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The Spacefaring Web 2.6: Living In Analogies
John Carter McKnight
April 3, 2002
Reprinted by permission of the author.

We have time now to stop and ask ourselves some questions, before we venture out into space. Thankfully, this time around we have one answer we lacked before: this time, we go to build, to stay. But what will we build, and what will we build from? Ours is not an age that wishes to address questions afresh, with a blank slate. That sort of revolutionary modernism is a century behind us now, left among the other ruins of Industrial Age failed mega-conceptions. We're more given to synthesis, putting our globalism to creative use by drawing on the best of past and present from around the world, adding innovation to pull the synthesis together and adapt it to our current circumstances. As with any technique, it can be done well or poorly. But it's to synthetic design that we should turn for a sense of what our built environment on the high frontier may look like. As in politics and economics, architecture and urban design will likely take very different forms in orbital colonies and on Mars.

On attractive aspect of an orbital Island One is the near-complete blankness of its slate: what we will choose to put inside the structure is solely ours to determine, subject to the shape of the facility and any peculiarities of design and construction that might result from spinning the habitat to simulate gravity. The nature of work as well may have some effect: telerobotics or software engineering may produce different living patterns from physical labor outside the habitat. Otherwise, it's all up to the designers: do we segregate home and work, per the 20th Century custom, or do we integrate the two in the fashion of the pre- and post-moderns? Do we crowd together in dormitories to maximize parkland and public space, or do we spread out in single-family homes? What will be built inside will largely be determined by the developers' perceptions of what the residents will find most familiar and comforting.

Familiar and comforting. Interesting adjectives, those, for life inside a can whirling around in the vacuum of space. But while the juxtaposition may seem discordant, it's a necessary anodyne. Space colony designers will be looking to minimize environmental stress - for productive efficiency, for minimization of risk to the enterprises in space and the enterprise of space. Social unrest, mental illness, accident or sabotage could discredit, hamper or even end the space movement in its early stages. Designers will be looking to control environmental factors, including architectural style, to minimize such risks.

As O'Neill noted (The High Frontier, p. 156), if space colonies are built,

"it will be for the same reason that most new housing is built on Earth: there's an industry, or several industries, that need workers, and so a market exists for housing for the workers and their families."

The colonies will be competing with Terrestrial jobs offering a typical upper-middle class Western lifestyle: the living conditions that they offer will have to be seen as equivalent, if not better, to compensate for the remoteness and real risks involved. Consequently, what they offer may well be quite similar to the lifestyle of a technological professional on Earth.

Finally, among the tyrannies which have past with the ending of the Industrial Age is the tyranny of the 20th Century architect, who forced upon us hideous, nasty, soulless office buildings and housing developments whose design conformed - and tried to force us to conform - to some grand abstract theory. So, no "Cities of To-Morrow," no silent movie set Constructivist geometries, no Kubrickian unisex white-on-white modularity.

Then, what will the designers use? If you want to know what a 2020s Island One will look like, go to Prospect New Town is a planned community near Boulder, Colorado, and one of those bad manifestations of a good idea that I alluded to above. Prospect New Town takes a 21st Century response to the ills of the architectural past, a movement called the New Urbanism that is manifested well in the Northern California work of Peter Calthorpe ( , see also the Congress for the New Urbanism, ), and turns it into the sort of formalist execution of ideology that the movement was a reaction against. The place attempts to be a manifestation of the American ur-hometown, the bucolic 19th Century farm town that seems to lie at the center of the American collective unconscious, the stuff the American Dream is made of. When American tranquil (or tranquilizing) coziness is given form with a heavy hand, this is the result. It lacks the deft subliminal touch of a Disney, seeming more a harangue than a seduction.

