by John Carter McKnight
Scottsdale - Aug 20, 2003
Our culture seems determined to erase the line between entertainment and reality, a trend to which not even drier-than-old-toast space missions are immune. Last week's telepresence wedding from the International Space Station and a novella in the September 2003 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine both illustrate the conflicts between space agency script and astronaut performance, between mission objectives and public-relations demands. Cosmonaut Malchenko's balancing act between the demands of fame and government employment may well be a picture of things to come.
The photograph of Malchenko's bride posing with a lifesize replica of her husband was funnier than it should have been. There was the perfect government astronaut, a cardboard cutout who couldn't go off-script. To our delight and the Russian space agency's consternation, the real groom was actually a warm-blooded, independent-minded human being, who wanted to marry without government review but with his allotted 15 minutes of fame.
Malchenko tapped an old Soviet-era reflex in an agency usually more cognizant of human foibles than NASA has been. From NASA, we've come to expect such public-relations self-sabotage as turning away private space traveler Dennis Tito at the gates of Johnson Space Center.
That both Tito and Malchenko triumphed over their governments' boorishness is a tribute to their good humor and determination. It bodes well for the opening of an era of spacefaring, when space travelers and residents will live lives, rather than merely accomplish missions, in space.
Yet, unlike in Tito's case, thin popular interest in Malchenko's wedding failed to tip the couple into celebrity status. A Space.com editorial bemoaned public preoccupation with entertainers over astronauts, blaming NASA's failure at self-marketing: "Call Hollywood - NASA Needs A Makeover!"
The article shouted. Though a well-reasoned and compelling piece, its argument contained two critical flaws: in equating NASA with humans-in-space, and in looking to entertainment marketing as a solution to our lack of a major space enterprise.
While no one seems to condemn other government agencies on similar grounds, ruing the lack of Bureau of Land Management examiners in Playboy spreads, for example, NASA has always been held to different popularity standards.
Its fiercely-defended monopoly on American space travel has led to space insiders and the general public alike equating the government space agency with the whole notion of human spaceflight. Wishing for greater interest in one becomes calling for support of the other.
Government employees are supposed to be uncontroversial and self-effacing: we all pay for them, so they must represent all of us, at our least common denominator, rather than appealing to any controversial attitude or type. Drab efficiency is the ideal, not a failing.
Critics are right: there is no reason why astronauts should be nondescript and inarticulate. However, there is no reason why astronauts should be government employees. The flaw is not with NASA's marketing, but with its monopoly.
Yet pitching astronauts as media celebrities may have its dangers as well. The past decade saw space advocates and science fiction writers push scenarios in which human space missions were supported by the sale of entertainment rights: exploration as Olympics, as it were. Largely these plots lacked depth of understanding of both the real business demands of entertainment marketing and the tedium of scientific work coupled with the languor of long-distance travel.
Finally, an insightful human-factors sensibility has been brought to the "space infotainment" scenario. Alex Irvine's novella "Pictures From An Expedition" posits a privately-funded Mars Direct-style first voyage - and then looks clearly at the damage to the crew wreaked by the celebrity spotlight.
The media and their audience single out the best-looking woman on the crew for all the attention - but show no interest in her answers, only in her cleavage.
Lurid stories about the crew's sex life drown out coverage of their revolutionary discoveries. Online betting focuses on - and magnifies - the prospect of a violent crew death. Crew tensions echo through their constituencies on Earth in a destructive feedback loop. The trivial, brutal hoopla of popular entertainment necessary to finance the mission becomes the instrument of its undoing.
Irvine's story is the best real examination of the consequences of crew selection and media attention on a Mars mission, at least since Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars and companion story in The Martians, "Michael In Antarctica." It's astonishing that so few people have taken a hard look at the intersection of long-term crew dynamics with calls for turning exploration into entertainment.
One hopes that human-factors researchers will take note, bringing Irvine's issues into the professional literature and to the attention of actual mission planners, public and private alike.
If popstar crews and gladiatorial audiences would fail us, if government blandness and public apathy have failed us, what is there that we can do?
The answer lies in this column's title and thesis, in the development of a Spacefaring Web.
This web is a network of relationships, of collaborative projects, of voluntary contributions towards a common objective. It is a third way to make exploration possible, a way neither farfetched nor as evidently flawed as the governmental program or the corporate bread-and-circuses spectacle.
Both the governmental and entertainment models assume a passive audience of ignorant, worthless consumers. Governmental advocates assume that space exploration would not happen absent the expenditure of public funds, and the role of everyone not on the Federal payroll is to not object loudly enough to jeopardize the scheme.
Entertainment advocates claim that people will avidly fork over money for space, but only if it offers half-naked Romans, lions and maybe a virgin sacrifice or two. Which view is the more cynical and elitist beggars determination.
By contrast with both, a networked model abolishes the distinction between producer and consumer. The network builds an enterprise in which everyone participates as producer and consumer alike, contributing value from effort and deriving value from the outcome.
Though the standard-issue network paradigms are open-source software creation and the growth of the internet, networked projects are nothing new.
They're how most science has always been done, how Europe's cathedrals were built, how culture is created and sustained, and why market economies are so strong. Only the legacy of the past century's domination by totalizing governments and their corporate stepchildren has caused us to lose sight of this natural means of organization.
Today, the networked approach to space is growing, dare it be said, astronomically, while government programs stagnate and corporate space spectacles remain in the ghetto of shallow sci-fi.
A few examples: cheap access to space is a critical bottleneck for all our ambitions beyond the atmosphere. A solution is approaching, courtesy not of NASA's legion of abandoned X-vehicles nor any AOLTimeWarner rocketship, but from the open collaboration/competition of weekend volunteers, millionaires' hobbyhorses and hungry entrepreneurial startups around the world.
No giant corporation nor government has an active humans-to-Mars program -yet there is one, a global Spacefaring Web of universities, below-the-radar enthusiasts within NASA, Mars Society hab crews and dyspeptic op-ed columnists.
Various projects, from O'Neill colony design to solar-power satellite feasibility studies to space law development, all are thriving because people want to be participants, not spectators, in the great endeavor of building a spacefaring civilization.
No astronauts in People or Playboy? Good. Eventually the failure of government and corporate-entertainment approaches will become sufficiently obvious, though one despairs sometimes of many Baby Boomers ever relinquishing their dreams of Camelot.
Confronted with incontrovertible evidence of the failure of those approaches that treat us as sheep, as spectators, even the old space advocates, the governmental and Big Aerospace diehards, will recognize the value of voluntary labor, of the passion loosed by participation, of the growing strength of the Spacefaring Web as it goes suborbital, then on to Mars and beyond.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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