Postmortem on L5 (part 2)

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Sat 03 Jul 2004 - 22:25:39 GMT

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    (Part 2)

    In July of 1979 the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space reported out the long awaited Moon Treaty for ratification by the member states. Defeating the Moon Treaty is generally considered to be the peak of L5's influence. In a nutshell, a meme (the treaty) which evolved in the minds of a number of international lawyers to socialize the resources of space clashed with the frontier-libertarian-free enterprise space colony memes in the minds of a lot of L5 members. So far, the treaty-meme has lost.

    Jerry Driggers, an aerospace engineer much taken by Dr. O'Neill's ideas (he gave a major paper at the 1975 conference and was at all the summer studies) took over as L5 president right in the middle of the Moon Treaty fight.

    The ebbing of the energy crisis made it unlikely that SPS funding would be resumed any time soon. With no other hook to hang space colonies on, Jerry made a conscious choice, to direct the Society into the NASA political support role--particularly for the space station-- that NSI (Wernher von Braun's National Space Institute) should have filled, but never did very well.

    In retrospect (and certainly with no blame on Jerry Driggers) I think this was a mistake. The meme of expansion into space by government projects involving a few astronauts may have wider appeal, but the appeal is quite weak. It motivates only a very few civic minded people to work hard for it compared to the number who will bust ass even for a remote prospect that they could personally go into space. Dr. O'Neill attributed the attractiveness of his ideas to this factor long ago. (see _The High Frontier_, pg 251.) This change in focus, or if you will, meme substitution, pulled the heart out of L5 and put NSI and L5 into almost the same memetic "ecological niche." It made a merger, or the demise of one of the two almost inevitable.

    The two organizations were also put into direct competition for financial resources. Jerry's attempts to raise money for the Society from the aerospace industry to support this redirection was a failure, and a personal disaster. L5 had come to national attention over the Moon Treaty,
    * and Jerry had the help of Dr. Thomas Paine who was head of NASA during the Apollo program and Lee Ratiner, a negotiator for the government on the law of the Sea treaties and hero of the Moon Treaty fight. But it is hard to invading someone else's niche. The aerospace companies were comfortable with NSI. Even if NSI didn't accomplish much, it was unlikely to embarrass them.

    * (Footnote.) (NSI never took a stand on the Moon Treaty, I have been told that NSS did take a formal position against the treaty about a year after the merger, but I am uncertain where this was reported.)

    During the early years, the space shuttle (one of the keys to O'Neill's space colony dream) kept falling further and further behind its projected flight date. This hurt the believability factor as well. While it finally started flying in 1981(?) it never reached the hoped for flight rate, and the cost per flight has continued to soar, especially since the Challenger blew up. While "extraterrestrial materials multiplier" might compensate for the rising cost, it doesn't look like cargo space to Low Earth Orbit to start a manufacturing facility could be obtained from NASA for any price.

    Does this glum picture leave us with any hope? What would induce people in the US or elsewhere to tap the resources of space, and coincidentally give the few space nuts a chance for at least a weekend in orbit? A few years ago, I considered the SDI project the only current possibility, but SDI seems less and less likely, not because it isn't a better idea than the alternatives, but because the idea has become stale, and the perceived threat of nuclear war has declined. Also, the current proposals do not require extraterrestrial resources, and that is the only way that more than a few people will get into space.

    My current best guess it that concerns about the greenhouse effect will bring the SPS meme back into popularity. This country isn't going to tolerate hotter and hotter summers if there is anything we can do about it. SPS is the only option for baseload electric power currently known that makes no acid rain, carbon dioxide, or nuclear waste. The greenhouse effect is also a long-term concern, longer than the time scale on which space industry could be established. This should insulate the memes on which the project will depend from losing influence over four year political cycles and short term fluctuations in the price of energy. My guess is based on observing a resurgence of the SPS meme. The August 30 ['88? 89?] San Jose Mercury News carried an article by the well-known science writer William J. Broad discussing SPS as a greenhouse solution.

    The environment in which the space colony/SPS meme grew during the early days of L5 just wasn't fertile enough to get itself and those who believed in it into space. In memetic terms we could say the idea did not infect enough people long enough, and strong enough, for the economic and political factors, like those that built the windmills (taxmills?) to come into play. But the space colony/SPS idea did spread far enough for it to be considered as a solution to another perceived problem a decade latter.

    I recently visited Grand Coulee dam, a project in its day as ambitious as SPS (and coincidentally it produces about the same amount of power as one SPS.) The people who promoted Grand Coulee dam worked on it for decades, promoting it primarily to lift water for irrigation on the fertile, but dry, plateau. It was finally built for another reason entirely, to provide jobs in response to the great depression, and secondarily to pump water
    (nobody thought that much electric power would ever be needed). The first use of the power it produced was to supply electricity to Boeing during WW II, and now it is mostly used to supply peaking power to the Northwest.

    There are no Columbias left to dam, but geosync can hold enough SPSs to entirely phase out the use of coal.

    Do we need to do anything, or will the environmental groups take over promoting SIPS?

    I cannot answer.

    Memetics is far from an exact science, and behavior of a meme in the "meme pool" of human culture may be like other unpredictable (that is chaotic) systems. After an epidemic gets started, its course can be predicted with considerable accuracy. It is also possible to say that the environment (low immunity or bad health practices) is conducive to an epidemic.) But a community can go on for years before one actually happens.

    In a similar way, the SPS/space colony idea is out there, and the memetic environment might be changing in ways that improve its chances for infecting large numbers of people strongly enough for it to become reality. This leads to an interesting possibility. It might be that we should not be talking about the SPS solution just yet. It might be better for us to terrify everyone by talking about 140 degree summer heat and hurricanes of 250 miles per hour, and introduce the SPS solution to this nightmare alter the public is in a panic.

    If SPS is promoted within the existing NSS, the existing narrow focus of NSS on a government space station would have to be changed. It is not obvious to me that the existing governmental agencies concerned with space are appropriate to build or even oversee building "solar power dams" in space. NASA for example is a trembling shadow of its former glory, and the shuttle is not the vehicle for the job of building a solar power industry in space. The traditional approach is to abandon the old and start anew, perhaps in a few years we will be hearing about SPS planning by the carbon dioxide control agency.


    Did I ever think an organization with the audacious goal of disbanding at a mass meeting in space would actually accomplish that?


    Without ambitious goals people never accomplish _anything_.

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