One of the first science fiction books I ever read was Lester Del Rey’s Step to the Stars.
Step is the first book of the Jim Stanley trilogy, and part of the Winston Science Fiction Set. The series was written by famous golden age authors at the top of their game in the 50’s and early 60’s. The set was commissioned by Del Rey (he wrote eleven of the books himself, including the Jim Stanley Trilogy) as young adult science fiction specially designed to encourage teenagers’ interest in science, technology, exploration, and spaceflight. Del Rey commissioned only first rate authors of “hard science fiction” to write the stories and top commercial artists to paint the covers. Today, any first editions of the original 35 novels published by the John C. Winston Company between 1952 and 1960 can be quite valuable – I own most of the series, including a number of first addition hard covers, and they are some of my most prized processions (speaking of which, should any of you come across Missing Men of Saturn by Philip Latham, (1953), I’d be very interested in purchasing it from you). The Winston Science Fiction Set used to be a staple of school and community libraries – which is where I initially came across the books and first read Del Rey, Bova, Anderson, Clarke, and the fabulous Alan E. Nourse. Sadly, the series is long out dated now and is fairly rare on library shelves, having been replaced with modern novels about teenaged vampires who wear sad clown makeup and seem to cry a lot.
40 years after I first read it, Step to the Stars remains vivid in my memory. The book tells the story of a young welder, Jim Stanley, and the construction of the first space station – the first step on mankind’s journey to the stars. The thing about this book, and many others of similar vein from the same period, are two basic assumptions: 1) we would build space stations and go to the moon and Mars and beyond, and 2) those stations and colonies and ships would be built by civilians. Step is centered around a corporation’s efforts to construct the station on schedule and under budget – it’s the first time I ever heard the contractual phrase “penalty clause” and ever thought about the commercial and business aspects of space exploration, pretty heady stuff for a ten year old. According to the novel, the station was built under government contract, in order to support a military mission – but the heart of it would be commercial, as a way station and stepping stone for exploration of the rest of the solar system, for manufacturing, as an astronomy outpost, and as a commercial broadcast site (remember, this was in 1954, the concepts of orbital telescopes and communications satellites were strictly in the realm of hairy hairball science and barely even a twinkle in science fiction’s eye – unless you were Lester Del Rey or Arthur C. Clarke). The basic concept was that while government might lease a major chunk of the station, it was the commercial aspects that made it a viable concept. Nobody was going to foot the bill for government to build its own station.
Back then, it never occurred to futurists like Del Rey that spaceflight would become the exclusive domain of governments. In the 50’s, it never occurred to anybody that the astronauts and cosmonauts and sinonauts would be government employees instead of commercial spacemen (sure, sure, there were tales of “the Patrol” or whatever the Space Navy was called, but they were there to fight off the aliens or impose law and order on the civilians, they weren’t the only people in space). And while there were numerous scifi stories about First Contact and exploration, a lot of the hard, practical scifi of the time was about the commercial exploitation of the solar system. Writers of hard speculative fiction, such as Heinlein and Del Rey and Nourse wrote stories centered on the concept of exploitation, mining, farming, manufacturing, terraforming, colonization, expansion, with exploration as a sort of byproduct – these were the themes that tied together the Winston series, and it was a common theme of Heinlein and Clarke and Asimov and the other greats who were hardly starry eyed dreamers. It was just assumed that’s what we’d do, because that’s what we, as a race, have always done. That’s what the Vikings were doing when they set out for Iceland, Greenland, and Vineland. That’s what Columbus was doing when he ran into the New World. That what Vespucci and Drake and all those other explorers were doing. That’s what the first European colonists were doing here on the shores of North America – hell, that’s what the Native Americans’ ancestors were doing when they crossed the Bearing Straits 25,000 years ago. During the great ages of exploration there were certainly a number of expeditions and colonization attempts that were sponsored by governments, and certainly countries such as Spain sponsored purely governmental efforts when it came to treasure and land in the new world, but the vast majority of expeditions were commercial enterprises and so it wasn’t a stretch at all for the futurists of the 1950’s and 60’s to expect space exploration to follow the same model.
Unfortunately (or not, depending), history rarely, if ever, repeats itself.
For many reasons - much of which involves the paranoia of the Cold War – access to space became almost exclusively the domain of governments, and only a few governments at that. Because of this, human access to space is far, far beyond the ordinary earthbound human being and is the exclusive purview of a tiny cadre of highly trained government employees (or the very, very rich). After nearly fifty years in space, we – all of us, worldwide, whatever nation ventures into the skies – don’t have space travel, or space exploration, or even space exploitation.
What we have is a space program.
This is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself – depending entirely on what the objective is.
The objectives of our space program are many and varied, but none of those objectives will ever lead to the kind of self sustaining commercial ventures visualized in the popular speculation of the Golden Age.
The Shuttle is a perfect example. Government cannot build a spaceship – at least not a very efficient one. The Shuttle as first designed was supposed to make access to space simple and cheap. Getting out of Earth’s gravity well and into LEO is the hardest part of space travel. That first step is a doozy, but once you’re in orbit, you’re half way to anywhere in the solar system. The Shuttle was supposed to do that for us. And even with 1970’s technology, the Shuttle could have made access to space relatively cheap and easy and a whole lot safer.
