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The Spacefaring Web 2.5: Answers in the Form of a Question
John Carter McKnight
March 20, 2002
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Today space is the answer to questions no one is asking. This will change. As I've argued, we're right now not irrevocably post-Space Age but rather between the past space phase of the Industrial Age and a coming space phase of the Network, or perhaps more importantly, Biotech Age. In advocating space exploration, enterprise and settlement, we have three choices. We can continue to offer antiquated platitudes; we can answer questions few have yet thought to ask; or we can hasten the day when the answers we stock will be in demand. The third way is the hardest, difficult to conceive and even more challenging to execute. It's the only way, though, that has us doing more than preaching to the choir.

There was a time, within the living and working memory of many in the space community, when space was the answer to questions being asked. "To demonstrate American superiority over the Soviet Union" and "to dominate in the conquest of space" then had meaning and positive resonance. Those memes are as dead as "for the glory of God and His Majesty." Fully fifteen years ago the pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (the source of pro-space memes for a next generation now come of age), began with the being Q trying to convince the Enterprise crew to cease exploring. Dressed in a Sixties-era American army uniform, he offered Cold War/Space Age memes in justification, to the bafflement and contempt of his audience on the bridge, and by extension, on the other side of the screen. The memes that once had convinced did no longer.

Yet, ask most of us "why space?" and we begin to babble about science education for the kids and better toasters for Mom - hardly our motivations, and ones incapable of generating any response other than the ironic disconnect faced by Q. Or worse, the poor interlocutor will get an answer including Manifest Destiny, dominance over nature and wiping out any Martian microbes, in that memorable phrase, "like cleaning a toilet." At best, the old Industrial Age memes evoke retro chic or ironic mockery. At worst, they sound dangerously wacky, Strangelovian.

On the other hand, much of the entrepreneurial community, along with the space settlement effort, is answering questions no one is asking yet. Nobody today demands same-day package delivery between Los Angeles and Moscow, or for space solar power to be beamed to Earth, or to build revolutionary new cultures in relative isolation. Answering tomorrow's questions today, as any number of undercapitalized rocket companies can attest, is not the same thing as being on the cutting edge. Rather, like martial arts kata practice, it's dueling with an invisible opponent. It may be a lot of exercise and impressive to watch, but it won't draw blood.

The cutting edge is keenly felt when it's applied to a problem in need of a solution. Apollo was genuinely cutting-edge: there was a need to demonstrate superiority between two systems embodying industrial values, without resorting to nuclear war. Industrialized exploration in space and industrialized sport in the Olympics allowed the two systems to compete in arenas both valued. "Citius, Altius, Fortius" embodied a shared ethic, weighting the competition with meaning beyond the acts themselves. Whether the Communist sports machine or American rocketry was more consistently successful was seen by all as metonymic for the value of the cultures themselves. The closing of that era and the opening of a new one is marked equally by the beginning of commercial space tourism alongside calls to replace nationalist Olympic judges with professional, salaried International Olympic Committee members. Either notion would have met with baffled incomprehensibility a generation ago.

Historian Stephen Pyne describes a remarkably similar ebb and flow of relevance in How The Grand Canyon Became Grand. The Canyon was an entirely new thing for European explorers (p.2): "It came as a phenomenon, an idea, and an aesthetic almost wholly without precedent. The Canyon just was. "There was no evolved aesthetic or science for canyons as there was for mountains and waterfalls and other monuments of nature." The Spaniards who were the first Westerners to explore the area either missed the Canyon entirely or saw it merely as an obstacle: one major expedition devoted two sentences to it in a sprawling narrative. The Canyon simply had no answers to questions the Spanish were asking. Their expeditions were concerned with building a Christian Empire: ethnography and logistics were their focus and other matters were immaterial. The Canyon was so irrelevant as to lack a specific name.

Yet, "[i]n roughly forty years the Canyon had become Grand," (p.38) because the Canyon's unique answers applied to the central questions of a new age (p.102):

"Through its revelations of geologic time, the Canyon entered a larger intellectual discourse regarding the order of the universe and humanity's place within it.

"Geologists were at the core, not only because the Canyon was a singularly geologic spectacle but because geologic time, like the world sea, touched the shorelines of all the great questions of the culture."

