are the author's and do not reflect the policies of the National Space Society.
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