Which is what makes it so perfectly appropriate for a first space colony. I expect that the developers - the design and marketing staff of a consortium of heavy engineering and real estate development corporations - will themselves regard space as frightening and undesirable, being ordinary folks whose target market is straight down the middle of the road, where familiarity, coziness and lack of challenge are cardinal virtues. Since they would feel a great deal of alienation and fear in a space habitat, they will likely design to their own perceptions rather than to those of the space-happy cadres already lining up to go. So every last architectural symbol of reassuring hominess, every possible porch swing, red-flagged mailbox and bit of gingerbread will be piled on. In short, the space colony may be a direct transfer of the sorts of things we fashion for ourselves now, a pure if likely exaggerated manifestation of the memes of home and community which we carry around today.

Mars is something different altogether. The theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin has used the concept of "noosphere" to refer to the ecosystem of memes that arises out of a biosphere containing sentient beings. Someone - I can't track the source, maybe Teilhard de Chardin himself - described Mars as an empty noosphere waiting for us to fill it. Nothing could be more wrong.

Last year when I began this column I asked friends of mine about the genesis of their passion for Mars. Most of them used the word "place" in a particularly weighted way. Mars Underground co-founder Penelope Boston put it best:

"When Viking slowly squirted its first image back from the surface, Mars instantly became a place - a destination - rather than an object.. 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."

Mars speaks to us particularly because its noosphere is so full. And the biology of Martian memes is uniquely separated into two "kingdoms" - indigenous and imported. Mars is its own place, with its own history, geology and perhaps biology. It is a unique environment that will require unique adaptations from those of us who go to live there. And yet, Mars is familiar, chock full of memes we've turned loose in all that UV. Mars is the American West, the white man's frontier of Jackson Turner, the revisionist multicultural verge of Patricia Nelson Limerick, the irrigation canals of the Arizonan Lowell, the red warriors of the Apache-fighting Burroughs, the postwar southern California suburban Red Tarzana of Bradbury and Philip K. Dick, the clash between environmentalism and development of Californian Kim Stanley Robinson, my own overheated Sonoran exurban libertarianism. That clash of memes is rich and fraught: Robinson reminds us that Mars is a place, not an analogy. Yet it is inescapably both for us, and so long as we see clearly and accord priority to the reality of place, the analogy holds the hope of a better life there as well as in analogous deserts here.

So, we will need to be careful of what we build there, incorporating the analogous while ensuring stable foundations in the place. For me, the real offense of Prospect New Town isn't its heavy-handed manipulation of the Midwestern American Dream memes but its location outside, of all places, Boulder, Colorado. Near Orlando or Atlanta or St. Louis, it would be excusable, a poor assembly of indigenous design elements. But in the high desert foothills of the Rockies, the obscenity comes from its attempt to contradict, or counteract, place. It is a message for people fresh from the green fields and large-lot suburbs of the Midwest: "no, it's not really any different here. It's just like home and there won't be any traumatic change required." Which isn't true - the Rocky Mountain West is a different place, and its history is largely a narrative of the tragedies - of the actors and the acted-upon - of those who failed to understand that difference.

There has been much heated debate within the Mars community over the use of the American West as an analogy - or, more accurately, of the nature of the historical experience of the West alluded to. One side sees that history as the triumphant spread of 19th Century Midwestern memes through a largely empty noosphere from sea to shining sea. The other sees the West as already having been its own place, a profoundly distinct physical environment from the Midwest, with a noosphere churning with the varied memes of Native Americans, Spaniards, Russians, Chinese and more, both enriched and devastated by the new arrival. Both are right in finding a useful analogy to our coming experience of Mars. "There aren't any Indians on Mars" is put forth in defensive exasperation, but we may wish for Mars a monoculture of memes or a richness of ideo-diversity, informed by a genuine awareness of Martian uniqueness of place.

So what will we build there? We do have a great storehouse of desert habitation memes to draw from: the Anasazi cliff dwellings, the Bedouin tent, the Egyptian souk. Combined with indigenous materials and advanced technology, in the spirit of our age, there is the prospect of an explosion of creativity in architecture and design to embody the dual-kingdom nature of the Martian noosphere, perhaps equal parts Montezuma's Castle, Helium, Underhill and Ares Valles - human, familiar, new, genuine and uniquely Martian. And then just maybe we can import that aesthetic to inform appropriate designs for the American West, without a picket fence in sight.

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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