2012 is the 25th anniversary of the merger that created the National Space Society (NSS) in 1987. The history and culture of the two organizations that merged, the National Space Institute (NSI) and the L-5 Society (L-5) were dramatically different. These differences made the merger negotiations extremely complicated and difficult. However, time has proved that the effort was very much worthwhile. The merger successfully combined the very different strengths of both organizations creating the remarkably influential and successful NSS.
NSI began in 1974. The principals involved in its creation included Wernher von Braun and then-NASA Administrator James Fletcher. Its primary purpose was to provide public support for NASA programs. Early funding of several million dollars was obtained from aerospace companies and the industry’s principal union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
In dramatic contrast, L-5 was founded by Keith and Carolyn Henson in 1975 to promote the space settlement ideas of Princeton Professor of Physics Gerard O’Neill. The Henson family, which included four young children, was poor. Every penny was plowed into their small business. Henson family consumption made the proverbial church mice look rich. For example, to save money on food the Hensons raised rabbits and frequently scoured the local countryside for edible plants. Initial L-5 funding was the $20 dues of roughly 30 members, who joined as a result of a mailing to O’Neill’s list of people interested in space settlement. Early membership growth occurred due to word of mouth.
Given its lack of resources, volunteers were of crucial importance to L-5. This fact led to the early establishment of L-5 chapters. One of my contributions was to help L-5 grow by negotiating a series of six mergers of smaller, chapter-oriented space organizations into L-5 over several years. By 1984 we had merged with nearly all such organizations in the United States. L-5 had a monopoly in this area and my interest in growth via mergers turned to a bigger stage. Despite our differences my analysis indicated that of the various merger options available, a merger with NSI made the most sense and would potentially be of great benefit to both L-5 and NSI. I pitched the idea to NSI. Not interested. The cultural gulf was too great for them to even discuss the idea in a very preliminary exploratory sense.
Fortunately, soon thereafter, the executive director (ED) of NSI changed. The new ED, Glenn Wilson, was an innovative, out-of-thebox thinker. I pitched the idea again and Wilson agreed that it was worth discussing. Fruitful preliminary discussions followed. It was time to get serious. I enlisted the L-5 president, Gordon Woodcock, to lead a negotiating team consisting of the two of us with the understanding that it was primarily up to me to do the negotiating and more generally make the merger happen. Woodcock’s influence and authority were crucial for selling the merger to the L-5 Board of Directors, not an easy task. Wilson had similar issues with his board, but had the advantage that at NSI, the ED was very powerful. The rest of the NSI leadership typically deferred to the wishes of the ED.
L-5 brought to the table two major assets: a large system of dedicated volunteers built on the foundation of its monopoly chapter system and an excellent grassroots political organization with a well-deserved reputation for effectiveness. For example, at one point L-5 organized a letter-writing campaign aimed at the President asking him to initiate a space station program. Hans Mark, then deputy administrator of NASA, had the letters counted. According to him 40,000 letters were delivered. These were not form letters that people signed. They were not letters using talking points that we provided. They were the much more effective and difficult to generate individually written letters using arguments entirely determined by their authors.
NSI had no chapters, comparatively few volunteers, and no organized system for generating grassroots political action. What they brought to the table were comparatively enormous financial resources plus the kind of credibility that only comes from having the likes of Wernher von Braun as a major player in their creation. NSI had 2.4 times more members than L-5, and unlike L-5, it had a financially lucrative relationship with the aerospace industry.
There was one additional major (informal) player in the merger, the aerospace companies. They wanted improved grassroots political support for the space station and figured correctly that NSI resources could be used (after a merger) to substantially improve the political organization that L-5 had already built. Since they were a major source of funding for NSI, Wilson needed to keep their desires in mind as the negotiations proceeded.
It took three years to complete the negotiations. The last two years were particularly intense. The time cost for me during these two years averaged about 40 hours a week, which had to be accommodated around the demands of my job. Since I wrote almost all of the innumerable Merger Plan (legal term for merger agreement) drafts, the time cost for Wilson was a bit less. We employed a very competent lawyer to help and consumed a great deal of his time at considerable expense. The vast majority of the negotiations was spent determining the initial set of bylaws for the merged organization. Wilson and I inched through the bylaw language to make sure that it meant exactly what we had agreed to and that all of the ambiguities that we could think of were dealt with. This involved asking the lawyer numerous detailed questions and also having him review a large number of drafts in their entirety. A requirement was the lawyer’s approval of every word of the final Merger Plan.
Why such concern for the wording of the bylaws and more generally the Merger Plan? It was because of the great cultural divide between the two organizations. Both sides were concerned that the culture of the other might dominate the merged organization in a fashion that was detrimental to the organization’s success. What was the optimal balance and how should this balance evolve with time?
In the end both L-5 and NSI obtained most of what they considered to be important. The fact that this was possible was fundamental to the success of the negotiations. L-5 was able to protect its unique space settlement goals and obtain a bylaw structure similar to that in L-5, which meant the new organization would have a structure that facilitated chapters and more generally the contributions of activist volunteers.
NSI kept its office (the key members of the L-5 staff moved to Washington, D.C. and merged into the NSI office structure). NSI also obtained its way with regards to the name of the new organization. Note the similarity between the National Space Institute and the National Space Society.
Both sides (plus the aerospace industry) enthusiastically agreed on the importance of grassroots political action and how to move forward in this regard. Shortly after the merger, Spacecause was formed (with myself as president and CEO) and became a member of what was named the NSS family of organizations. Spacecause allowed the NSS family of organizations to legally engage in substantially more political action than NSS could by itself. (Much later the law changed ending the legal need for Spacecause.)
NSS and Spacecause working in tandem rapidly built upon the foundation laid by L-5’s chapters and political organization. Soon, for example, we could deliver in 48 hours (via our enlarged phone tree) 4,000 phone calls in support of a piece of pro-space legislation to the office of any member of Congress—a number that we periodically checked by targeting an office, which agreed to count the calls. Few organizations in the days before the internet and social media, including much larger ones, could match this capability. As a second example, we rapidly organized a system of alliances with most of the other pro-space organizations and magazines. Through this system our calls for specific grassroots action, such as letters and phone calls aimed at influencing the vote of a member of Congress, on several occasions reached nearly two million people.
Perhaps the most important result of the merger is that key people from both organizations came together as a team, which proved to be much more effective than what had gone on before. For example, Lori Garver, who had been number two in NSI at the time of the merger, soon became the ED of NSS. She held this position for nine years, during which she absorbed the ideas and goals of L-5. Today in her position as the deputy administrator of NASA, she is spreading these ideas to large numbers of important people. It is hard to see how this could have happened in the absence of the merger.
This article was written by Mark Hopkins, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the National Space Society. The article originally appeared in Ad Astra, Winter 2012.