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HOFFER ON SPACE: In this more-or-less weekly feature, I will explore the applicability of Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer — Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements to space exploration and the space advocacy community in particular. I will follow the format of the book, with a summary of Hoffer’s arguments in yellow highlight followed by my comments on their applicability to space advocacy (some chapters may end up being combined with others or skipped over entirely).

I am writing this for the most part in “blue-book” fashion, so if you spot any inaccuracies or outright errors, please feel free to send me corrections (or whatever other feedback you may have).

[Note: I am publishing this early, as I will be out of town on Sunday.]

Part 1b — “The Appeal of Mass Movements — The Desire for Change”

We tend to see ourselves as formed by and subject to external factors, and so, conversely, judge the world around us by how we feel about our own lives. Those with fulfilled lives tend to take a positive view of the world around them and do not wish for it to change, lest it change for the worse. Those with unfulfilled lives — those who feel they have "failed" in some way — blame the world around them and seek changes which offer the opportunity for an improvement in their fortunes. The desire for change is thus a desire to shatter the status quo outside us, which we blame for our inner failures.

Many are discontented, but one important ingredient is required to prompt a change from discontent to disaffection: a sense of power. If the discontented see the world around them as immutable, an order in which no reform is possible, they will endure their discontent. So too with those who fear that, as bad as things are, any effort to bring about a change could only make things worse. However, if the discontented feel that they have power over their own destiny (whether or not that feeling is grounded in reality), great changes are possible. The key to turning the passively discontented into the actively disaffected is an empowering doctrine or belief — a ‘faith to move mountains’. This belief typically takes the form of an extravagant faith in the future being better than the present.

Actually possessing the reins of power does not automatically translate into a desire for change. "Where power is not joined with faith in the future, it is used mainly to ward off the new and preserve the status quo." The inverse is also true: a desire for change is impotent without faith in the future. Faith in the future generates its own power: "…extravagant hope, even when not backed by actual power, is likely to generate a most reckless daring. For the hopeful can draw strength from the most ridiculous sources of power — a slogan, a word, a button." To be effective, a movement must offer the hope for a glorious future.

It is easy to be discontented and frustrated with the current state of affairs in space exploration — and to judge by the dismal demographics of the aerospace industry, the financial trouble of space-related enterprises, and the increasing popularity of "moon-hoax" conspiracy theories, many people are disillusioned enough to give up on space altogether, and to suspect based on the failures of the present whether we were even capable of the successes of the past.

Changing this discontent into an active desire for change requires a belief that change for the better is possible. The advocacy community is given to flights of extravagant faith in a bright future — visions of immense spinning stations, weekend vacations on the Moon, and grocery-budget manned expeditions to Mars are our stock-in-trade. During the Apollo years, the Moon landings were seen as a bright beginning rather than an end in themselves, the first voyages in a grand new “Age of Discovery” that would see Man exploring the Moon, the planets, and perhaps someday even the stars beyond our own solar system. While such visions of the future generate some enthusiasm for their respective movements, under Hoffer’s analysis they all lack a critical component: a sense of power, in the form of some believably efficacious means for bringing them into being. Any discussion of the future of space exploration inevitably results in speculation of what could be done, "if only NASA would get out of the way", or "if only NASA would allow it to happen", or "if only NASA would do it for us". The community talks big, but all too often allows itself to be held hostage to perceptions of NASA-imposed impotence.

To make matters worse, the means of accessing power traditionally chosen by advocacy groups reinforce these perceptions of impotence. Every conceivable special interest group across the whole spectrum of issues holds bake sales, conventions, letter-writing campaigns, and online petitions to promote its position on its pet topic — one more organization doing so is a drop in the advocacy ocean. Vain efforts to get noticed by the entrenched powers evaporate the sense of power, and end up changing the organization’s vision of the future into an unreachable mirage, and changing the participant’s attitude from "How do we make it happen?" to "Why bother?"

Is it any wonder that the biggest perennial challenge facing volunteer organizations of all types is recruitment and retention?

The ability of the Mars Society and other groups to accomplish something tangible and meaningful, in the form of projects like the research stations and pressurized rover, will enhance the perception of power among members and potential recruits. This perception can then be used to enhance the credibility of the organization’s ability to bring its vision into being.

As for NASA, where the power in space exploration currently resides, the highlighted quote above accurately captures the institutional attitude towards Shuttle derivatives/replacements and space tourism. Repeated budget crises, program failures and cancellations, and the visible waning of public interest in and support for the civilian space program after Apollo have tempered the agency’s institutional belief that the future is bright and that change for the better is possible. Risk reduction is the agency’s dogma, and underlies both its reluctance to carry through on developing new systems and its jealous defense of what it considers its turf.

The resistance to change is a phenomenon of the extremes and is the product of a fear of the future. Those who benefit the most from the status quo are as wary of change as those who benefit the least, for fear of the future being worse (or even worse) than the present. But armed with a faith in the future, those from either extreme are just as likely to bring about great change in a society.

Those who benefit the most from the status quo in space exploration are clearly NASA and the large aerospace contractors, in whom are concentrated the bulk of space-related jobs and money. The one realistic institutional alternative to NASA — the USAF — is dominated at present by a "fighter jock" culture, which is heavily invested in the status quo of piloted aircraft and aircraft-based weaponry at the expense of expanding its mission into space. Changes in the status quo carry the risks of failure or the diminution of the benefits reaped from the current arrangements, which overwhelms the possibility that change may bring with it new and greater benefits in the form of new products, new markets, and new capabilities. The status quo is "a bird in the hand".

Those who benefit the least from the status quo are those space exploration proponents who, despite the agency’s shortcomings, pin their hopes on NASA to open the way to the stars. Their fear of the future is embodied in a blindness to alternatives, which prompts them to defend jealously what little benefit they derive from NASA’s efforts on the principle that if NASA doesn’t do it, it won’t happen. Change therefore represents a risk that what little they already have may evaporate, leaving nothing to take its place. For them, the status quo is "half a loaf".

In both cases, changing the status quo means changing the fear of the future that sustains it.

Those working for change will be intensely discontented, feel (rightly or wrongly) as though they have access to "some source of irresistible power", and have an "extravagant conception of the possibilities and potentialities of the future." But they must also have little notion of the difficulties involved in implementing the changes they desire. Those with experience in the field to be changed are apt to be handicapped by their more realistic understanding of what can and cannot be done in the context of the status quo, and are unlikely to join the movement until it is well underway.

"Passion for the cause" in an advocate of space exploration occurs in direct proportion to their willingness to gloss over or dismiss the practical realities of technological readiness, financial resources, and political commitment. This disregard for real-world considerations is typically expressed as a question of the form: "Why cant we just ____?"  Why can’t we just start a private-sector space taxi service? Why can’t we just have NASA do a manned Mars mission? Why can’t we just send people back to the Moon?

On the other hand, those with more experience are prone to provide unsatisfying and often cynical answers to this sort of question, focusing on why an idea is a priori impossible under the circumstances — until such time as they run out of excuses and dismissive rationalizations and begin to think that maybe something can be done after all.

Far from being naive nuisances with little practical use beyond padding the organization’s membership roll and lining its wallet with their membership fees, those who disregard the real-world limitations on what we can do in space are providing us with a great value: dreams. These wide-eyed blue-sky dreams are a current of fresh thought that keeps the movement from stagnating through too narrow a focus on what is "practical", "realistic", and "readily achievable". In short: they refresh the movement’s faith in the possibilities of the future, which feeds back into the desire for change.

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