Status Report

MarsNow 1.11 Out of the Ghetto

By SpaceRef Editor
October 3, 2001
Filed under ,

Space, fact and fiction alike, rarely attracts the positive attention of mainstream culture. A bare handful of news stories each year receive substantial coverage in the major media, those tending to be mission failures and budget overruns. Perhaps two or three a decade make a mark on the culture: Mars Pathfinder, John Glenn’s return to space, Dennis Tito’s flight, being about all from the past ten years. Acting of the highest quality goes ignored in award shows when spaceships are involved. Science fact and science fiction remain niche markets, their aficionados devoted but outside the mainstream. Little has changed since I was eight or so and learned that the library branded the books I liked with a rocket-and-atom logo, segregating them off from all the dusty tales of a dead century the schoolteachers made me read. At long last, the ghetto walls may be coming down, the first few intrepid escapees following Dennis Tito’s footsteps to prime time.

This past week we broke out of the ghetto twice, a feat possibly unmatched since the 1960s. The new Star Trek series, Enterprise, premiered to spectacular ratings, while bookstores this weekend featured a business book not about cheese, or fish, or grinning corporate gazillionaires, but about space. For one shining moment, we’re mainstream. The door is open, and we’d do well to rush on through, to leave the ghetto forever behind us, to make a mark – and earn a living – in the wider world.

Enterprise is the sort of naked, shameless space movement propaganda unseen since von Braun’s television collaboration with Disney over a generation ago. Star Trek’s endurance is largely due to its ability to reflect its times. The original series held an Aesopian mirror up to the turbulent 1960s while providing a powerful vision of a positive future during a dark time. Its successor, The Next Generation, played out the logic of the predicted “end of history” after the Cold War: Picard’s Federation was the blandly liberal, all-tolerant, conflict-free paradise that seemed just around the corner in the late 1980s, his Enterprise as cozy as a yuppie’s loft. Deep Space Nine reintroduced ethnic conflict, moral ambiguity, passion, darkness and struggle as our world became more complex. Voyager – well, perhaps being lost was a metaphor for the late 90s, after all.

Several themes were considered for a new Star Trek series. One was a military special-forces tale, something like the excellent Space: Above and Beyond. Another was a youth-focused Starfleet Academy. The producers chose instead something very different. The 21st century’s Star Trek is about the opening of the space frontier. Even if you hate science fiction television, tune in some Wednesday to watch the opening credit sequence. No gleaming, gliding starships here: it’s the history of human exploration, from sailing ships to Lunar footprints, the Sojourner rover, space shuttle, a breathtaking montage of ISS assembly, and on to the first crude starship. Sterner folk than I will find tears in their eyes.

Every week millions of people (the pilot was viewed in an estimated 6.2 million households) will see space exploration in a broad, human, historical context. They’ll see the unbroken web stretching from Magellan to Aldrin to the show’s Captain Archer. In two minutes of credits, the series producers have done what the space movement has been striving towards for a generation: making space exploration deeply, tangibly real and exciting. And they do a good show, too.

A Monday night television special on the history and influence of Star Trek dropped several statistics that should be impressed on everyone associated with communication, education or business related to space. Billions of dollars in Star Trek merchandise is sold every year, and over 200 million Star Trek novels have been sold to date. Over 70% of JPL’s employees said that they were inspired to choose their careers as a result of Star Trek.

What is the lesson? Story matters. Most of us know and believe in the story of space, the narrative of human curiosity, courage and initiative that propels us into the beyond. We are curious and eager and inspired, but for us it runs so deeply that the passion is assumed, and thus difficult to convey. Most of us are poor to fair at explaining our dedication to opening space, and that lack hampers our effectiveness in getting our own work done. While celebrity-chasing can be a waste of time or even an impediment to credibility, we do need to include the storytellers of space in the Spacefaring Web, and to learn from them how to reach an audience effectively. From the beginning, space professionals and science fiction writers – then as now often one and the same – collaborated closely to bring the message of space to the public. That collaboration is on the rise again after some years of neglect, with more space scientists writing novels, and the introduction of such master storytellers as James Cameron to the space movement. Both the Women of Space conference and the upcoming Clarke Gala in Los Angeles promise to be a great step forward in uniting the storytellers, educators and space professionals. I’m glad to announce that, after my mention last week that the Clarke event might be postponed in light of the events of September 11, the organizers have decided that it will continue.

