REACHING FOR A HOME IN THE STARS
Some scientists think space colonization can be well underway in 30 years. Others are skeptical of any major colonization efforts getting off the ground even in the next century. How fast is the movement to colonize space actually taking place?
It's not something that happens overnight. From columbus to the Mayflower was 128 years. That's the time scale I'm thinking about. It may sound like a very long time, but already we've spent 20 years since the first people went into space. So it's only a hundred more perhaps.
NASA's Space Shuttle program will be sending up dozens of spacecraft in the next decade. Its equipment will make possible assembly of satellites and huge space structures. Isn't this something of the quantum leap that space enthusiasts have been waiting for?
As far as colonization is concerned I would say it's very unimportant. It's an extremely modest enterprise. I'm not saying it's irrelevant. I'm just saying it's not relevant to the task of widescale colonization of the solar system. To do that you need a different style of operating. It's not so much a question of technology, or of the Shuttle per se.
The United Nations' Moon Treaty now before Congress defines the Moon and its resources as the "common heritage of mankind." The treaty is partly an effort to prevent the Moon from becoming an arena of international conflict. But the only two countries able to mount major space colonization programs, the US and the USSR, are embroiled in conflict around the world. And discussions between Third World and Western nations seem deadlocked on many fronts. Given this situation on Earth, can we expect a cooperative approach to colonizing space?
I tend to think about this historically. The Treaty of Tordesillas was an arrangement drawn up in Europe shortly after Columbus discovered America, and ratified by the Pope and the governments of Spain and Portugal. It divided the New World between Spain and Portugal. I think that's a fairly close analogy to what the present situation is between the United States and the Soviet Union. I don't think that in the long run these two countries will be the only ones going into space. The Spanish and the Portuguese each got a big chunk of the New World. But in the end the English did even better. And when the English came they came with the Mayflower, with what was essentially private enterprise, not big governmental expeditions. That's the model I personally hope to follow in the future. In the 128- year time frame I'm talking about, I doubt that the Moon Treaty, if passed, would last.
Not all space enthusiasts prefer the private enterprise model, as opposed say , to an inter-nation cooperative model. It's a complex debate. Why in a nutshell does someone like yourself gravitate to the private enterprise model?
Some scientific work done by the government is very good. But as long as government is in charge of space operations they will be very expensive. So I would like to see expeditions organized by incompetent groups like the poeple who came over on the Mayflower. They were the most incompetent group you could imagine. they did everything wrong. But that's the kind of spirit it would take to colonize space. Seriously, they were people acting very much on their own resources, taking their own risks. Only under those conditions can you do it cheaply, I feel. also, government planning is often done with short-term goals and very limited objectives they know they can achieve. They've never grasped the point that to spend money well in exploring technology you must fail at least half the time -- probably 9/10 of the time -- as one does in private development. When the airplane was being developed there were thousands and thousands of small companies designing and building airplanes, most of which were total failures. And that, I think, is why the government generally does not do well at this kind of thing. It can't afford failures.
There would seem, however, to be some merit to the Moon Treaty's call for considering the Moon the "common heritage of mankind" and urging its exploitation for the mutual benefit of all countries irrespective of their scientific development. In the satellite field, for example, a combination of internation cooperation and private enterprise has proven mutually fruitful for Third World and industrialized nations alike.
Certainly we will have both the internation and private enterprises. That's clear. Both should go forward. I think the general idea of the UN framework is great so long as it doesn't forbid people to work outside that framework. But the present treaty, in my view, appears to forbid a whole lot of things. I'm on the board of the L5 Society, the society of space nuts in favor of colonizing space. We officially oppose the treaty because we want to have as few obstacles as possible to private operations in space. Anyway, the human race is, I believe, a territorial species so that as soon as people are living out there they will likely want to own their land.
This approach begins to sound like the open door for extending today's fierce territorial conflicts into space. And yet you also are known to feel that the exploration into space could lead to greater humaneness on earth.
I think moving into space would allow us more elbow room for allowing diverse groups of people to exist and be independent. It gives possibility for diversity, which is one of the central themes of my view of society. It's the objective I prefer over against the cultural homogenization that is happening on this planet. It gets harder and harder for people today to be off on their own.
Such diversification could be argued to be our great problem on Earth. But you think it could have positive effects for Earth?
I think it would. I think there would be all sorts of social experiments, new political developments, new kinds of thinking and living. That's bound to have a somewhat liberating effect on the people that stay behind. It may give them a feeling that there are other things they might be doing.
What about the difficult question of weapons testing in space?
First, I believe a sharp distinction should be made between weapons of mass destruction and precise weapons aimed at small precise targets. The two are diametically opposite.
A recent PBS-TV documentarily investigated alleged claims that the US and USSR are racing to develop so-called particle beam weapons -- weapons that focus a high energy beam of subatomic particles at a target. Are you worried that moving into space will turn into an even more dangerous era of such weapons proliferation a la Star Wars?
No. I wish it were true. To my mind non-nuclear space weapons would not be as bad as atomic weapons. What people don't realize is that almost anything you do in the arms race is not as bad as what we have at the moment, which is about as bad as it could possibly be. It's not true that space weapons would necessarily make things worse. To be sure, I am against testing atomic weapons in space and would like to get rid of them. But I think the way to do that is not to get rid of weapons in general. Ethically there is all the difference in the world between a nuclear weapon and a particle beam weapon. You can't kill thousands of people with a particle beam. It's something you have to aim very precisely.
