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Closing The Final Frontier

chances are they'll still be running paper projects to the moon a century from now
The Spacefaring Web 3. 12
by John Carter McKnight
Scottsdale - Jun 25, 2003
Space pirates, make your fortunes quickly, because the Final Frontier may not be open very long. Take a good, hard look at postwar Iraq: there, today, the dreams of a new era of political and commercial freedom in space are being crushed. Even now, in the last months before the X Prize is claimed and suborbital tourism delivers the long-awaited opening of space to civilians, the end of space's era of innovation is visible on the horizon.

Many have envisioned space as a venue for explorations in human freedom, for social and political experimentation, populated by frontiersmen, robber barons, space pirates, mad scientists and refugees from a stale, stagnant Old World of Mother Earth. From Tsiolkovskii to J.D. Bernal, from Gerard O'Neill and Robert Zubrin to my own pre- 9/11 techno-optimism (my column of September 4, 2001, 1.8, "Red Tarzana," in the archives, described a libertarian political system for Martian settlement that now seems hopelessly innocent of factionalism and bloody-mindedness), the vision of space as an open society has become well-established in the popular imagination.

There have been other frontiers, geographic, technological and imaginative, each following the same developmental path of promising youth, wild adolescence, respectable maturity and then senescence. Yet it seems that their lifespan is decreasing exponentially, the period of creative freedom becoming ever briefer.

Almost three hundred years passed from the landing of the Mayflower in the New World until historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the American West a closed frontier in 1890.

The most recent frontier, cyberspace, was a zone of free experimentation for little more than a decade. Barely twenty years ago, science fiction writers envisioned cyberspace as the coming site of freedom and transformation. Ten years later, Nicholas Negroponte and John Perry Barlow were writing political manifestoes proclaiming the realm a natural, endless, open frontier, and the first great fortunes were being made.

In 1999, The Matrix described that year as the apex of human civilization, a utopia to be re-created for the imaginings of human slaves. It seemed a misfired joke at the time. Now, in an age of bioterrorism (a term unrecognized by my Word 2000 spellchecker, amusingly enough), preventive war, recession, and that sense of dis-equilibrium that precedes collapse, those days of the cyberspace frontier do seem like a lost golden age.

The next space frontier may not last even that long. A feature article in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine had the feel of an afternoon with Nostradamus: there it was, all laid out, the end of generations of utopian dreams of space.

What was once the American military-industrial complex has become the infrastructure of global empire. Within a lifetime, it could spread through the Solar System, and any future space colony could look an awful lot like occupied Iraq: the steady flow of resources to the shareholders back home ensured by the legions, with neither the employees nor the wogs having the freedom to criticize management.

From the roads commissioned by the Roman Senate to the railroads of Leland Stanford to the World Wide Web designed by Tim Berners-Lee to its desktop Microsoft antithesis, it's been true that he who builds the infrastructure rules the land.

The railroad tycoons were ruthless in their exercise of corporate power and manipulation of the political system. Berners-Lee enabled a networked anarchy on the Web, building on the scientific-freedom traditions of the university-based DARPAnet. Open-source Linux and competition-crushing Microsoft both shape the desktop world, to very different ends. Whoever builds space settlements will write the rules for the next frontier.

There will be space hotels, and orbital O'Neill colonies, and science towns on Mars. But they won't be built by the plucky entrepreneurs with tables at space-advocacy conferences. They'll be built by companies like Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), Bechtel and Booz Allen Hamilton. Companies that are effectively wholly-owned subsidiaries of the US Department of Defense - or vice versa.

The Times described a KBR operation in Iraq in terms easily adaptable to a future gig in an inhospitable environment, be it Luna or Mars:

A good example is Camp Arifjan, a U.S. Army base about 90 minutes southwest of Kuwait City. Six months ago, this was nothing but a small collection of buildings that was supposed to be a training base….

KBR essentially took an entire Army base out of containers and made it rise in the middle of the Kuwaiti desert two days ahead of schedule: air-conditioned tents complete with 110-volt outlets for the soldiers' boom boxes, male and female shower blocks, kitchens, a laundry, Pepsi machines, a Nautilus-equipped health club with an aerobics room ("Latin Dance Thurs & Sat!"), a rec center with video games and a stack of Monopoly sets, a Baskin-Robbins and a Subway sandwich shop. (No beer, though; alcohol is illegal in Kuwait.)

To conjure Camp Arifjan in a twinkling amid one of the most hostile environments on the planet was by any measure a stunning logistical achievement…. Though it looks like an Army base, Camp Arifjan effectively is a subsidiary of Kellogg Brown & Root. The Army is merely -- to use Gatlin's term -the "client."