The week’s second breakout came courtesy of Lou Dobbs, anchor and managing editor of CNN’s Lou Dobbs Moneyline and founder. His book Space: The Next Business Frontier, is being featured in bookstores not in their back-corner stars-and-rockets ghettoes, but up front with the real books that sell. Dobbs is a clear and persuasive champion of commercial space, despite, or perhaps because of, the Newsweek-level simplicity of writer HP Lindquist’s prose. His survey of near-term commercial prospects in space is outstanding: I can’t recall any clearer and more interesting presentation of microgravity industrial applications. As an introduction to space for the business-book reader, it’s powerful, honest and lucid. The failures of the industry are clearly analyzed and put into context, and opportunities concretely described, from a business rather than engineering perspective. Technological innovations are explained, but not presented as goods for their own sake. Rather, he keeps the focus always on how they can be used to build markets and generate positive return on investment.

Inevitably, Dobbs names NASA as the biggest obstacle to a vibrant commercial space sector. He calls for NASA to “[g]et out of the services business and focus in the realm of research and exploration. And do it soon, for the benefit of the space industry as it attempts to move forward.” His analysis of the fundamental structural reasons behind NASA’s standing in the way of space enterprise is trenchant, drawing extensively on an interview with John Higginbotham, chair of venture capital firm SpaceVest. He sets out a series of comparisons between government and business on pp. 135-136 that I would quote in its entirety if space permitted. Critical elements include: “Government: Winner takes all. Individual contractors usually get an entire project and then the government owns the outcome. Industry: Win/Win. The buyer and seller benefit equally…. Government: Fosters enemies. If you’re selling to another government or even another government agency, they you’re at odds with the given government organization. Industry: fosters alliances. Clients and providers work together to benefit each party, creating enhanced revenue streams for both.”

Dobbs stresses the remarkable degree to which space industry has learned the lessons of the network economy: the Spacefaring Web is the daily business reality for virtually all of the industry. Given the small number of vendors, the small number of launches, and high capital expenditures, network logic is inescapable. He writes, “various partner companies can bring different economies of scale to a specific project. It’s also why an Intelsat payload may be designed by Loral but launched by Boeing, or a PanAmSat satellite may be built by Boeing and launched by Great Wall.”

The logic of “network or die” does not mean a surrender to the status quo. The successful startups – Orbital in a previous era, Kistler and SpaceDev now – are integrating themselves into the existing network while stretching it in new directions. Rather than losing in purity by contracting with the Boeings or NASAs, they gain in influence, effectiveness – and, most basically, capital to survive. And, by surviving, enable evolutionary development of the Spacefaring Web to encompass new products and new markets, the case for which can never be made by any organization which has not proven itself in the marketplace. These same lessons apply to space advocacy groups. Autarky is death. Networking builds effectiveness; cooperation builds credibility and capital, and only then can capital be expended on moving the network farther out to encompass new ideas and new projects. Dobbs outlines those commercial projects, present and future, concluding with a long section of summaries and contact information for space businesses worldwide, an invaluable resource. Unfortunately, the book does not include a bibliography: I would have thought it worthwhile to provide information for anyone inspired by the book who might seek to learn more. As it is, they’ll have to venture back into the stars-and-spaceships ghetto to explore their new interests further.

Until, of course, more of us break free to take a clear, compelling message of space out to the potential colleagues, supporters and investors in the world all around us.

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.

To subscribe or unsubscribe, contact the author at [email protected]

SpaceRef staff editor.