Yes, but it would be capable of penetrating the warhead of an intercontinental ballistic missile and virtually vaporize it in space.
That's exactly what I would like to have happen, if you knew how to do it. It would give a big advantage, of course, to the defense. In fact, this could be a means by which to get rid of offensive atomic weapons altogether.
Is there anything that can be done before the colonization of space to ensure that such weapons are not used against property in space?
There's the anti-satellite agreement, which is very important in the short term. We would like to have an agreement with the Russians not to shoot down satellites. I think that makes a good deal of sense. The primary objective is to protect the reconnaisance satellites. But that's a very small part of the problem. The bigger issue, I believe, is space defence. It could eliminate the use of weapons of mass destruction. So I would not want any kind of treaty that makes that difficult.
Returning to the peaceful side of colonization, space visionaries, like your colleague Gerard O'Neill, advocate putting colonies on the Moon in the coming decades, as well as other colonies that would orbit in space. Some are conceived as Earth-like environments powered by solar energy with trees, hillsides, animals, theaters, sports centers, and so on. What role could that type of colony, if built, play in the broad future of space colonization?
I like Jerry O'Neill very much and am grateful to him for everything he does. But we definitely have different philosophies here. His colonizing philosophy is to do things with the government NASA style. My plans are quite different. No doubt both are important. As I understand it, O'Neill-like colonies would be huge bureaucratic projects run in conjunction with government space projects. You would have 10,000 people up there living in very hygienic conditions, with occupational health and safety regulations, and so on. It would be a kind of suburb, a place where people live and work, taking as few risks as possible. I favor more venturesomeness. If the government takes responsibility for people's lives every risk is bound to become political. If anybody gets killed it's the government's fault. And that would also probably make space exploration cost a hundred times as much.
You seem resigned, however, that this is the pattern colonization will take.
No, although I expect that this will be the course in the next 10-20 years. I still have doubts that such colonies will ever be built. It's all a question of what we want to do. It's one of the possibilities. In the long run it's not what I personally hope for.
The celestial heavens have long served as a metaphor for human kind to describe the realm of the sacred. As human conceptions of the universe changed, so have metaphors for the sacred -- especially those that put heaven "up there" and Earth "down here." Will future space ventures continue to have an impact on this?
As far as metaphors are concerned, some of the most important changes in conception of the universe came in the seventeenth century with Newton. These changes are still having a ripple effect, so it's interesting to look at the little known religious side of Newton himself. NEwton had far more imagination and poetry in him than was realized until recently. He was well aware of the problem of talking about where heaven is. As Frank Manuel's book records his words, "If you ask where this heavenly city is, I answer, I do not know. It becomes not a blind man to talk of colours. Further than I am informed by the prophecies I know nothing. But this I say that as fishes in water ascend and descend, move whither they will and rest where they will, so may Angels and Christ and the children of the resurrection do in the air and heavens. 'Tis not the place but the state which makes heaven and happiness. For God is alike in all places. He is substantially omnipresent, and as much present in the lowest Hell as in the highest heaven. . ." So Newton understood the problem of changing metaphors very clearly. It's beautiful, this.
If changing scientific views of space have led to changes in earthlings' metaphors for the sacred, it seems to me that today's media image-makers sometimes bring ventures into space back down to Earth. I refer to the array of space movies and cartoons which portray space colonization in a cowboys-fighting-Indians image. Do you caution your children about the possible distortions of space films?
In real life, of course, the children know much more about these things than I do. So it's they who are giving me advice about what to see and what not to see. To my mind the beauty of these films is precisely that they don't accept the bureaucratic view of things. If you go to these films you don't get the impression you do from NASA that nothing interesting is going to happen in the next 20 years.In that sense I think they can have a good influence. Whether or not they are true, at least they open up the imagination.
What about the violence factor that concerns so many people today who study the effects of TV violence on children? Are we producing a whole generation so used to seeing actors vaporized by beam weapons that it will take life in an easy-come, easy-go, irresponsible way?
Well, that is nothing exclusively concerned with space films as such, and nothing new. I am concerned about that, but I don't think you can say that's a particular feature of space films, but of films in general. And after all, if you look at half of Shakespeare's plays, you look at the last act and you find that the stage is littered with corpses.
This brings us to what may be the bottom line of humanity's dilemma about space colonization. Physicists are increasingly aware of how the thought of the experimenter affects what he observes and how he observes it. In a similar way, much of what we humans do in space will be a projection of our consciousness, of what we conceive as possible or desirable. Will space be merely an arena for us to project all the moral problems we have here on earth? if so, shouldn't space colonization remain a relatively low priority in relation to our efforts to support the moral advancement of hunankind?
I understand what you're saying. But I think it would be a great mistake to wait until human beings are morally improved before doing somthing. Concerning the problem of morally improving human beings, we have to keep on trying, but we've never been very good at it. We put an end to duelling. This shows there are some unpleasant habits that we have been able to shake off. And perhaps war is another. I think if you went back 200 years you would probably have concluded it would be as hard to eliminate duelling as it would have been to eliminate war. Slavery was another. Those things were very deeply engrained. But somehow or other we did improve ourselves to a degree. So I think there is a hope. But I would not want to wait for such change before colonizing space. My own feeling is that getting out into space could make the moral improvement easier for, despite the possibilities for evil, such a new experience might give many more opportunities for good than we have here on earth.
A companion interview, with Dr. Stephen Cheston of Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., will discuss the human issues of space colonization tomorrow on this pagem .