Human settlements in space: a primer

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By Alexander Howlett

To understand the recent moon colony discourse in the United States requires understanding the historical trajectory of the country’s space program, not just the current political calculus embodied by Newt Gingrich’s pontifications to the “space coast”, regarding employment for the space industry or Obama’s endorsement of the Mars-Direct Phobos exploration program. There are several groups competing for funding and attention within the American space community. I label the first group, which most furiously contends for moon and mars colonization as ‘inevitable’ and ‘logical’  under the grand rubric of the von Braun school. Within this larger umbrella there are two major competing groups, for whom I will use the terms Heinleinists and Roddenberryists. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The von Braun school, largely derived from aerospace enthusiasts within the United States Air Force at the end of WWII (and their international accomplices), at about that same time, proposed a long term vision for America’s future in space. The four-tiered project involved ambitious space exploration and colonization including, more or less in this order: the building of a rocket-plane (1) to be used to build a space station (2) to be used as a waypoint for (3) lunar colonization and (4) exploration and colonization of Mars. The Cold War, for better or ill, interrupted this framework. The Space Transportation System (STS) and the entire ensuing agenda became a hidebound project in the face of JFK’s aggressive lunar exploration project. Subsequent funding and enthusiasm for the von Braun long-term project withered away amongst competition for resources, floundering public interest, and lack of unified strategic vision within the space agency itself. The result, as we all know, was an inadequate, dangerous, and unprofitable STS, endless technological and policy drift of the space-station programme under Nixon and Reagan, its final realization — over-budget, inadequate, and basically pointless under Clinton — and then a failed third-phase under George W. Bush in the 21st century. Make no mistake, the current Democratic administration’s Phobos project is more or less an attempt to reinvigorate the same stale von Braun agenda.

Knowing how this splits along cultural literary and media lines is crucial to understanding the nuances of how anyone could support such a dead-end and crazy proposal. This brings me back to Gene Roddenberry and Robert Heinlein. Those who support moon and space colonization can be divided into doves and hawks, respectively. The former, represented by their messiah, Roddenberry, believe in the neo-Turnerian notion that space is literally some kind of replacement frontier for the American West, and therefore, must be exploited to ensure the continuation of American greatness. The hopeful belief of the Roddenberryists is that international cooperation in space can produce a more humane, cooperative, and technocratic world. Crucial to the Roddenberry agenda is the abandonment of pre-scientific or pre-technological humanism or moralism. In the Roddenberry world we are all technological determinists in complete agreement with Benthamism and scientific positivism. Luddites and Popperians need not apply, and the categorical imperative is obsolete.

To the Hienlinists the question is rather different. Here technological determinism and post-humanism become transcendent. For the Roddenberryists, the warp-engine might be a dream, acknowledged to be possibly beyond realization, but to the Heinlein faction there is no debate: the Cherenkov drive’s invention is only a matter of time. Neorealism and the anarchical view of international relations is the prevailing leitmotif of the Heinleinist. Space is ‘empty’ and therefore might as well be American before it ends up communist or Chinese or god help us whatever. The moon and the other material bodies of the solar system are resources awaiting exploitation, rather than the combined heritage of the species as the UN mandate on space exploration maintains. But then again, to the Heinleinist, the entire international framework is merely a superficial facade for the American space-empire, at best its legalist cover.

Within the space community there are essentially two groups opposed to the von Braun school: conservationist astrobiologists and radical proponents of robotics. The former oppose the von Braun holistic agenda as destructive to the alien environments on the moon and Mars; the latter considers the entire ‘manned’ space agenda as obsolete and economically wasteful compared to their own efficient programs. Two third parties external to the space program seem to exist: anti-government minarchist tea-partyers and neoliberal occupiers who together seem to feel that domestic political economy outweighs interplanetary ‘progress’. Naturally enough, there is a tiny fourth group basically worth ignoring completely who question the historical and philosophical legitimacy of the undemocratic anti-humanist discourse of space-empire itself. But, thankfully, these people are either incomprehensible, annoying deconstructionists, or crazy arts students and can be safely disregarded as ineffectual losers with few career prospects and no ability or interest in actually engaging the space-empire ideology anyway. Therefore: onwards to space, Christian soldiers!