NASA announced yesterday that it would suspend all public outreach and education efforts per immediately, as an effect of the sequestration measures of the US government. The original internal NASA memo that was published by our friends at SpaceRef caused an immediate outburst of disbelief and disappointment on all (non-NASA) social media channels. Although the message is clearly not a hoax, it needs to be seen what the actual effect of this message will be to future NASA events and communication, but it sounds severe enough. The spacetweep community will definitely notice.

Immediately after this announcement several discussions about the future of space outreach arose on blogs, Twitter and Facebook. Most focused on whether or not this could be true, but all soon realized it is. Some then started to focus on the implications and possible solutions. How can the space enthusiast community jump in? How will this shift the focus to other countries? And what should the outreach message be anyway? Listen in to a rather philosophical conversation I had with my UK space outreach friend Amjad Zaidi on Facebook:

Remco: I read it. Speechless. I am glad we live in Europe now. At least we are used to very low budgets for space outreach. But if this is all as bad as it looks now, this will be the moment for the space community to jump in and take over. Budget or not!

Amjad: Beancounters with no vision over there. Ive seen this before cutting through muscle tissue and bone. Damages the capability to recover and grow the space sector. You’re right that we’re used to doing more with far less in Europe, but it puts us on red alert. Totally agree, we need to jump in regardless of budget. We do this outreach because we believe in it.  What you, me and everyone in our community does is for the future of our species!

Remco: Absolutely agree! Pity that a majority still thinks that cutting costs will save the species… Let’s wait until the dust settles on this, to see the real damage done in a few days/weeks.

Amjad: Exactly. Once they begin to see lack of ability to generate new funding and even further budget cuts as a result, they may wake up. The US administration only has itself to blame. Europe and China will lead the way.

Remco: China will, for sure. Did you see that their upcoming Shenzhou-10 mission to the Tiangong-1 station will have a large element of public and youth outreach? How well timed. (Source: Zarya.info)

Amjad: Yes I did. Anything the West does, they can do better. It may stir the competitive juices of other space faring nations. Still think we need a more globally unified long term space policy to build a space infrastructure together. The “Frontier” approach to survive and thrive if you like! Much as I love Apollo and everything it did, we need to be smarter with long term goals that build our capabilities and habitats in space and other planetary bodies.

Remco: That next frontier will hopefully drive countries together. For now I enjoy watching the Chinese space sector catch up with the rest. Together we’ll then be able to take further steps. In my opinion this whole ‘human expansion’ thing has not even started.

Amjad: I agree that we’ll have to work together to push forward into the next frontier. The ISS proved international cooperation is possible. We’re already working with the Russians, so Chinese partnerships are logical too. Who knows one day we’ll go watch a launch there. I prefer celebrating and working towards a better future rather than constantly looking back.

Remco: I already talked to a Chinese Space Agency official, asking her whether it would be possible to attend a Chinese launch. She wasn’t sure, but thought it should be possible. So who knows: #ShenzhouTweetup in the future?

Amjad: I like that idea lots. Publicising Chinese success may rub salt in the US administration’s face but they only have themselves to blame. Poor NASA, yet again it’s a political football. At the end of the day we look at global space programs with better eyes and are not nationalists about any one country’s efforts. We all came from the same place, bleed red and have the same destiny in space. I’m sure the Chinese would welcome our experience and efforts.

Remco: Totally agree. Yet, the Chinese have an even longer way to go. The fact that Twitter and Facebook are still banned is not a good sign. Catching up with the rest of the world means more than technology. In fact, technology is probably the easy part. It will take much longer for China to become an open society more like ours (assuming that is still the best model, which I increasingly doubt). If the West can cut back on hard capitalism, while China cuts back on their hard planned economy, we are getting towards a truly cooperating (space) society. This will take a lot of time though…

Amjad: Spot on. We need to move towards a more cooperative society model and especially for globally unified space activities. Extremes of either ideology and economic model are ultimately self defeating. China despite its runaway growth and wealth is hampered by their communist hardliners. The US and Europe are hamstrung by excessive capitalism and are suffering now, despite past success. Perhaps there is another economic and societal model? Oh to live in a world where the acquisition of wealth and power is not our prime motive, but advancing our knowledge is!

NB: During this conversation @NASA tweeted a brief statement about the message: “Heard that NASA communications & outreach is shutting down? We’re not going anywhere. Given the budget climate, we’re reviewing outreach to ensure we’re communicating smartly – priority on mission critical activities.” Let’s just wait and see what this means…