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The Making Of An Ex-Activist

myth making in action
by Jeffrey F. Bell Honolulu (SPX) Dec 22, 2004
Since I started writing these space policy and technology opinion pieces here at SpaceDaily.Com, there have been two kinds of feedback from my readers.

One group is glad to hear a skeptical, moderate, technically informed view of what's going on in space exploration. Many of these people work at NASA, the big aerospace contractors, the small aerospace contractors, the new startup alt.space firms, or even British and European space institutions. They are right down in the trenches, working on real space projects.

They know from personal experience in their particular trench that things aren't as rosy as they are portrayed on space enthusiast web sites, in official press releases, and those out-of-date documentaries on the Discovery Wings Channel.

They are glad to see the real story get out, and find out a little about the real story in other trenches. I get a lot of useful advice and intelligence from this class of readers, much of which finds its way into later columns.

The other group of readers is outraged, insulted, and appalled that anyone can write anything critical or skeptical of the Holy Cause of space travel. These people start web threads devoted entirely to denigrating myself and the editors of SpaceDaily.Com.

They send hysterical, badly spelled e-mails to both of us demanding that my writing be censored or at least moved to some kind of explicitly anti-space web site where it won't contaminate the minds of the Faithful and lead them to doubt the holy words of the Space Prophets.

They tried to get me fired from the university position I already had quit. Recently, a member of the Aldridge Commission went so far as to telephone one of my best friends and try to turn him against me!

These people often make unjustified and arbitrary assumptions about me. Some think I must be a liberal who wants to divert the NASA budget to the UN or midnight basketball. Some think I must oppose all manned space flight, just because a lot of other space scientists do. So it is time to tell you all about how I got where I am today.

Like a lot of kids growing up in the 1960s, I bought into the "Von Braunian" paradigm of massive government-funded space exploration. That was an era of massive spending on military and propaganda projects in the West, intended to keep democracy alive in the face of an equally massive threat from the Soviet Union.

Apollo was the ultimate expression of that high Cold War mentality. I didn't realize at the time that we were living in an anomalous historical epoch, where insane dictators were directing human development.

Without Hitler, Stalin, and Khrushchev, rockets would have remained a toy of a few hobbyists like they were before 1932. The secret opinion of John F. Kennedy as recorded on the Oval Office tape machines is typical of all democratic politicians: "I don't really care about space per se."

From 1973 to 1977, I attended the University of Michigan, which had a strong promoter of space exploration in the late Jim Loudon. He ran a monthly event called the "Space Freak's Film Festival" at which Ann Arbor's community of space cadets could get a regular fix of official NASA propaganda that we couldn't get on the five broadcast TV networks available in North America at that time. For the first time I was able to meet other Space Cadets and exchange views with them.

In 1974 I read Gerard O'Neill's article in Physics Today, which first brought the issue of space colonization and space resource utilization before the general public. It was clear at that time that the classic "Von Braunian" paradigm was in deep trouble, so I switched over to the "O'Neillian" paradigm.

I joined the L-5 Society and the Space Studies Institute. Space-related newsletters and books filled up a large proportion of my bookshelf. I helped found the Hawaii chapter of L-5 and dutifully attended all the meetings for years. Our motto was "L-5 by 95" and we didn't mean 2095.

During working hours, I got a Ph.D. in astrophysics and spent about 15 years actively working in the field of remotely determining the mineral composition of asteroids.

Although there was a lot of intrinsic satisfaction in that intellectual puzzle, the main reason for staying in that particular squirrel cage was my belief that asteroid materials would play a major role in the future human development of outer space - and soon enough for me to play a part in it.

I soon learned that it wasn't politically correct to be a space activist in the space science community. Most scientists espoused the "Carl Sagan" paradigm of space.

In this view, space exists only for scientists to explore and the role of the general non-degreed public is limited to paying our salaries and admiring our results. So after a few intense arguments, I learned to keep my Space Cadet life separate from my professional life.

In the late 1970s, there were reasons to think that major development of space resources would occur. NASA actually supplied low-level funding to O'Neillian research groups. Major publications appeared under the NASA logo filled with detailed technical articles about space colonization based on real laboratory research.

Up perhaps to the Shuttle explosion of 1986 or maybe even until the failure of DC-X, my romantic side was still able to convince my skeptical side that we were making slow but steady progress toward the O'Neillian space program.

But times changed. The national L-5 Society went through some strange internal battle that nobody in the local chapters understood, and L-5 was merged into the new National Space Society.

I quit the NSS in 1988 in a fit of anger at their continued blind support of the Space Shuttle, after it was quite clear that it would never provide the cheap access to space we needed. It seemed to me at that time that pro-space activism was pointless - until the Shuttle program collapsed from its own inherent defects and left room for new ideas.