Such companies do have generations of experience building technological infrastructure in extreme environments (in a bit of ironic foreshadowing, KBR built Johnson Space Center in that "Venus analog," coastal Texas). Who more likely to build planetary bases, asteroid mining towns, space solar power maintenance depots?

But these companies have an established way of doing business, one built upon unaccountable power. In Iraq, the symbiotic relationship between army and contractor yields a logic of repression: threats to the nominally-civilian contractors, or the economic assets they control, lead to repression of civil rights by the military occupation, which exacerbates resistance, and on.

Given that guard duties are performed by contractors, with a different set of rules of engagement than the publicly-answerable Army, even civilian inquiry into management practices may be met with threats of deadly force.

Getting good information about United Space Alliance management of the Space Shuttle has been challenging enough: imagine if NASA were contracting with companies who maintain global private armies.

If strategic interests are seen to be at stake on the High Frontier - and they will be - the involvement of these shadow-governmental contractors will be a given. In the grand tradition of company mining towns and their Pinkerton guards, order will be maintained and unions broken by men with guns answerable to no assembly, local or otherwise.

Those companies will write the space-property laws, not the academics, futurists and cranks (whether those are three categories or one I leave to readers' interpretation).

Those companies will draft the tax legislation that determines who keeps their space-resource fortunes and on what terms. Space settlement will be subject to employment agreements waiving many civil rights, upheld by courts whose judges are appointed by a Congress beholden to those companies for campaign contributions, local pork-barrel contracts and future employment prospects.

A previous column (1.18, "Finance and Freedom in L5,") concluded that daily life in orbital colonies may be governed by the meddlesome and restrictive rules of planned-community "covenants, conditions and restrictions" rather than the free-expression traditions of civil society.

Add to the mix the likelihood of a landlord in symbiotic relationship with the Pentagon and with a century's experience in protecting its interests with deadly force. Then it's not just the sci-fi dreams of a spaceborne democratic revolution that dissipate: all the infrastructure for high-tech totalitarianism will be in place, from the plumbing up.

More conservative readers may ask, so what? So what if the next century's Alpha Town is built upon state of the art safeguards against terrorism and labor-unrest sabotage? Shouldn't investors, be they civilian or shadow-governmental, have the right to protect their assets? Shouldn't law-abiding residents have the right to live in ensured safety?

There are two answers, one ideological and one somewhat more pragmatic. Some of us prefer freedom to security. The very safest place I've ever been was Soviet-era Moscow - I knew I could walk the streets at any hour without the slightest fear of criminals.

Having a frank conversation with a local in a hotel lobby was a different matter altogether, though. An omnipotent, ubiquitous police force enabled both the low crime rate and the low incidence of freedom of expression. As Benjamin Franklin said, "he who would sacrifice a little bit of liberty for a little bit of safety deserves neither."

The second reason goes to the very purpose of a frontier. The frontier is the place where the old rules are suspended, and new ones evolve in response to changed circumstances. Those first to market with the produce of the newly-opened frontier earn astonishing fortunes, and with them the power to shape the rules of the new space.

People who never would have made contact in their isolated Old Worlds mix, mingle, generate new language, new arts, new customs, to the enrichment of themselves and the worlds from which they came. Frontiers generate new wealth, both economic and cultural, and are the primary force driving improved quality of life.

This is the difference between a frontier and a colony, and why terminology matters. A colony is simply a transplanted shoot of the Old World, and change is not welcome. A colony is ruled by the old elites, and everyone is kept in their place. The rich get richer and the poor are temps. On the frontier, wealth and power go to the bright, the creative and the ruthless, and everything is up for grabs.

KBR and its ilk are colony-builders pure and simple, servants of the established order and no friend to the wild frontier. How they and their government symbiotes behave in Iraq is how they will behave out in the black. If space is to become a genuine frontier, either someone else will have to build the physical infrastructure, or space workers will have to revolt against worse odds than those faced by any previous rabble daring to stand against an empire.

Either alternative is possible: the great wealth to be generated from the space frontier may enable the creation of an infrastructure-building company not beholden to current thrones and powers. Likewise, modern history is replete with examples of asymmetric military-political victories by determined locals standing against imperial powers.

But it would be so much better still if we address the problem here and now on Earth. If military-industrial enterprises are forced to become accountable and transparent in their actions, if the rights and freedoms of civil society are demanded for their subjects, we might find ourselves better off today, with one less problem to export into our spacefaring future. Maybe, just maybe, we can ensure that the Final Frontier will look more like 1999's cyberspace than like today's postwar Iraq.

The Spacefaring Web is a biweekly column © 2003 by John Carter McKnight, an Advocate of the Space Frontier Foundation ( ) Views expressed herein are strictly the author's and do not necessarily represent Foundation policy. Contact the author at

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