Spiking the Future

Sometimes topics for a new blog post just fall from space. Yesterday Wired reported “Golden Spike Company Unveils Plans to Fly Commercial Crews to the Moon”. Accompanying the story was a photo of Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin surveying lunar desolation with the caption “For the right price, this could all be yours.”

My first reaction was to smirk a little and then chalk it all up to yet another plan for space tourism. Living on the Moon? Again? There’s a whole history of the private path to spaceflight…in fact that’s the title of a recent good book on the subject.1. But, as I read the story, I saw some interesting connections and threads that made this announcement stand out from the pack of “billionaire launches his space start-up” stories.

First of all – the name of the enterprise: Golden Spike. It naturally evokes images of robber baron Leland Stanford hefting a silver maul in May 1869 to (badly…and barely) drive the aforementioned chunk of metal in to symbolize the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Point in the Utah Territory. The real story, as Richard White details in his recent book Railroaded, was far more complex. For one thing, the transcontinentals were anything but. These “illusory and deceptive” enterprises terminated not on the Atlantic seaboard but in the major population centers of the Midwest. Moreover, the slamming home of the golden spike would never have been possible without frequent and fierce intervention by the federal government; Promontory Point was not a signal accomplishment for free enterprise. But it was a metaphor for a certain technological accomplishment and perhaps its this “manifest destiny” aspect of the past the new space entrepreneurs wish to evoke. (Although historians have pointed out the clear flaws in analogizing the human exploration of space with the 19th century frontier experience and the F.J. Turner thesis)2

But who are these people who imagine flying manned crews to the Moon and back by 2020 for just $1.5 billion a shot (about 1/10th what an Apollo-era mission cost)?  It was here that I found some familiar characters from researching The Visioneers. Listed among Golden Spike’s advisers is techno-libertarian Esther Dyson and “millionaire former presidential candidate” Newt Gingrich.

Up to this point, I was only moderately surprised. Gingrich had talked about moon colonies during his 2012 presidential bid. As a “professional historian and futurist,” Gingrich’s 1985 book Window of Opportunity had imagined virtually unlimited resources and virtually unlimited energy that awaited the country bold enough to take the initiative. Dyson, meanwhile, is well-known as risk-taking venture capitalist and one of the authors of the 1994 cyber-manifesto “Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age”. She and Gingrich both promoted the commercial potentials of the World Wide Web and Internet in the go-go years of the 1990s as the tech bubble inflated. Also, Dyson’s father is physicist Freeman Dyson who has long advocated human expansion into space. He and Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill communicated frequently on the subject of space colonies during the 1970s, in fact.3

So far, these were tenuous links between the visioneering of space colonies c. 1972 and the reloaded and lunar-based version of the plan 40 years later. The real payoff came a few paragraphs later. To cut costs for its moon venture, Golden Spike will partner with other aerospace companies to develop things like a lunar lander and specialized spacesuits.

One of these firms is Paragon Space Development Corporation. Based in Tucson, Paragon, according to its website, is a “premier provider of environmental controls for extreme and hazardous environments.” The company’s co-founders are Jane Poynter and Taber Macullum. Their names may not be familiar now but twenty years ago they were minor celebrities. In September 1991, Poynter and Macullum, along with six other people, stepped inside Biosphere 2 for a two-year tour of duty that, according to all accounts, was full of intrigue, conflict, oxygen deprivation, and no small share of weirdness.4

Biosphere 2 was built with $100 million+ from Texas tycoon Edward Bass in the late 1980s outside of Tucson. For years prior to the sequestration of the first “bionauts” rumors and hype flowed freely around the project. Some claimed the biospherians were part of a cult while others saw the 3 acre glass-enclosed facility as a chance to test systems ecology ideas.

I’ve been fascinated by Biosphere 2’s history for years. This is partly because I arrived in Tucson in August 1991 to start graduate school. When I pulled into town, everybody I met was talking BS 2…and then there was that movie.

I visited BS 2 a few years ago after touring the the nearby Titan missile museum. The juxtaposition between the underground closed world dedicated to nuclear doomsday with the glass covered ecosphere was fantastically jarring. Other than the sheer immensity of the technology buried underground needed to support BS 2, I was struck mostly by the fact that the biosphere of the future is being slowly swallowed up by Tucson’s suburban sprawl.