From 1988 to 2002, I supported private industrial development of space G. Harry Stein's "Third Industrial Revolution". This paradigm held that there were immense profits to be made with zero-g manufacturing, space solar power, LEO comsats and navsats.

Gerry O'Neill went off in this direction too, trying to develop a civilian version of GPS (until GPS was civilianized and his market evaporated). But this approach was a dismal failure.

Experiments on Mir and Shuttle failed to identify a profitable zero-g product. Entrepreneurs like Gary Hudson founded numerous Mom & Pop Rocket Companies that all failed to produce that elusive cheap profitable spaceship. The LEO comsat bubble collapsed and poisoned Wall Street against investing in space projects.

But other Space Cadets continued to agitate for the O'Neill program or something similar as a major government program. Numerous pro-space activist groups like the Space Frontier Foundation and the Mars Society flourished in the wake of L-5. An endless series of lobbying campaigns like "March Storm" were carried out in the halls of the US Congress.

The result of all this blood, sweat, toil, and tears was ... negative progress. The US government space program became even more oriented around the Shuttle and the Space Station. By the 1990s, the Clinton Administration had actually forbidden NASA to spend any money on studies of post-ISS projects.

Meanwhile on the science front, my estimate of the future of asteroid science was completely wrong. Today, it's even more of an intellectual ghetto than ever.

Even by waving the specter of planetary annihilation at the public, asteroid researchers have never gotten the serious funding they need to fly serious spacecraft or even do truly comprehensive ground-based surveys. The most profitable work in that field today is sifting through byproduct data from stellar astronomers' mega-projects.

It took longer than I expected, but eventually that second Shuttle crash finally came. Space did move back onto the national agenda again. The two years since the Columbia accident have seen a long-overdue debate on what the USA and the human race should be doing in space. Those two years were probably the last window of opportunity in which the O'Neillian paradigm could have replaced the flying-in-circles paradigm at NASA.

That window is now past and the Space Cadets missed it. Space colonies or settlements are not even mentioned anywhere in the Bush Administration's Vision for Space Exploration or the Aldridge Commission report.

The "new" NASA program is just a replay of the old Apollo program, with the same old super-expensive expendable boosters but only a fraction of the Apollo budget. If those 30 years of pro-space activism has had any effect, it has been to convince NASA officials and politicians that the O'Neillian vision of the human future in space is irrelevant, or possibly even crazy.

So when I describe myself as a "recovering pro-space activist", I mean that I have given up on the idea that a few thousand wild-eyed space enthusiasts can bring the Millennium.

It's time to try a more moderate and rational approach to space. One of my goals is to jerk some people back from the radical fringe toward a more centrist position somewhere between the Aldridge Commission and Bob Zubrin.

I'm not alone. I know several Space Cadets who have followed a similar trajectory from enthusiasm to disillusionment. Some have gone all the way to cynicism and clinical depression. Lots of people like me have dropped out of the organized pro-space movement over the years.

This is one of the reasons that the movement seems so nutty to the average citizen or politician today only the extremists are still on board. You don't have to talk to many of the remaining space activists before you realize that a lot of them are borderline personalities like former NASA Administrator Dan Goldin.

Now many readers have rightly asked, "Since you say the Clinton/Kerry space program was pointless, the Bush space program is unaffordable, the space activist program is technically impossible, and most alt.space firms are investment scams, what kind of moderate, centrist manned space program DO you support? When will you write an article giving all the programmatic and technical details of this program?"

All I can say to that is: I'm trying. But every time I start doing background research for that article, severe problems turn up with most ideas for a meaningful and sustainable manned space program.

The vast economic and social benefits touted by the pro-space community don't stand up to serious analysis. And the "experts" seem to be fresh out of new ideas that aren't basically replays of the von Braun, O'Neill, Sagan, or Stein paradigms.

All that's left of my old Space Cadet persona is a deep-seated belief that anything as fundamentally new as space travel is an option that the human race should explore at some level.

Maybe it doesn't have the cosmic importance that we Space Cadets used to think it did. Maybe it is really a cultural activity like archaeology or musicology or history that doesn't rate the Apollo-like levels of funding and overriding priority that activists have been demanding for 30 years.

If space travel really isn't cosmically important, it can hardly survive at its current cosmic cost levels. Increasingly I believe that the only question that really matters is "What new technical approach will give us a major reduction in launch costs at an acceptable development cost?" In future columns I hope to explore previous failed attempts in this area for clues to how we might possibly succeed.

And here is one parting thought for you people who have tried to suppress and censor my writings: You are asking for the kind of special protection that we don't give anyone here in the free societies of the West, not even popes and presidents.

By trying to suppress open discussion of your particular space dogma or space mission concept, you are openly admitting that you don't think it can survive free discussion. You are shooting yourselves in the foot.

Jeffrey F. Bell is a retired space scientist and recovering pro-space activist.

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