The age of the Earth, the nature and scope of evolution, the structure of history and time, were the leading questions of the age: "[a] peripheral landscape without cultural precedent - a scene as alien to Western civilization as the plains of Mars or the craters of Mercury - had seized the center and become an exemplar of geology, an epitome of historicism, a talisman of landscape art, and an icon of American nationalism." (p.38)

Yet these questions, like the ones of the conquistadors before them, only dominated for a while before passing into settled triviality (p.p. 135-136):

"The Canyon's cliffs were no mirror for modernism, as they had been a palette for Romantic art and a slate for natural science. No Nobel laureate began a career on rim or river. No major artist shattered genres or announced an avant-garde manifesto among its sunset-blasted buttes. No book foamed up from its rapids to demand a place in the modernist canon. Yet just such triumphs had happened in the preceding half century."

The Canyon was culturally irrelevant again, at most a tourist stop on the way west to Disneyland.

But after another fifty years passed, the questions changed again to ones the Canyon could answer. The modern environmental movement was born just in time to come to the Canyon's defense against governmental engineering-megaproject proposals to dam it. A new ethic, based on wilderness, ecology and a sense of intrinsic value of nature, found answers in the Canyon to its questions.

This evolution of questions is marked by historian Roderick Frazier Nash in the Preface to the Fourth Edition of his Wilderness and the American Mind: after explaining that his 1964 history thesis proposal was met with incomprehension ("don't you want to take that to the geology department?"), he notes (pp. vii-viii) that "'ecology' and 'environment' became household words between the first (1967) and the second (1973) editions of the book. If, as Outside magazine said in 1996, Wilderness and the American Mind was one of the books that changed our world, then it must be recognized that the world was ready to be changed." Note that while The High Frontier and The Case For Mars remain in print, none of their core concepts have become household words. Nash answered a question just as it was being asked; O'Neill and Zubrin were off by a generation or so.

How do we bridge the gap between our answers and our culture's questions? We need to begin with a subtle and prescient understanding of what these questions, now and in the foreseeable future, will be. Three overarching ones stand out; remarkably, space provides answers for all.

One major set of questions involve our relationship to life. Whether life is ubiquitous in the universe is a question as revolutionary in its implications as the age of the Earth and the role of evolution were in the late 19th Century. Those answers can come only from space. Our growing powers of biotechnology are raising related questions: should we genetically engineer other organisms, including our own children? Should we conquer aging, and if we do, how will the fruits of that conquest be distributed? Mars especially is relevant to these questions, with its opportunities for the discovery of indigenous life and possibilities for biotechnological terraforming.

Another group of questions involves our search for meaning in our lives. The self-improvement movement, the resurgence of religion and advent of novel spiritual systems, competing pro- and anti-globalization ideologies, attest to the growing importance of these questions as we become freer from hunger, disease and ignorance. Here answers may be found in cislunar space, in the "overview effect," the perspective gained from seeing our homeworld as an borderless small island in the night. Answers may also come from the enterprise of construction on the high frontier and the struggle to build a new civilization on Mars.

A final key question asks us to determine our place in nature, in both its organic and geologic manifestations. Do we continue the Industrial Age conquest of nature, asymptotically pursuing the perfectly artificial environment? Do we live in our own refuse, or in an engineered Eden? Do we allow wilderness, dwell amidst it, or at an isolated remove? The communities we build now and the ones we may build offplanet stand as metaphors for each other, and divergent choices: planned, walled communities on the ground or in vacuum, desert arcologies, or Frank Lloyd Wright-style decentralized communities integrated with the land. The current discourse over "sprawl" prefigures the rise of these questions, which may be informed by answers from space architects and designers.

We highlight the answers we have, and advance the urgency of the right questions, by creating and supporting those projects which address them and scrapping or minimizing those that don't. This would favor Mars over Pluto, SETI over ISS, space tourism over space solar power, terraforming and ISRU experiments over geomorphologic data gathering. This does mean provoking controversy. But bear in mind that NASA has largely chosen its mission with an eye to avoiding controversy. In this mission it has succeeded: in the popular mind there is an equivalency between NASA, space, and trivial or outdated answers to unasked questions - with the exception of those programs that resonate, as mentioned above. If we wish more support, more interest, more participation, it is precisely this safely bland marginality that we must end. By moving to the center of the controversies of the age we will draw both opposition and support, but once again space will matter.

We all know that space is the answer. Like Jeopardy winners, we just need the right questions.

The Spacefaring Web is a bi-weekly column © 2002 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 [or that of HobbySpace].

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