Status Report

MarsNow 1.8: Red Tarzana

By SpaceRef Editor
September 5, 2001
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Several weeks ago I sketched alternate visions of a human future on Mars. This week, I’ll begin to set out my own, a vision focused not on near-term planetary exploration, but rather farther out, on permanent settlement: William Penn more than Christopher Columbus, so to speak. Why spend time on something so remote, so speculative? Easier to carefully choose the seeds to plant today than to weed next spring. Thus, by thinking now about the sort of society we want half a century or more out, we will have a guide for our first actions.

My Martian future has two deep roots: the Viking red rock panorama, and the principle that coercion is simply wrong. Call it the frontier perspective. As Case For Mars founder Penny Boston remembers Viking: “that first image promoted dreams of human exploration and adventure in this new ‘place’ and even made the idea of eventually living there seem plausible, and, more importantly, desirable.” No coincidence that so many of the Mars community make their homes in Tucson, Albuquerque, Boulder….

The Mars I inhabit, by advocacy and zip code, is a nouveau-riche frontier town making a robust accommodation with a harshly beautiful desert. Scottsdale, Arizona, on the terminator between the expanding Phoenix concrete pan and the Sonoran Desert, lies halfway between Mars Hill in northern Arizona, where the best telescopic technology of the day allowed Percival Lowell to consistently describe a world of razor-edged canals, and the Apache reservation where Edgar Rice Burroughs dreamed of fierce Barsoomian warriors and haughty ruddy princesses. It’s an analog site for what a newspaper article once cleverly called “Red Tarzana,” after the Los Angeles suburb Burroughs financed: vaguely libertarian, a small-business boomtown where renewing a lease marks you as an old-timer, proud of the land but where population pressures yield infrastructure building rather than gridlock and brownout. Not everyone’s Mars at all, but when the McDowell Mountains reflect the crimson sunset, it sure is mine.

While the frontier rhetoric can be overdone, many of us feel an increasing calling to these open spaces, newly-built towns where we can make a fresh start free of establishments and expectations. The still-booming cities of the American Southwest are among the last such places on the planet. A generation from now, likely there will be none here, and only the High Frontier will satisfy that deep calling. The case for the frontier needs to be made more thoroughly, based on solid historical and psychological evidence. Quantifying this sense some of us have, that new vistas are essential to the full flowering of the human spirit, would be an immense benefit to the space movement. A project hopefully for another day. Yet, unarguably, the impulse is real, if not logically proven. Many of the Mars advocates I know were impelled into study and action by the photos from Viking or Pathfinder, of the half-familiar land just beyond today’s reach.

Who will we be, those of us who first go to stay, and what will we bring with us? The Spanish came to the New World and built a bloody empire of resource extraction on their legacy of feudalism and Inquisition. The British brought a tradition of commerce and free private landholding, and built a democratic civilization. When we went to space, we went as cold warriors, leaving nothing behind when our race was won. Will those who go to Mars be government employees accustomed to the minute-by minute rule of a distant Mission Control? Will they be independent researchers and builders united in a common enterprise, rather than under strict naval-style command? It should be clear that the worlds each would build would differ greatly.

Those first settlers must understand that they will be building a civilization. They, and we who support them, will choose the technologies to deploy there: social technologies as much as the industrial and biotechnical. The tools they bring will determine the things they build. I hope they will bring a sufficient grounding in politics and economics to enable them to make informed choices. What I would see them build is no utopia. No utopia at all, but something I call, with a nod to Robert Nozick, “Martian Meta-Utopia.”

In Anarchy, State and Utopia, p.328, Robert Nozick describes the utopian project as one “to make all of society over in accordance with one detailed plan, formulated in advance and never before approximated. They see as their object a perfect society, and hence they describe a static and rigid society, with no opportunity or expectation of change or progress and no opportunity for the inhabitants of the society themselves to choose new patterns.” Marshall Savage in his Millennial Project goes so far as to prescribe an appropriate palette for interior decorators in his paradise. When utopianists come to power they are confronted by the problem that human nature is neither static nor “perfect,” and that many dissent violently from the one conception of the good life. But utopia rests on maintaining conformity to the founding vision, and that conformity is – must be – maintained with secret police, show trials and mass executions. Not for nothing is a major history of the Soviet Union called Utopia in Power.

Neither utopia then nor a mindless excrescence on top of the culture of Boeing, Navy or NASA. Rather, meta-utopia, a set of institutions under which people are free to design communities as they would, the only principle being that membership in them cannot be compelled. A Mars of Chinese socialists, Christian fundamentalists, freewheeling capitalists and timid bureaucrats alike. We need social experimentation, proving new technologies of culture just as Mars will prove new technologies of habitation and transport. Under a system in which anyone with the price of transport can come to Mars to live as they see fit, we will learn which cultures succeed and which fail, in attracting adherents, in facing the hardships of the environment.

Red Tarzana is the culture I would build, with no law but the Wiccan Rede: “an it harm none, do as thou wilt.” I don’t know how many would join me in the building, or, once built, how successful it would be. But in a Martian meta-utopia, or an open marketplace of social ideas, I’d have the opportunity to prove my case, just as others would.

I began by stating that initial conditions determine outcomes. How might we act now to develop a meta-utopia later in the century? An obvious place to start is in the space movement itself. We – all of us, scientists, academics and advocates alike – could make the case for our own desired outcomes while working cooperatively towards the common end of getting us all into space in order to get started. To date we’ve been much better at utopia than the meta variety: we’ve filled bookshelves with our static pictures of spacefaring civilizations or ideal technologies. We’ve pursued ideological agendas and squabbled and warred amongst ourselves over obscure points of doctrine and old rivalries, to the extent that the space community is the envy of any Balkan militia. What we have failed at is the creation of a framework in which any of us, let alone us all, are able to get into space to start building.

We will only get there when we accept the notion of meta-utopia, that first-level cooperation on building the infrastructure to support us off-planet must proceed any of our efforts in building the future worlds of our particular imaginings. As I’ve said before, I relish those arguments over the nature of the good life – so much that I’d like to see them rehashed on the Moon, and Mars, and through every corner of a human-occupied solar system.

I’ve been acting on that view, building bridges between the Space Frontier Foundation, where I’m Mars Project Director, and the other space advocacy groups and the scientific community. I’m an organizer of the upcoming Women Of Space conference (, which is having unprecedented success in brining together virtually everyone associated with space, be they advocates, astronauts, actresses or amateurs. This column is supported by the Foundation, republished by SpaceRef, and forwarded through several Mars Society chapter lists.

There’s much, much more to be done. All of us must begin to cooperate where possible to build the infrastructure that will sustain us in exploring and settling the solar system. Once where we want to go, we can build our own particular communities, be they Lunar Houston or Red Tarzana.

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.