Instead we got just exactly the opposite.
Why? Because NASA engineers didn’t build the shuttle, Congress did.
And the lawmakers on Capitol Hill don’t give a fart in a spacesuit about exploration. To them, the Shuttle meant, and still means, jobs and pork and votes. By the time Congress got done redesigning the Shuttle it was astounding that the damned thing could even clear the pad. Gone were the safety features like air-breathing engines that would have let the ship abort a landing and make a once around on final approach, gone was the piloted reusable main booster, gone was the simplicity that would have gotten rid of much of the previous Apollo infrastructure. Gone too was the once-a-week turnaround time from recovery to relaunch that would have made efficient use the economies of scales and reduced ground to orbit costs to dollars a pound instead of tens of thousands of dollars per pound. To this day parts are manufactured all across the country, many as far from the launch and assembly site as it is possible to get and still be on the same continent, because Senators and Representatives from powerful states like California insisted that it be so. The ship does nothing well, it’s too complicated and it requires far too much infrastructure, it’s a poor lift vehicle, it’s a poor science platform, it’s a poor crew vehicle and it falls short of the original design and concept in almost every way. Everybody got a piece of the Shuttle and as a result it shudders into orbit like Frankenstein’s Monster and the fact that it’s only blown up twice in 30 years is a minor miracle in itself
The International Space Station is the same or worse. It is the single most expensive engineering project in the history of the human race (when you fold in everything necessary to build, maintain, and crew it) – and yet, what is its purpose? What does it do? It’s lifetime is limited. It’s crew capacity is limited. It’s fragile. It can’t be expanded much beyond its current size and capacity. It can’t serve as a construction shack for future LEO development, nor can it serve as a jumping off point for the rest of the solar system. As a science platform it is a of limited utility and as a node of commercial development it has little or no utility at all. As far as military functions go it’s useless (this is not necessarily a bad thing). Maintaining the ISS requires a significant fraction of our budget and requires that whatever launch vehicles we build have to be able to reach it and service it. Where does that leave us? Don’t get me wrong here, I think the ISS is an astounding technical achievement – but what purpose does it serve? Well, other than to demonstrate that we can indeed work with other nations when we want too (and maybe that’s not such a bad thing to spend money on either).
But we are never going to get anywhere like this.
I find it highly ironic that Conservative lawmakers who have fought so vehemently for capitalist market based solutions when it comes to healthcare for example) are pushing back hard against the idea of privatization of space exploitation* and are insisting on maintaining either the status quo or adding a “government option” to the current budget for the space program. The very fact that Conservatives are insisting on a government option for spaceflight but not when it comes to healthcare goes a long, long way in my mind of demonstrating that they are simply opposing the President for the sake of obstructionism and not out of any kind of true fiscally conservative ideology. This makes conservatives like Senator David Vitter (R-LA) hypocrites of the highest order. If these people truly believed in capitalism and market driven solutions and reducing the size and spending of government, they’d be behind the President 100%. In fact, they’d be out front pushing for free enterprise and corporate exploration beyond the atmosphere.
Again, don’t get me wrong here. Democrats in Congress are just as big of hypocrites when it comes to this, it’s just that their hypocrisy is of a different nature – they want NASA to keep the manned space program because it means tens of thousands of jobs in Alabama and Florida, whether or not any of those ships ever get off the ground is irrelevant.
Both sides are equally full of shit. The Constellation program has been underfunded right from the very start. Everybody wants a space program. They all pay lip service to exploration and science but none of them want to actually pay for it. Space access isn’t something you can do half-assed. Either you’re in all the way, or you’re not. We’ve never been in all the way, not since Apollo. Senators and congressmen vote for just enough space program to keep money flowing into their districts – all the time condemning wasteful spending – but never enough to actually accomplish anything.
We have no real goals in space. Ask yourself something, what is the purpose of Constellation? What is the purpose of returning to the moon? What is the purpose of going to Mars? It’s not exploration, it’s not colonization, it’s not exploitation, it’s not the science, it’s not to beat the Soviets – so what is it?
Now, you know me, I’m all about human space flight. I think that if we don’t get off this rock and spread out into the universe, sooner or later we’re going to go extinct. We’re going to blow ourselves up or get parboiled alive by a dinosaur killer or irradiated by a superflare or done in by something nobody expects. All of our eggs are in one basket, and the only way to guarantee our survival, or a least increase the odds beyond zero, is to get the hell out there. And even if that weren’t true, I’d still be all for going, if only to see what the heck is out there.
But it’s never going to happen if we let Congress build the ships.
Because Congress is not interested in building ships – they’re only interested in the appearance of building ships – today’s Congressional roasting of NASA’s Chief Administrator, Charles Bolden, makes that abundantly clear.
Congress, especially Republicans, should drop the pretense and call the Constellation program what it is, a job stimulus program.
And me? I believe that Lester Del Rey had the right idea long before any of these schmucks were out of diapers.
Spaceflight should be a commercial endeavor.
*I strictly avoid using the term “space exploration” when it comes to NASA’s manned space program. I've said it before, the astronauts do a lot of things up there in low Earth orbit, but they don’t explore.