Watching You Watching Me

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United Launch Alliance Delta IV carrying NROL-65 takes off

Yesterday morning, at 11:03 PST, a  Delta IV Heavy rocket took off from a launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force base. This was only the second launch from VAFB of the most powerful rocket in the U.S.’s quiver. The launch (a video is here) was visible from up to 100 miles away — in fact, I walked to the roof of my building on campus and watched it. Several minutes after the rocket had soared out of my sight, I heard a low rumble from the launch pad some 60 miles away.

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Delta IV plume over Santa Barbara (photo courtesy of Dan Failla)

Although details of the satellite are classified, enough information was circulating on aerospace-oriented web sites yesterday to give a rough picture. The missile carried a classified spy satellite mission (codenamed NROL-65) into near-earth orbit. The Delta’s payload was a KH-11 (Keyhole) optical imaging satellite, the 16th such satellite to be launched since 1976. Intelligence experts generally assume that yesterday’s launch will be the last KH-11 to be boosted into orbit. The design and configuration of the KH-11 (weighing in at about 14 ton and $3+ billion) generally resembles that of the much more familiar Hubble Space Telescope. The key difference, of course, is the direction in which they’re pointed.

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Looking up? Looking down?

Although seeing the launch (practically from my office window) was cool, two other things held my attention longer. One was seeing the patches and posters that were made to commemorate yesterday’s launch. Check out the subtlety of this:

Screen shot 2013-08-29 at 7.40.20 AMFans of spy satellites and other classified programs will recognize the ways in which artist-scholar Trevor Paglen has used ephemera like this to speculate on the secret world of military imagery, classified jargon, and various inside jokes. Paglen, in fact, made this sort of divination the basis for a fun and spooky book called I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed By Me.

Consider this image:Screen Shot 2013-08-29 at 2.05.35 PMThis (mission) patch shows an American eagle holding the planet in its right wing/hand and a snake in its left. The snake’s tail is in the form of an omega, perhaps signalling the end of the Keyhole series. Imagery of an eagle with a snake is also found in origin stories and myths in both Mexico and Albania. “Buttercup” is tattooed on the eagle’s arm and it’s wearing a jacket with another patch reading “DYS.” One aerospace web site interpreted this, as well as the inscription running around the patch (the Gaelic Sheachadadh Do Rudai) as shorthand for “Deliver Your Stuff.”

Then there’s this launch patch:

Screen Shot 2013-08-29 at 11.43.46 AMIt’s just as enigmatic…the Delta IV is flying off into the sunset, right? “Victoria” (the nickname of the rocket…the previous one was called ‘Betty’) is on the left and a female archer is on the left. We also see the symbol for “delta” and the Roman number 4. It’s less clear what the stars on the patch mean. One speculation is that “the groups of three, three and two stars on that patch could represent the three old-generation radar imaging satellites still in service, the three KH-11s which will be in the west plane after this launch, and the two currently in the east plane.”

Clearly, there’s a lot of secrecy involved with such launches as well as the payload. (If you’re really interested in secrecy, especially that of the nuclear flavor, you should check out Alex Wellerstein’s Restricted Data blog) But, at the same time, it’s impossible to hide something as visible as a Delta IV launch. Even the Facebook page for VAFB had details on the launch and subsequent updates.

Once the rocket is out of sight, so is its payload, right? Not necessarily…

This takes us to the other really interesting part of yesterday’s launch. Within a few hours of the Delta IV’s ascent – the smoke plume had just drifted out over the Pacific – amateur satellite spotters were already working out the orbital details (see here, for example) of the rocket’s KH-11 payload.This information is posted on-line (and frequently updated) on the Visual Satellite Observer’s Home Page. An on-line bulletin board and mailing list called SeeSat provides more information.

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Example of a SeeSat post

One of the world’s most active satellite spotters, Ted Molczan, explained the good luck amateur spotters had with NROL-65. In an email he wrote to me today, he said: “We were fortunate to have experienced observers well-placed to observe the payload in close proximity to its rocket stage (~40 km apart) as they passed over Europe, 78 minutes after launch. The rocket may already have performed the de-orbit burn that caused it to re-enter about half an hour later into the Pacific, near the equator around 154 W. One of the European observers reported venting from the rocket body.”

