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The Blue Pill Choice

about the closest we'll get to Mars anytime soon is in our dreams and at the movies
The Spacefaring Web 3.11
by John Carter McKnight
Scottsdale - May 29, 2003
In The Matrix, the hero chooses the red pill, symbolizing awareness and the struggle for human freedom. Most of the space community, along with much of our society as a whole, however, has enthusiastically embraced the blue pill alternative - willful ignorance and life in a fantasyland. Only by consistently "just saying no" to those blue pill choices will we get into space to stay.

The Matrix, and its current sequel, The Matrix Reloaded, portrays the real world as a place of struggle - grubby, unglamorous, dangerous and challenging.

The computer-generated fantasy world of the Matrix, by contrast, is a place where skills can be instantly uploaded rather than slowly mastered, where pesky laws of nature can be circumvented, and where style points definitely matter.

It is, in short, utopia for a people without patience or concern for consequences, who want their cake without the calorie burden of actually eating it.

Evidence of blue-pill choices in the space movement abounds. The previous edition of this column, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," described a conclusion that could only have been reached by a blue-pill junkie: that the most important space issue today is a lunar real estate registry.

"Likewise, any advocate who begins a presentation with "Assume cheap access to space..." or "Assume the government builds a heavy-lift launch vehicle for us�" has definitely popped the cerulean ellipsoid.

NASA and Big Aerospace continue to gobble blue pills with the voracity of a Las Vegas Elvis. It's almost tautological that bureaucratic decisionmaking involves heavy doses of willful denial of reality, but the entire Shuttle safety process has taken the clich� to sickening levels.

In going forward with its human spaceflight efforts, the agency has put forward only blue-pill alternatives. Continuing to fly the Shuttle for another twenty years can only be advocated once one has chosen to escape from the reality of its aging, unreliable systems, poor safety record and worse management record.

Securing Congressional approval to build an Orbital Space Plane seems equally delusional, given Congress's clear realization that NASA has failed to bring any of its X vehicles to operational status, uses wishful thinking and electronic fantasy for a financial control system, and has consistently refused to put forward coherent, achievable, meaningful goals for its human efforts in space.

A recent Washington Post op-ed by David C. Acheson calls on NASA to take the red pill: "It is time to take a mature, unemotional look at where manned spaceflight came from and where it is going, and with what technology and at what cost. Then either set it on a new path, with technology we can trust, or turn toward unmanned space science." This is exactly what's involved in taking the red pill.

I disagree with Acheson's implicit assumption that human spaceflight is unjustifiable. However, certainly in NASA's hands it's not been justified. To justify its human spaceflight efforts it must set setting forth a coherent plan of exploration.

If need be, it may have to stop flying the Shuttle be until a rationally-designed, cost-effective alternative can be developed, under competitive bid if possible, and by socialized aerospace if unavoidable. These are the red-pill choices confronting the Agency.

But the space community is not alone in its choice to avoid struggle, hardship, incremental progress and responsibility. Should anyone doubt that America collectively has taken the blue pill, the point was implicitly made this week by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman:

In the wake of the Iraq war, the E.P.A. announced that the average fuel economy of America's cars and trucks fell to its lowest level in 22 years, with the 2002 model year. That is a travesty. No wonder foreigners think we sent our U.S. Army Humvees to control Iraq, just so we could drive more G.M. Hummers over here.

When our president insists that we can have it all - big cars, big oil, lower taxes, with no sacrifices or conservation - why shouldn't the world believe that all we are about is protecting our right to binge?� Someday, our kids will condemn us for all of this.

Anthropology professor John J. Donohue elaborated on America's blue-pill infatuation in "Virtual Enlightenment: The Martial Arts, Cyberspace and American Culture" (Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Volume 11, No. 2, 2002).

He describes "an interesting cultural phenomenon of contemporary America: an enthusiasm for entertainment that focuses around strenuous physical activity in a population grown increasingly sedentary, the allure of imaginative interaction without true personal engagement, and a desire for mastery without effort."

He contrasts Matrix-like cyberspace martial arts with the real thing: "[t]he period of apprenticeship in traditional martial arts systems was not only long, uncomfortable and boring, but was also designed to weed out individuals who lacked the maturity of character necessary to reach a level of mastery."

This is what the space community is up to in the red-pill real world. Without illusions to sustain them, a few hardy souls are building little rockets, keeping little companies near the black, working through hard years of professional training, undertaking sustainable and effective projects. Building towards mastery, towards the time when a hard-won body of skills can be fully used to take us into space to stay.

Cyberspace martial arts "practice," Donohue contrasts, "permits programs to deliver 'symptoms' of mastery to the user without the psycho-physical transformation that truly occurs over a period of years in a training hall. Orthodox martial arts training has the potential to transform people into masters; video games have the power to seduce consumers into playing."

Likewise, many space-outreach programs and advocacy groups are geared not at producing eventual masters, but at seducing consumers into shilling out enough to keep their programs going.

They sell the dream of spaceflight we all share, but without a means of supporting their recruits through the years of anonymous struggle needed to make that dream a reality.

The dropout rate in space advocacy is probably comparable to that in the local dojo: huge. Consequently, their memberships tend to have a high volume of churn: rather than a core of "sempai," senior students working towards mastery, they have an endless supply of "kohai," fresh meat who sign up for a while then quit when they aren't able to dodge bullets after the first download, or live in the fantasy space cities that they design in their conference workshops.

A discussion of the sempai/kohai relationship, holds that its basis is in absolute truth (the red pill), as contrasted with comfort (the blue pill).

All the more credit, then, to the few who take the red pill and stay through the lean, unglamorous years.

Not all dreaming is blue-pill, though - a point I can't stress enough. We must know where we are going in order to get there, and the only way to do that is to dream of the future.

All change is a product of dreams, of envisioning something that does not yet exist. But change only occurs when those dreams are then translated into action, when the viewgraphs move to the shop floor and tin starts getting bent.

In response to the scorn I heaped on the Space Settlement Initiative's advocates for their flights of utopian fantasy, one reader asked me, "What's so bad about Utopia?"

A previous attempt to answer that question, The Spacefaring Web 2.02, "The Critical Response," is available in the archives at. The short answer, though, is that wishful thinking of any sort, be it bureaucratic denial, pie in the sky space dreaming, viewgraph engineering or Matrix jiu jitsu, can only produce consumers, not masters.

There is a clear difference between the revolutionary dream and the blue-pill fantasy. Any honest account of the dream concludes by saying, "The way there is through blood, sweat, toil and tears." The blue-pill fantasy concludes, "Sign up for this limited-time offer!" Caveat emptor.

Author's note: The previous issue of this column misattributed the press release about the Artemis Society/Moon Society's endorsement of the Space Settlement Initiative. The release was made by associates of the Initiative and was not cleared, in either language or timing, by the Artemis Society or Moon Society.

The Lunar folks are smart, practical people who're doing very good work alone and in cooperation with other groups. I erred in not confirming attribution of the silly and/or contentious statements in the press release prior to writing. However, I stand by all of my remarks with respect to the statement's actual authors.

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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