Smells Like Teen Spirit
by John Carter McKnight
Scottsdale - May 14, 2003
Before long, a private vehicle will make a successful suborbital flight. That flight will mark a passage from adolescence to adulthood for the space community, an achievement of independence from the stifling paternalism of stagnant government programs.
The efforts of the entrepreneurial rocket companies have been reminiscent of the ritual that marks the passage to adulthood in our culture - not the Confirmation or Bar Mitzvah, but the drivers' license road test.
Like driving, suborbital flight is no big deal to the adults at NASA and the Russian Space Agency, who mastered it a generation ago. Everyone else has been working towards that unglamorous rite of passage, not seeking to storm the heavens or revolutionize the world, but merely to re-create Alan Shepard's flight of forty years ago. To get the rest of the space community its drivers' license.
While the small rocket companies prepare for that suborbital Department of Motor Vehicles exam, the X Prize, some still cling to adolescence, turning with cynicism from the real to their fantasies of the ideal.
Cynicism and utopian idealism go hand in hand - both are rejections of the possible in favor of the ideal. The space cynic considers any constructive action by NASA not just unlikely but impossible, and treating with the space agency akin to dancing with the devil. The utopian rejects all current efforts as dangerous distractions from the "real work" of bringing about a spacefaring paradise.
A recent press release by the Moon Society and Artemis Society provides a textbook example of that bipolar adolescent attitude in action. The organization rejects "other groups'" strategy of engaging audiences with a credible message. Rather, they implicitly favor preaching doctrinal purity even at the price of public incredulity, going on to reject the notion of establishing a consensus to build upon rather than pushing for "utopia now."
Taking a pouty swipe at those engaging in the political "art of the possible," referring to the Space Settlement Summit effort ( The Spacefaring Web 3.07, the Moon Society/Artemis Society writes that "several other space advocacy groups now say they are ready to publicly espouse the idea of space settlement after years of being afraid to do so very loudly for fear it sounded to 'way out'� but, as always, failed to support any plan directly targeted to promote space settlement."
After wingeing that the grownups haven't given them their whole Christmas list, they go on to endorse "the most realistic and achievable method for encouraging private enterprise in outer space."
A media program? Investor briefings? Low-cost rocketry? No - the "Space Settlement Initiative," a system for recognizing extraterrestrial real estate claims.
Bear in mind that this press release was issued the day a crew departed for the International Space Station - by Soyuz. On a day when the United States had no means of sending humans into space, when humanity's entire stock of flightworthy spacecraft consisted of a few steel balls sitting in Russian warehouses. The level of wishful thinking, of willing disengagement from reality, is staggering.
This is not to condemn Alan Wasser's Space Settlement Initiative on its philosophical merits. As a discussion point, a proposal to shape future efforts, the Initiative has much to recommend it, and is superior to many competing space property rights schemas in the literature. As a concept, the Initiative is excellent work.
As a rallying point for political action today, its choice by the Moon Society/Artemis Society is a breathtaking rejection of adult engagement with reality as it stands today, reminiscent of the people who consider themselves "residents" of online gaming worlds rather than the disappointing land of meatware. It is Peter Pannishness of the worst sort, and an insult to the people getting their hands dirty in the Mojave in an attempt to earn the space community's way to adulthood.
The Moon Society/Artemis Society is not alone in clinging to adolescence. For the Baby Boom generation, efforts to re-create an Apollo program for the Moon or Mars are an attempt to regain their Camelot, that high school team-spirit feeling of solidarity, enthusiasm and purpose.
Those of us a bit younger felt that magical teen hormonal rush in the late 1990s, in the founding days and nights of the Mars Society and the Roton rollout. Recession and robotic failures dashed us with adult reality just as Vietnam and urban riots did our forebears.
There's a difference between healthy idealism and manic-depressive teen obsession. It's an easy distinction to lose, especially in a community united around enthusiasm. The impulse towards space is driven by the majesty of the universe, by the sense of infinite possibility in our expansion into the cosmos. Heady stuff, and passionate engagement should arise from our grand visions.
The mature attitude, though, charts a course between grandeur of vision and the boundedness of the possible, between the future we would create and the present we must create it from. Immaturity lies in living in our castles in the sky, in refusing to sully our dreams with reality.
Religious conservatives refer to this adolescent fantasy as "immanentizing the eschaton," of trying to live in the transcendent moment rather than the mundane world. At the other end of the spectrum, Lenin called the socialist utopianism of leftist dreamers a "childhood disease," to be outgrown through engagement with "objective conditions."
The Moon Society/Artemis Society press release, and much of the commentary on future space transportation, manifest that "childhood disease." They should be quarantined with "space mumps," the symptoms being an urge to move right into castles in the sky, coupled with a sullen resentment of unglamorous reality.
Much of the space-education effort displays space mumps symptoms. "Getting kids excited about space" is pretty much a direct translation of "immanentizing the eschaton." It's a putting of the excitement cart before the reality horse.
Space education programs fall flat because the genuine excitement of hands-on engagement with something uniquely, generationally new and timely is simply absent. Rather than remedy the problem by advancing space access, giving rise to genuine passion and interest, these programs attempt to generate enthusiasm in a way transparently phony to kids, who have a finely-honed nose for the foolishness of adults trying to act like teenagers, whether in trying to recapture their own youth by imitating the young or in trying to talk to them in their own language.
There was little need in the last decade for programs, governmental or nonprofit, to get kids excited about computers. Why? They were exciting. The time was right, the technology was available, malleable, and eminently suited to creative play. Space technology isn't there, and all the wishful thinking, and "space is kewl" phoniness won't change that fact.
The problem isn't youthful enthusiasm - it's the divorce of that enthusiasm from appropriate circumstances, like 20-somethings still hanging out at the high school football games. There will be a time when space property rights will top rational space advocacy agendas. But not today . There will be a time when most bright, imaginative kids will immerse themselves in the reality of space access. But not today. There will be a time when we unite for an exciting push out into the cosmos. But not today.
Today we're confronted with workaday tasks of engineering, finance and marketing, with the long-neglected foundational work that must precede sustainable space development. Much of it is about as exciting as refinancing a mortgage - but just as necessary for our future.
We have to get up in the morning and go about the workaday tasks of ensuring interest in space - in real space deliverables, not orbital sky castles or a Red Eschaton - and cheap, safe, routine access to Earth orbit. Wishful thinking and pouty utopianism can only keep us from our adult responsibilities. If we need to feel that teen rush again, well, there's always rock & roll.
The Spacefaring Web is a biweekly column � 2002 by John Carter McKnight, an Advocate of the Space Frontier Foundation (http://www.space-frontier.org/Projects/Spacefaring ) Views expressed herein are strictly the author's and do not necessarily represent Foundation policy. Contact the author at [email protected]
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