Frontiers of the Mind: Space Exploration and Martian Habitation

The result is that, to the frontier, the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness, that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients, that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends, that restless, nervous energy, that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom — these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier. 

—Frederick Jackson Turner, from his essay The Significance of the Frontier in American History (1893)

America is the spirit of human exploration distilled. 

—Elon Musk

Who will ever forget the first time you heard William Shatner as Captain Kirk say:

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Even as a teenager it seemed that someday we’d have to discover new resources beyond our own planet which was slowly being depleted through both modernity and our technological progress. When John F. Kennedy spoke through my black and white TV that September day in 1962 I remember the excitement I felt at these words: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win…”. The rhetoric of difficulty, challenge, and expanding frontiers of the mind seemed to pervade that era, unleashing our imaginations that anything was possible if we put our mind’s to it. This was the American dream writ large, a utopian dream of endless vistas and challenges to be met, of a need to overcome impossible odds and realize that humanity if it was to continue would need to escape the entropy, decay, and inertia of earth’s gravitational pull, exit the planet and explore the strange wonders of our solar system.

That dream seemed to fade after Kennedy was assassinated, after the long protracted war in Viet Nam, the dark years of Nixon, and the last mission to the moon with Apollo 17 and her crew. Things just seemed to fizzle out, the economy folded into the 70’s and the earth seemed to grown small, mean, and nasty. What happened? Economics. It was just too costly to go into space. We’d need to figure out a cheaper way to do it. As Elon Musk recently suggested, to make it more feasible we need reusable rockets. So he set out to do just that. For Musk as a species we have only two options on the table:

“There are really two fundamental paths: One path is we stay on Earth forever and there will be some eventual extinction event. The other is to become a multiplanet species, which I hope you will agree is the way to go.”

I remember reading Gerard K. O’Neill’s The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space years ago, and he, too, realized we’d need reusable rockets to support such an off-world venture that would be sustainable:

The way to obtain lower costs for lifting freight into orbit is evident from this quotation: develop vehicles which are fully reusable, and find a market large enough to justify frequent flights.  There are, though, two “catches” in this reasoning: first, the studies which have been made so far indicate that with chemical rockets it would be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to build a fully reusable vehicle capable of making a round trip from Earth to L5 without refueling.  Second, the development costs for any vehicle that requires a big leap beyond the existing state of the art are very high.

O’Neill had at that time conceived space colonies on the Moon and in space at the L5 point first noted by the French mathematician, Lagrange, in 1772, showed that there are five such points. Three of them lie on a line connecting the Earth and Moon; these are L1, L2, and L3. They are unstable; a body placed there and moved slightly will tend to move away, though it will not usually crash directly onto the Earth or Moon. The other two are L4 and L5. They lie at equal distance from Earth and Moon, in the Moon’s orbit, thus forming equilateral triangles with Earth and Moon. The Sun is in the picture, and it disturbs the orbits of spacecraft and colonies. It turns out (from an extremely messy calculation done only in 1968) that with the Sun in the picture, a colony could be placed not directly at L4 or L5, but rather in an orbit around one of these points. The orbit keeps the colony about 90,000 miles from its central liberation point.

But what has people excited is not what orbit might be used, but rather what could be done there. Space industries in high Earth orbits could manufacture solar power satellites (SPS) from lunar or asteroidal resources. Each SPS could deliver twice as much low cost, environmentally safe energy to Earth, via microwaves, as the Grand Coulee Dam, and forty five of them could meet the total present electrical power needs of the U.S.

Of course that’s always been the hope that such ventures would pay off in developing energy resources that could provide earth with a sustainable resource for millennia to come, as well as mineral and other natural resources that would help the human species to make its first tentative steps into colonizing our Solar System.

It’s only been in the past few years with Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos that the entrepreneurial and competitive spirit has once again sparked such initiatives to become more than fantasy. I have to admit against the Luddite and Anti-Tech visions of many nay sayers our only hope as a species in my own opinion (take it for what it’s worth) is such ventures. Otherwise we will eventually through natural or artificial catastrophes expose ourselves to an ultimate end game if we do not allow for an opening onto these greater challenges.

We need a new vision for the human project or we will end in stupidity, war, famine, pestilence, catastrophe, etc. More and more my whole focus is turning away from the idiocy of our modern politics and toward something which we are sorely lacking: a positive vision to get us over the hump of our current Left/Right civil-war. The recent battles in Charlottesville between Alt-Right and Anti-Fa over the symbols of another Civil-War give us hint not only of the dark hole we are digging for ourselves on this planet, but reinforce my thoughts on politics: it’s a dead end world without vision or imagination. We are dooming ourselves to a new Civil-War not over territory but over the species itself. We’re talking about the end game of civilization that is at stake. So that while the Left attacks late capitalism, White privilege, and Anti-Blackness vs. libertarian revolt, HBD, and White supremacists we only know one thing for sure: this is a Manichean vision of total apocalypse than can only end if the defeat, not triumph for either side. Is this what we want? One wonders why things have come to this, who is behind it, and how we can at street level change the message from one of war between competing ideologies, politics, and futures to one of change, cooperation, and mutual understanding. What ever happened to democracy, anyway? For all intents and purposes democracy is dead and mute. Watching the current malaise in Europe, the U.S., India, China, Russia, Africa, etc. one gets a feeling that populism, authoritarianism, and the rise of a new inverted totalitarianism of austerity, poverty, and exclusion is on the horizon. Can we turn this around? What would it take? A new vision? Are there signs of such a vision in the world?

