Status Report

MarsNow 1.6 – Organizing For Mars

By SpaceRef Editor
August 26, 2001
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What institution is best (or most likely) to get us to Mars? Many of us hold strong views on this subject. Some argue for sovereign nation-states (or groups thereof), some for the giant military-industrial aerospace corporations (or consortia of them). There may be a better answer: the loose technological and financial network I call the Spacefaring Web. To get to that answer, we need to ask the right question: not how we can get to Mars with the tools of the past, but rather, how should we best organize our resources – labor, capital and knowledge – to get to Mars now?

Let’s start with a look at corporations. The formation of the corporation as we know it today was occasioned in part by new technological and financial needs in the 18th Century. Until then, major enterprises were financed either by loans or grants from the sovereign, or by secured commercial loans. The corporation had one critical new attribute that made major new projects possible: limited liability. In case a corporate venture failed, the organizers were required to pay back investors only up to the amount of funds left in the corporation, rather than everything the organizers owned. For example, if a ship bearing silks and spices sank, investors who had provided money to the enterprise to be paid back from goods sold could only be paid back the amount of money still invested in the venture – and couldn’t seize the house and property of the company president to pay the debt. This made being company president a lot more attractive….

The corporation was seen as having other attributes as well. Corporations are regarded as legal “persons” having some relatively constant identity. One of the distinctions between a corporation and a partnership (the form of venture most common before corporations were created) is that a corporation has existence apart from the humans composing it. Technically, a partnership dissolves every time a partner quits, and is re-formed as a new entity when a new partner comes on. A corporation, however, is like a human – regarded as maintaining a fixed identity despite the birth or death of any particular cells – and is recognized by law as having the ability to exist in perpetuity. In previous eras, this provided needed stability, as finance shifted its focus from one-shot trading missions to ongoing projects like running a railroad.

The world has changed, and a static nature is now a business liability. The corporation as immortal person makes little sense. Almost no corporation has lived much more than a century. The Hudson’s Bay Company is a near unique exception, and it has transformed from a virtual nation in the 18th Century into a modern Canadian department store. Corporations no longer look much at all like their predecessors: stable entities in one business for generations, be it running a railroad, mining coal, smelting steel. They acquire and divest lines of business with abandon, as technologies and market needs change. Microsoft isn’t in the same lines of business as it was at its founding, let alone IBM or AT&T. Obviously, the latter have few if any of their original employees.

So the corporation evolved to meet the needs of an industrializing, stable financial world that is long gone. It is no longer be the most suitable vehicle for extremely large, technologically innovative, economic activity. Scale and innovation now demand flexibility rather than stability and the lateral, rather than hierarchical, flow of information, a fundamental change from the static, “monolithic individual” modes of the past.

Scale and innovation are the hallmarks of the exploration and settlement of Mars. Yet our institutional kit is largely limited to two tools designed to solve the resource-marshalling problems of two centuries ago, the nation-state and the giant corporation, which are ill-designed for building Martian settlement. I’m focusing on justifying that statement with respect to the corporation only in this essay, to keep it to a reasonable length. Let’s just say that the only good argument in favor of the nation-state is that it has a near-unlimited ability to extort financial resources in the form of taxes – which is a very different thing from being able to manage those resources efficiently, wisely, well – or at all.

With respect to an endeavor as large as the settlement of Mars, we should ask not how we can use the tools we have to solve the problem, but rather, what tools we would want to have. How should we organize our resources to get to Mars to stay? There was a marvelous paper presented at one of the early Case For Mars conferences that demonstrated that the Romans could have settled the New World with imperial resources and the oared vessels of the time, but it would have been insanely expensive and awkward. Sustainable settlement waited on the technological and financial tools to do the job in a reasonable way. Sure, it’s possible to get to Mars with the Western defense-industrial complex in charge, but getting to Mars won’t be practicable until appropriate new tools are at hand.

What would work best? What I call the Spacefaring Web: a loose network of specialists, including space advocacy groups, entrepreneurs, university research teams – and elements of dinosaur industry and government that can still keep up with the small mammals scurrying underfoot. Central control is not evidently necessary, and certainly not necessary to any great degree. To the extent there are certain optimal solutions to the problem of getting to Mars, anyone attempting to do so will discover those solutions and cooperate for reasons of efficiency with others who also have found them. Specialists will come and go as need for their expertise arises and ends. For example, the launch vehicle designers busy in year one will not be involved in year 15, nor will the city builders have much to do until then. Central control adds layers of management, delays implementation, increases costs and waste. This doesn’t mean abandoning oversight: auditing specialists could certainly be part of the network, and nodes (firms, individuals, nonprofits) identified as wasteful or corrupt would be shunned by other nodes seeking optimal arrangements.

So how does the Spacefaring Web get built? Creating a network involves building both nodes and interconnections. More nodes come from the creation of able startup businesses, research institutes, space advocacy projects or chapters, and individual action. Interconnections are built through cooperation. Two things don’t work: sitting back and waiting for NASA and its prime contractors, and parochial infighting. We must both create and lead our own focused teams, and cooperate with others to a common end. The Spacefaring Web is built from right here, right now, with today’s projects and investments, outward to a robust space infrastructure and onward to Mars and beyond.

SpaceRef staff editor.