[The following Op-Ed appeared in the July 7, 2003 issue of Space News]

Building a Space Settlement Constituency

By Steven Wolfe


It was 15 years ago that a little noticed bill was introduced in Congress called the Space Settlement Act 1988. It seems appropriate to review the history of this legislation in light of the activities of the Space Settlement Summit, a promising new effort chaired by Buzz Aldrin, Dennis Tito and Rick Tumlinson, which held its first meeting in March.

I offer this recap, lessons learned and some recommendations in the hope that it will add value to the Summit’s deliberations.

It was my distinction to conceive and draft the Space Settlement Act as a staffer to the late visionary Rep. George E. Brown, Jr. (D-CA). The House Science and Technology Committee eventually folded most of the language of the Act into the NASA Authorization Bill of 1988, which was signed into law (P.L. 100-685) by President Ronald Reagan. In essence, the law declares that Congress believes space settlement to be the ultimate result of human space flight and that human expansion into space will enhances the common good.

Further, it mandates that NASA prepare a comprehensive report every two years reflecting an interdisciplinary review of all research relating to settlement, such that Congress can measure the progress being made toward the settlement goal.

By providing NASA with a space settlement planning directive and reporting requirement, it was reasoned that the agency would finally have a clear sense of purpose that had been lacking since the heady days of Apollo. In the years since the law was signed, however, NASA has never referred to the code in its long-range planning and has presented not a single mandated report to Congress. What was a significant victory for the space movement upon enactment became an abysmal failure of implementation.

What happened with the Space Settlement Act is perhaps a textbook example of how not to pass legislation. Leveraging the influence of Rep. Brown and with the help of a small band of activists (Tumlinson among them), this initiative went speedily from my word processor to committee markup to the President’s desk. As a result, the measure bypassed what every important piece of legislation should have before introduction. It lacked a bona fide constituency from either outside or inside the government. What I failed to appreciate at the time was that the legislative process works best when it responds to issues with a broad base of support.  

To its credit, the pro-settlement branch of the space community organized quickly to provide timely support for the bill. Unfortunately, after enactment, there never emerged a meaningful effort to bring pressure to bear on NASA to adhere to the new law. Even Congress had little interest in holding NASA accountable for the reporting requirement.

As for Mr. Brown’s office applying pressure, once I left the Hill and politics in 1989 space settlement dropped off his list of legislative priorities and no real follow-up was made. 

Over the years, I have heard anecdotes of an eye-rolling Dan Goldin who snickered when occasionally asked about the law. But Goldin is not to blame. If there was no constituency to take this law seriously, it is not surprising that NASA never did either.

Therefore, my recommendation to the participants of the Space Settlement Summit is that no new space settlement legislation be pursued until there is developed a strongly committed and sufficiently large constituency ready to take meaningful action when the time comes.

But constituency building is no easy task. It will take a great deal of effort to transform the hearts and minds of a large enough segment of the population. It’s one thing to have an opinion poll majority of Americans who supports the human space program. It is quite another to rally a full-fledged global constituency behind the idea that space settlement must occur in the soonest timeframe possible.

If those of us in the pro-settlement contingent wish to build such a constituency, it will require a level of resolve that we have yet to demonstrate.

To renew and strengthen our resolve, I suggest that settlement visionaries first step back and deeply reflect on why it is we are so impassioned about human evolution into space. If we engage in this inquiry sincerely, we will eventually come to a place within ourselves that is the source of inspiration calling us to pursue the settlement dream. From that place we will have access to all the strength and wisdom we need to succeed in this all-important mission. Also in this place, if we can get there, we will recognize the awesome responsibility that is in our hands and that in this effort we must not fail.

Once steeled by this internal inquiry, we are ready to consider how we might transfer the intensity of this vision to others. We will employ an array of reasons to make the case and win over hearts and minds. We will conduct effective outreach efforts and convincing educational campaigns.

But, behind every well thought out and statistically supportable argument we will feel the primordial call, which is beyond reason, simply demanding, “This must be done no matter what.

I have no doubt that the brain trust and resources engaged in the Space Settlement Summit are sufficient to make space settlement a reality within my children’s lifetime, if not my own.

But will the Summit participants fully appreciate their own potential? Will they pause to reflect on the depth of their own commitment and take it to a new level? Will they take fearless actions to build a World constituency for humanity’s movement into space? Will they fully recognize the enormous responsibility embodied in their chosen cause? For all our sake, I hope that they will.

In the end, our success will have very little to do with legislative initiatives, and have everything to do with our depth of understanding that the settlement of space is a global imperative that can no longer be ignored.



Steven Wolfe is currently writing a book on the spiritual dimension of humanity’s yearning for space.