Status Report

Mars Now 1.3 – From Viking to Vegas

By SpaceRef Editor
July 31, 2001
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If we succeed in becoming a spacefaring civilization, likely July 20
(along with April 12, Yuri’s Night, maybe the most brilliant meme in a
generation) will be a universal holiday. The anniversary of both Apollo
11, the first human landing on another celestial body, and Viking 1, the
first robotic landing on another planet, the day marks our first pair of
baby steps into the cosmos. Anniversaries are backward-looking things,
though, and this column was going to do just that – look back at the
influence of the Viking missions on two generations. But a funny thing
happened while I was researching the piece. Obliquely, and in very
strange circumstances, I discovered that a dynamic spacefaring future
just might be at hand.

If you have to go to a space conference, try to pick one in Las Vegas.
While the comparison of that self-contained, immensely artificial town
to a space settlement is a facile one, there’s in fact an immense
richness to it. There have been a few moments in life when I‚ve felt an
immense pride in being human: on seeing Michelangelo’s Pieta, on
downloading the first Mars Pathfinder photos onto my laptop – and on
this trip, driving past Hoover Dam and then down the Strip, both for the
first time. We‚re lotus flowers, we humans, born in the muck, rising in
beauty to the heavens. Vegas is the jewel of the lotus, founded in
corruption, but brash, bold, beautiful, glorious fun.

The spirit of the place deeply infected the attendees at the Space
Frontier Foundation’s Return to the Moon III conference. The second
half of the weekend was an experimental workshop in designing a
near-term lunar settlement: attendees and panelists joined on
specialist teams focused on finance, transportation, habitation, policy
and science, then cross-fertilized. They worked in a room right around
the corner from the welterweight boxing championship weigh-in at
Caesar’s Palace (George Foreman went away with a stack of “Return to the
Moon – This Time We Stay!” posters for his inner-city youth gyms).
These scientists and academics and government employees suddenly began
to channel the shade of Bugsy Siegel: this moonbase – it’s gotta be
gorgeous! And give the people what they want! And make huge profits to
finance growth!

Rather than the expected “take lots of taxpayer money to put scientists
in a can” – the sort of sterile technological “mule” I‚ve condemned
before – the conference instead became the outline of what I‚ll call the
Spacefaring Web, the organically-developed, integrated technologies and
institutions we‚ll need to become a spacefaring civilization. These
folks really got it, turning quickly to entertainment as the only
conceivable justification for spending – and source of – the kind of
money needed to build on the Moon.

But the great big lightbulb went off not in session but after hours, of
course, at the bar. Four of us were sitting at dinner. I was deep in
conversation with a friend who‚d been to the Viking retrospective the
day before in Washington, when I looked up to see one of us really
engaged in discussing the conference program – with a Klingon. We were
in Quark’s Bar at the Hilton. The next flash came from my fiancee and
the session’s policy chair: hey, this is the dream, isn‚t it? Sitting
with good friends in a space station bar, talking with aliens about our
plans to settle a new world* July 1969 gave me my first Moon landing,
my first Star Trek episode and my first Heinlein novel, all within a
couple weeks. And here I was in 2001, (sort of) living the dream.

Then an even bigger flash: hey, right now, literally billions of
dollars are being made off that dream! It’s not just a bare hundred
geeks and freaks in a hotel baying at the Moon – this dream is popular,
and lucrative. So if we take the existing and successful Vegas dream
machinery and make it cooler and realer – Quark’s with a panoramic Earth
view – well, that’s the Spacefaring Web right there!

But what does this have to do with Mars?

Last week we looked at examples from the previous European ages of
exploration, in the 16th and 19th centuries. Very briefly, the earlier
missions succeeded in reaching the Arctic, as their technology was just
barely capable of a “flags and footprints” mission, but the Europeans
lacked the financial and technological resources to back a sustained
presence. Our spacefaring efforts are at that Elizabethan level: we
can get to destinations in the inner solar system with some hardship and
at great cost. We can: we went to the Moon, and something like Mars
Direct could give us a toehold on the red planet. But a McMurdo
Station, let alone a Jamestown Colony, are not attainable by the means
we‚ve used so far.

Sustaining any innovation – from the wheel to agriculture to a Mars
settlement – requires not single-point effort but a sustaining web of
technology and institutions. A quick example: the Egyptian pyramids
were built using single-point efforts. Finance, labor mobilization and
technology were developed uniquely for that task and were not broadly
rooted in the Egyptian civilization. Millenia later, people still
advance bizarre theories of the pyramids‚ origin, because they‚re
anomalous, not embedded in a context. This is precisely why people
believe that the moon landings were a hoax: they were similarly an
anomaly. Nobody believes that the Gothic cathedrals, every bit as
amazing as the Pyramids, were created by space aliens. We can see how
they were rooted in the guild systems‚ retention and transmission of
technical knowledge and training, in the wealth of the Church and the
dispersion of new design principles and construction techniques across
Europe. Similarly, nobody believes the new biotechnologies to be
fiction – they‚re obviously embedded in a familiar context of global
medical science, finance and industry.

So how do we get to Mars to stay? It’s very simple: stop building
pyramids and start building the modern equivalent of cathedrals: Las
Vegas resort hotels. All our efforts in space to date, from the postwar
V-2 experiments to the International Space Station, have been pyramids.
Single-point commands were issued by the sovereign: “Build this thing.
Just go and take what you need. Do whatever it takes – short of
weakening the sovereign – and make it happen.” Las Vegas, on the other
hand, took existing resources: cheap power and transportation, air
conditioning technology, a sophisticated and unprejudiced understanding
of how people like to spend their surplus time and money, and
synthesized them into something unlikely and new: an immensely popular
vacation resort in the middle of what’s no longer nowhere.

There are flaws in the analogy between Vegas and space. Notably, we
don‚t have the transportation infrastructure. Las Vegas needed
affordable passenger air travel and the cheap, reliable trucking enabled
by the then-new interstate highway system. Cheap access to space is
critical for anything we want to do beyond ISS-pyramid building.

But there are nodes of the Spacefaring Web that can be built and
integrated readily: suborbital passenger and freight transportation,
“extreme” orbital tourism (as opposed to vacationing, which is a later
step). These things can readily enable larger facilities within the
Earth-Moon system, which in turn will provide the robust infrastructure
necessary to launch and sustain a Mars settlement effort. As 19th
century polar exploration simply refitted existing commercial and naval
vessels and was enabled by global maritime trading networks, it’s
entirely likely that the Martian Mayflower will be a refitted
Luna-to-LEO freighter carrying proven habitation modules, food
production technologies and tried-and-true spacesuits and tools. That
ship and that crew will be able to build a Martian civilization to
endure – financed maybe by pay-per-view Lunar boxing and laundered
credits from the Moondust Casino.

It’s not our fathers‚ space program. Viking 1 was a majestic, immensely
useful, near-solitary pyramid in an empty desert. With a new approach,
we can build to sustain, to thrive and prosper, filling that desert with
our cities. As George Foreman’s new poster says: this time we stay.


Next: “Viking’s Living Legacy” Viking transformed – yet again – our
understanding of Mars and inspired a generation of scientists and
advocates who’ve moved the planet to the center of our exploration
agenda. But the ambiguous results of the landers’ life-detecting
experiments may have a crucial impact over the next few years on Mars
programs and the public perception of science.

Mars Now is a weekly column © 2001 by John Carter McKnight,
Mars Program Director for the Space Frontier Foundation.
Views expressed here are strictly the author’s and do not
necessarily represent Foundation policy.

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SpaceRef staff editor.