Ben Bova in his Martian odyssey Mars would give on such vision.  In about the year 2020, a huge multinational project gets under way, the bulk of it seen through the eyes of young Navaho geologist and Mars-voyage hopeful Jamie Waterman. Unconcerned with traditional science-fictional plotting and melodrama, Bova focuses tightly on the day-to-day, nuts-and-bolts details: the inordinate amount of politicking necessary to get the project off the ground; the vital cooperation and occasional wrangling between the many participating nations (Russian pilots, American software, Japanese technology and money, plus a sprinkling of Europeans); the months of arduous training; more politicking as science and flight-crew teams are selected from the dozens of expectant trainees–Jamie gets the nod because geologist #1 falls ill, and the much-loathed #2 is forced out by his colleagues; the tensions that build up through long months in space. Neither does the exploration of Mars run smoothly. Stepping down onto the red sand, Jamie offends the powers-that-he by lapsing into Navaho instead of parroting a politically correct prepared speech; a British doctor, hot to seduce one of the female crew members, neglects his job; a meteorite shower nearly destroys the explorers’ living quarters; Jamie persuades mission control to let him approach a cliff village he’s convinced he finds; the explorers fall mysteriously ill; Jamie’s Mars buggy falls into a dust bowl while his crew are too weak to haul themselves out. And, well, of course there’s life on Mars!

Another Mars trilogy is a series of award-winning science fiction novels by Kim Stanley Robinson that chronicles the settlement and terraforming of the planet Mars through the intensely personal and detailed viewpoints of a wide variety of characters spanning almost two centuries. Ultimately more utopian than dystopian, the story focuses on egalitarian, sociological, and scientific advances made on Mars, while Earth suffers from overpopulation and ecological disaster.

James S.A. Corey in Leviathan Wakes gives us a future in which humanity has colonized much of the Solar System. Earth, governed by the United Nations, and the Martian Congressional Republic act as competing superpowers, maintaining an uneasy military alliance in order to exert dual hegemony over the peoples of the Asteroid belt, known as “Belters.” Belters, whose bodies tend to be thin and elongated due to their low-gravity environment, carry out the gritty, blue-collar work that provides the system with essential natural resources, but they are largely marginalized by the rest of the Solar System. The Outer Planets Alliance (OPA), a network of loosely-aligned militant groups, seeks to combat the Belt’s exploitation at the hands of the “Inners,” who, in turn, have branded the OPA a terrorist organization.

Hannu Rajaniemi in The Quantum Theif gives us a future set in a post-human future solar system. The people living in the Oubliette society on Mars have two types of memory; in addition to a traditional, personal memory, there is the exomemory, which can be accessed by other people, from anywhere in the city. Memories about personal experiences can be stored in the exomemory and partitioned, with different levels of access granted to different people. These memories can be used, among other things, as an expedient form of communication.

The Oubliette society has an economy where time is used as currency. When an individual’s time is expended, their consciousness is uploaded into a “Quiet”. The Quiet are mute machine servants who maintain and protect the city. Although the quiet seem to have little interest in the world outside their occupations, they do seem to retain some traces of their former personalities and memories.

The conspiracy central to the plot involves the hidden rulers, called the “cryptarchs”, manipulating and abusing the exomemory and through the citizens’ transformations to quiet and back, the traditional memory as well. In the book, the Oubliette society is compared to a panopticon; a prison, where every action of the dwellers can be scrutinized.

Each of these novels presents a different take on the near term future, exposing many layers to how humanity, technology, and politics mesh and construct a viable alternative path. Perhaps we need to stop hating each other and begin instead listening and talking to each other. As long as the extreme voices of the political Left and Right continue to dominate the margins of this world we will have no diplomatic resolution to this matter: only an end game of destruction and war. Is this truly what we want? I hope not… I know I’m an old fucker, and most of my ideas may seem antiquated at this point, but I’ve tried to keep pace with current scientific, philosophical, political, literary, and socio-cultural thought. I know I’m pessimistic about many things, and the notion of hope is far from my own troubled view of life and existence, and yet does one need hope to envision a future worth living in; or, is courage in one’s despair a better path forward, one that realizes that like John F. Kennedy the future holds no promises, and the difficulties presented by it will be hard, not easy; and, the challenges might at times seem almost insurmountable and impossible, and yet, like those Western frontiersman Taylor described, what we need most right now is the “coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness, that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients, that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends, that restless, nervous energy, that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom…”. Maybe in the end these are traits of the frontier – for a space faring people, traits that will open us up to endless vistas rather than bring us to the brink of destruction.

What I like about the entrepreneurial spirit of an Elon Musk is their pugnaciousness, their ability to say “fuck you” to the Establishment, the State, the Cathedral and surmount the odds, put their money and their intelligence to work, produce the technologies needed to not only be competitive in the 21st Century, but to produce a world that will keep pace with the future, accelerate it, bring it about, push the juggernaut of the old school Leviathans to wake up and realize their about to be left behind as the Elon Musks of the world create the future they only dream of. The future of the American Dream is still alive for those willing to step out of their protective world of security and do something, anything… act now to build a world worth living in.