Two early meme papers of historical interest (2b)

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Wed 29 Oct 2003 - 01:28:45 GMT

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    L5 NEWS. June 1986


    In one way memes are very different from other infectious agents. We can consciously mold or modify them in ways we think might improve their power over our minds. Dr. Gerard O'Neill purposely looked around to see if one of the major issues of the day could be spliced into the space colony meme/concept/idea. The energy crisis was the big concern of 1974/75, and the Solar Power Satellite was a good choice to turn an appealing, but impossible-to-fund concept into an economically justifiable project.

    An alternative to moving away from the space colony meme is to modify it the way Dr. O'Neill did. In the last year or two such an opportunity has arisen, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Powered by the conflict between the intolerant communist meme and the pluralistic western metameme of diversity, SDI does not need economic justification of the same kind as SPS. It must be cheaper to kill weapons than to make more of them, but this is a weak constraint.

    The highest levels of the Defense Department have endorsed the meme of using extraterrestrial materials to solve the vulnerability problem of space-based assets by shielding them. The saga of this meme must be an interesting one from its first appearance in print, "Space Forts...," L5 News, June 1979 to Dr. James Wade's talk at the Large Scale Technology Venturing Conference in 1984 (see the excerpt from Dr. Wade's article in the August 1984 L5 News). It is entirely possible that it has arisen in several people independently.

    Two years ago, just before finding Dr. Wade's article, I was ready to lead an effort to try to stop destablizing SDI programs (see "Weapons for Peace," L5 News, June 1984). It is hard to describe how gratifying it is to discover that the opposition is on your side.

    Until we get nanotechnology, the extraterrestrial materials meme (ETM) is the critical element for space colonies. SDI shielding needs, according to an article by Dr. Lowell Wood of Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, are in the million-ton region. Given the high level (75%) of public support for SDI, the US government might contract to buy a million tons of asteroid or moon rock for shielding if a company would undertake to return it to various Earth orbits.

    There are many technical ways this might be accomplished. The now classic concept of a mass driver on the Moon (catcher at L2, etc.) is a candidate though there are still engineering uncertainties in the critical technologies and Moon rock is a material of limited use. An easier project
    (engineering not much advanced over Apollo and Voyager) would put perhaps 6,000-10,000 small chemical or electrical propulsion rock carriers to work shuttling around the inner solar system, remotely mining some of the 500 to 1,000 accessible asteroids. Given a two-four year trip time, 30-ton loads per trip, and aerobreaking for Earth-orbit capture, such a fleet could return 100,000 tons per year over ten years.

    A critical element in this project would be to use some of the returned material to fuel the next trip out. As little as five percent would do using electrical propulsion. Chemical propulsion could take up to twenty-five percent of the returned mass.

    As large as it is, this project is close enough to current space practice to analyze its cost, which has not yet been done. If private capital could do it for perhaps $6 billion, a $20 billion ($10 per pound) guarantee might be enough to start the equivalent of the '49ers gold rush. And (surprise!) accessible resources in space and a large and growing level of activity leads directly to settlements. Just unloading and refurbishing thirty dirt carriers a day would take several hundred people, and the SDI folks are interested in structural parts too!

    It will take considerable effort to make a rough concept like this into a meme acceptable to the scientific and engineering communities. We need much more detailed plans and cost estimates. A summer study like the ones held in the seventies on space colonies would help. There may be a showstopper, but if the study results look good, then the project would need to be sold to the rest of the SDI community, which is far from a monolithic block. Then the military and the military support block in Congress will need to be convinced that this is a good use of $2 billion a year of military money for ten years. And, of course, the public will have to be sold on the concept both to support the political process leading up to the guarantee and then to put money into the venture organization.

    The major reason L5 has not taken any stand regarding SDI is a perception by the leadership that the L5 membership is antimilitary. A few very vocal antimilitary members, many of them active in chapters, have created this incorrect perception. The bulk of the membership does not care one way or other (see inset). At worst L5 would lose eight percent of its members while some seventeen percent would become more active. Also, if discounting the future is as important a factor in meme attractiveness as it seems to be, the new space colony meme using the short military shielding path would become much more effective in recruiting believers, and some of these should turn into additional members for L5.

    Frankly, I think we have only a short window in which to build space colonies, certainly no more than thirty years. In Engines of Creation, Eric Drexler doesn't think we have that much time. After that, nanotechnology will make it easy to do, but could change our deepest mental agents to where we don't want space colonies, if not entirely destroy the biosphere. Building space colonies before nanotechnology comes along would give us both places to try the most dangerous experiments and perhaps a refuge if disaster strikes.

    Recently I asked one L5 officer if he knew of any other course that could lead to substantial human habitation of space within the next twenty years. His response was no, and in addition, he thought that our chances were no better than five percent of getting there on the military bandwagon. I think a five percent chance is far better then no chance at all.

    A long standing problem for L5 is that the space colony meme has always been long on motivation and short on possible real actions directed to developing space colonies. This lack of outlets for highly motivated people may be the reason there have been so many internal fights in L5 independent of who was in charge. Here we have a specific program (in outline at least) that leads directly to space colonies in a short time. It will involve a tremendous amount of work. The reader should consider this article a call to action on a specific course leading to colonies in space. 15

    L5 NEWS. June 1986

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