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The Space Settlement Summit

a very exclusive party
The Spacefaring Web: 3.07
by John Carter McKnight
Scottsdale - Mar 20, 2003
Some forty prominent members of the space community met earlier this month in Los Angeles to face the leadership challenge (see 3.04, An Open Challenge to Space Leadership,) raised by the Columbia disaster. It's said of a dancing bear that what amazes isn't how well it dances, but that it dances at all. This Space Settlement Summit was no Russian ballet, but it did a creditable little cha-cha.

The price of admission to the invitation-only event was agreement on permanent, open settlement as the ultimate goal of space-related efforts. The revolutionary nature of the very proposition was somewhat lost on us.

An idea fundamental to the work and dreams of so many in that meeting room remains a long, long way from current Congressional and NASA policy, as well as from registering at all in general public discourse.

Still, that shocking notion brought together financiers representing a truly impressive collective net worth, official representatives of space advocacy groups, entrepreneurial CEOs, former astronauts, longtime adversaries, and the odd crank columnist.

While nothing that could be considered diverse by normal standards of age, gender, race or other common criteria, for a deeply fractured space community, the assembly was a remarkable tribute to the efforts of co-chairs Buzz Aldrin, Dennis Tito, and Rick Tumlinson, moderator John Lewis, and of every participant, in seeking common ground.

There was a broadly libertarian consensus around the value of private enterprise and private initiatives in space, but strong views were expressed on the desirability of state involvement, either through a leading role for the American military on one hand or by a new NASA crash program on the other.

Technologists and technology-policy specialists were well represented, as were entrepreneurs with a consumer-marketing focus and advocates of effective public outreach.

The Summit was the beginning, rather than the culmination, of a process of building consensus within the space community and translating that consensus into effective action.

The effort has been immensely difficult, and the organizing team continues to do a truly outstanding job in encouraging coordinated forward movement (or "cat herding," in a frequently-heard phrase). Their first public action was today's issuance of an initial press release, describing the summit and setting forth an emergent consensus.

The only document included in that consensus came from a team tasked with answering the question "why space settlement." Other working groups were challenged to create work product and action plans in a variety of areas, from legislation and public policy to business to public outreach.

Nothing better illustrates the ongoing theme of this column - the incremental growth of humble networked efforts aimed at building a way to space for good - than the efforts of the "why settlement" team.

Its members included author Vanna Bonta, JPL engineer Mike Eastwood, former Skylab crew systems manager Lt. Col. USAF (ret.) Bill Haynes, Space Frontier Foundation Secretary and longtime activist Brook Mantia, and space activist Theresa Theiler. No moonwalkers, CEOs or billionaires. No colossal egos or champion hobbyhorse riders.

They turned out beautiful, polished prose that made the case for settlement clearly, effectively, and in a way that both reflected the consensus of the diverse attendees and that can be communicated readily to the lay public.

Their statement, excerpted in full from the press release, reads:

Why Space Settlement
The human settlement of space is a noble cause that deserves the attention and support of people throughout the world for the following reasons:

  • To enhance prosperity for all people and make use of the abundant resources of outer space;

  • To fulfill the drive for discovery and exploration, which is an innate human quality at the core of progress and thriving civilizations;

  • To ensure the survival of human civilization and the biosphere, and protect them from natural and man-made disasters.

Expanding boundaries to this new frontier is a pursuit of freedom, a fundamental element of progress essential to the fulfillment of human potential."

It's damn fine work. Other groups did creditably as well, producing documents and initiatives which will take longer to develop fully. Unofficial contacts between investors and companies, and among consumer-focused entrepreneurs, may in time evolve to transform the space movement into an effective, profitable and popular network of enterprises.

A few teams, however, really missed the boat. Regular readers of this column will be not be surprised to learn that the space leadership's media and public outreach team did not fare so well.

That working group, of which I was a part, failed to produce a statement or action plan that represented its own consensus, let alone that of the summit as a whole.

Again, we proved better at communicating to each other - preaching to the choir, perhaps - than at agreeing even that speaking to ordinary folks might be worthwhile, let alone planning how to do it effectively.

Again, the tin ear for how Westward-ho themes play to contemporary audiences (2.12, Barsoom's Legacy, and 2.13 Spirit of Mars) caused a fracture.

Again, a blind insistence on "educating the public" - a phrase bringing to mind grim Irish nuns with knuckle-rapping rulers - rather than entertaining, engaging, challenging, inspiring.

However, a large spark of hope came from the introduction to the discussion of former Shuttle commander Rick Searfoss, who delivered a luncheon address to the summit the day prior to participating in the outreach working group. Searfoss understands the appeal of space and can communicate it more effectively than most anyone in the space community.

He has what corporate consultant John King calls "crossover appeal" - the ability to reach out past his own background and experience in a way that resonates with very different people. He recently resigned from NASA and is touring on the lecture circuit; I recommend him strongly to anyone seeking a charming, compelling speaker for a large event.

Searfoss stood out, even in an exceptional crowd. Still, the summit did live up to its name. The attendees were able, articulate people of substantial achievements, who expressed themselves clearly and effectively across a broad range of issues.

It really was an impressive assembly. Everyone present genuinely strove to work together civilly to accomplish as much as possible as a group while still maintaining room to advocate their own positions. With two exceptions, that consensus held.

The Planetary Society is not mentioned in the press release. TPS Executive Director Louis Friedman attended and contributed value to the first day's discussions. Ultimately, he indicated that TPS could not sign on to the summit's efforts, given a fundamental divergence in interests and approaches between the human settlement-focused team and TPS's robotic-science concentration.

His message to the group was graceful, gentlemanly and well-reasoned, and his participation, I believe, helped ameliorate some of the humans/robots conflict within the space community.

The Mars Society was officially represented at the summit by Board member Greg Benford and biologist Elizabeth Malatre. Unofficially, I've counted nine Founding Members and six current or former holders of leadership posts in TMS who were in attendance, out of a total of 52 on the invitation list. Responsible TMS leadership did sign off on the draft of the press release which was issued today, 16 days after the event.

The Space Settlement Summit should not be taken by anyone as a substitute for personal action. One profound limitation of the attendees was their lack of constituencies: few people there spoke for anyone beyond themselves, and few speak to anyone outside the space community about the importance of space settlement.

The summit was a meeting of generals without troops: the colonels and sergeants who see the work gets done were not in evidence. There is great value in their work, and they have unique roles in changing the direction of our efforts in space. But there is much work to be done, and many hands needed to do it.

Astronaut or fan, CEO or small investor, advocacy-group leader or $20 contributor, for each one of us the task remains the same: organize now to effectively and passionately advocate humanity's permanent venturing into the cosmos.

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