News that two former bionauts are connected to the Golden Spike announcement for future moon colonies connects O’Neill’s earlier plans for the “humanization of space” from the mid-1970s with today’s Space 2.0 (or AltSpace or NewSpace) movement.5 For starters, Biosphere 2 was managed by a parent company, Space Biospheres Ventures. The name is the give-away. Biosphere 2 was imagined, in part, as a pilot facility to see whether it would be possible to operate self-enclosed ecosystem similar to what would be required for space-based settlements.6 It was intended, in part as a mini Spaceship Earth. Of course, the engineering, environmental requirements, and radiation shielding for a space-based biosphere are far more demanding than any super-greenhouse built in the Sonoran desert.

Links between space colonies and Biosphere 2 are clear in a 1985 paper presented by Biosphere 2’s project director to the National Commission on Space.7 Here are two pages:

 

The first goal of Biosphere 2 is pitched as advancing the field of “biospherics” i.e. to build “materially-closed, energetically- and informationally-open, complex, stable, and evolving life systems.” This would hopefully lead to the ability to “make biospheres for space ventures in orbit, on mars, the Moon, and where relevant, planet Earth.” In other words, Biosphere 2 would be a prototype to test space settlement designs developed by O’Neill and others over the years.8

Biosphere 2’s first “mission” (1991-93) was widely seen as a failure and its history has been a quest for credibility.9 CO2 and oxygen levels fluctuated widely, insect pests proliferated, and the 8 bionauts suffered from caloric deficiency (although this gave bionaut Roy Walford his chance to test theories on caloric restriction as a path to health and life extension). A second venture inside BS2 ended prematurely; the facility was later managed by Columbia University and today is run by the University of Arizona.10

I have no idea if Golden Spike will be any more successful than the current flock of Space 2.0 ventures11.  Elon Musk’s SpaceX certainly seems to be doing well as NASA and other government contracts keep the company airborne. Musk recently announced  that his own goal is to see colonies on Mars that support 80,000 people.12 As he told one interviewer, “The future’s going to be really different if we’re a spacefaring civilization or not. To me, the idea of being forever confined to Earth is a terrible, sad future.” Gerard O’Neill had similar ambitions in response to the eco-catastrophism predicted by doom-laden reports such as Limits to Growth. All of these plans for the future loop back through past visioneering for colonies in space and biospheres here on earth.

 

 

  1. Chris Dubbs and Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom, Realizing Tomorrow: The Path to Private Spaceflight (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011 []
  2. Howard E. McCurdy, Space and the American Imagination (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997 []
  3. Dyson summarizes some of his ideas on this in his essay “Pilgrim Fathers, Mormon Pioneers, and Space Colonists: An Economic Comparison,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 1978, 122, 2: 63-68. []
  4. One telling of the BS2 story is Rebecca Reider, Dreaming the Biosphere: The Theater of All Possibilities (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009). A limited but more nuanced interpretation is Peder Anker, “The Ecological Colonization of Space,” Environmental History, 2005, 10, 2: 239-68. []
  5. My essay “From L5 to X Prize: California’s Alternative Space Movement,” in Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California,  edited by Peter J. Westwick  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 171-93 complements the larger narrative presented by Dubbs and Paat-Dahlstrom. []
  6. Dorion Sagan and Lynn Margulis, Biospheres: From Earth to Space (Hillside, N.J.: Enslow, 1989). Sagan is the son of astronomer Carl Sagan and biologist Margulis, famed for co-authoring seminal work on the Gaia hypothesis. []
  7. This was a group of 14 scientists, ex-military types, and business leaders, appointed by Ronald Reagan and chaired by former NASA head Thomas Paine, to consider the future of space exploration. Physicist and space colony advocate Gerard O’Neill was a member of this group. []
  8. I am surprised by the sudden spike of interest in space colony art; just as I was finishing this post, a colleague alerted me to this. And two weeks ago, I talked with a writer for Discover for an hour about a similar story. What gives? []
  9. Michael Zimmerman, “Biosphere 2: Long on Hype, Short on Science,” Ecology, 1992, 73, 2: 713-14. []
  10. Dan Vergano. “Brave New World of Biosphere 2.” Science News, November 16 1996: 312-13. In 2000, Columbia’s executive vice provost, Michael Crow, claimed the school wanted BS2 to become “a world center for education, research and debate on ecology, earth systems science, and environmental policy and management. Crow is now the president of Arizona State University which he describes as the model university for the 21st century. []
  11. Historian Erik Conway made a nice parallel between all of the NewSpace activity with the tech bubble of the late ’90s and its attendant ‘vaporware’ []
  12. http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexknapp/2012/11/27/spacex-billionaire-elon-musk-wants-a-martian-colony-of-80000-people/ []

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