The Planetary Society: Bringing Space to the Ordinary Citizen

 

What can an individual do to advance space exploration? For a long time, the answer seemed to be: not much. Space exploration requires enormous resources that not even most states can afford. Nearly four decades ago, Carl Sagan, the doyen of space science and an inspiring science communicator, decided to do something to cultivate popular participation in space exploration. With his colleagues Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman, Sagan founded the Planetary Society in 1980.

The Planetary Society now has over 50,000 members around the world crowdfunding exciting projects related to space exploration. These projects – LightSailPlanetary Defense, and PlanetVac – show that ordinary citizens around the world can tangibly contribute to human space activity. The organization is now under the leadership of Bill Nye, the inspiring science communicator who for many is still fondly remembered as the host of the television show, Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Filling Space spoke with Kate Howells, The Planetary Society’s Global Community Outreach Manager, about the organization’s mission and projects.

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Why do you think it is important to communicate science to a general audience?

There are two main reasons I think it’s important to communicate science to the general public. First of all, because science impacts everyone, regardless of whether they work in a scientific field. On the most immediate level, health and nutrition are impacted by science so it’s in people’s best interests to have an understanding of the decisions they make about their bodies. But on a larger scale, decisions that all of us on this planet are making as consumers and voters are impacting our environment. I believe that a better understanding of science among the general public would lead to wiser environmental policy in government. The second reason I think it’s worth communicating science to the general public is that I think exposure to science can really give you an appreciation for the glory of the universe we live in, and I think that can be spiritually fulfilling in a world that can otherwise be bleak.

How do you find the general public’s responsiveness to space exploration?

People across the board seem to agree that space is cool. Some people find it a bit scary to contemplate the emptiness and vastness of space, but for the most part they still agree that space exploration is exciting. What people do take issue with, though, is the cost of space exploration. I think this is in large part because people have a skewed perception of how much is spent on space exploration. I’ve seen public surveys where people estimated that NASA’s budget was as much as a quarter of the entire US federal budget. In reality, it’s around 0.5%. Many people also forget that money spent on space exploration is spent here on Earth, strengthening humanity’s technological skills and supporting good jobs.

What motivated you to study and work on space exploration in the first place?

I first became really passionate about space exploration when I read Carl Sagan’s book Cosmos and learned about the Voyager missions. I was struck by the spectacular otherworldliness of the moons and planets the twin spacecraft observed, and by the genius and intrepidness of the people who made the missions happen. I realized that space exploration is one of the most majestic things humans do, and I just wanted to be involved however I could.