Some observers saw the satellite and rocket visually while others used still or motion picture cameras. Doppler radio tracking data was reported in off-list messages, Molczan said. All these observations “yielded an excellent set of initial orbital elements. The orbit is 252 X 996 km, inclined 97.9 deg, with a period of 97.25 min.” In other words, if you know where to look at the right time, you’ll probably be able to see it.

Satellite spotting today is an echo of the Cold War space race. Operation Moonwatch was a program for amateur/citizen scientists that Fred L. Whipple, the director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, first organized in 1956 as part of the International Geophysical Year. Whipple’s initial goal was to enlist the aid of amateur astronomers and other citizens who would help “real” scientists spot satellites.

Housewife Operation Moonwatch from Chabot files

Photo from newspaper, circa October 1957.

Whipple first imagined Moonwatch as a way for citizens to participate in science and as a supplement to professionally-manned optical and radio tracking stations. But when Sputnik I and II appeared suddenly in late 1957, Moonwatchers around the world found themselves an essential component of the professional scientists’ global tracking network.  (My 2008 book Keep Watching the Skies tells the story of Moonwatch).

Satellite spotting today – the kind that Molczan and his associates do – has a very different valence.The political context in which amateur satellite spotters practice their arcane craft has changed since Moonwatch first started. In 1957, amidst the throes of the Cold War, Western scientists, politicians, and military leaders desperately needed information about the new Soviet Sputniks. In response, the American government encouraged amateurs to be vigilant and recognized their contributions in turn. More than 50 years later, with the Cold War over and the U.S. fighting the more nebulous threat of terrorism, some government officials sent a different message: Instead of contributing to national security, some have suggested that amateurs who track top-secret reconnaissance satellites might actually be thwarting it.

Ted Molczan was one of the initiates who took up satellite spotting in Moonwatch’s final years. Molczan became especially interested in monitoring clandestine spy satellites. (An on-line interview with him is here.) While the government carefully guards the technical details of spy satellites, the fact remains that they are large orbiting objects that reflect sunlight quite well. In other words, they present a tempting target for amateurs who know where to look. And given that the small yet skilled amateur community can correlate their observations with information aviation magazines and industry newspapers published about launch times, it’s relatively simple to identify the actual objects they spotted. As one spokesperson for the National Reconnaissance Office noted in Wired, “If we had our druthers, we would prefer that these things not end up on the Internet.”

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John Locker, British satellite spotter. Credit: Jonathan Player, New York Times, 2008

However small their numbers, the amateurs following spy satellites caused consternation for some in the intelligence community. In November 2000, a blue-ribbon congressional commission released a lengthy report on the status of U.S. spy satellite capabilities and the activities of the National Reconnaissance Office. When the commission unveiled its report at the National Press Club, co-chair Sen. Robert Kerrey charged that amateurs who track spy satellites and post their data on the Web aided terrorists and foreign governments wishing to hide illegal activities.1

There are at least three kinds of irony here. The first and obvious one is that a small international group of amateur spotters – using equipment one could buy at the local Kmart – can locate and track multi-billion dollar classified satellites in the first place.

The second is that, at one time, the US government sought out the participation of amateurs for programs like Moonwatch. Keeping tabs on the Soviets was part of the program. Now such activities are seen with quite the gimlet eye.

Finally, this summer has been dominated by news and debate about Edward Snowden and the leaking of information about the National Security Agency’s covert and (likely) illegal surveillance of American and foreign citizens. I see it as a modest victory of sorts for openness that amateur satellite spotters are looking back.

Long after Moonwatch ended, amateurs and professionals hailed it as a model for future amateur-professional collaboration and reflected that the long-lived program helped change the perception of what amateurs could contribute to professional science. Today, when it comes to keeping an eye (as limited as it may be) on the national surveillance state, amateurs have yet another role to perform.

  1. Vernon Loeb. “Panel Report Reveals Satellite Details.” The Washington Post, November 24, 2000: A41. []

Does Matter Still Matter?

We often want our new technologies to be “frictionless”. We want them to reside elsewhere – consider the buzz over ‘cloud’ computing – and free from the thinginess that weighs down “traditional” technologies and industries. Perhaps this is an echo going back to the ancient Greek’s exaltation of mind over matter. However, there have been attempts to think of technology in a more disembodied manner. For instance, in 1994, a manifesto of sorts appeared titled “Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age

Screen Shot 2013-08-18 at 12.17.38 PMIts authors were an eclectic bunch: Esther Dyson (daughter of physicist Freeman Dyson and an Internet entrepreneur), Alvin Toffler (pop futurist famous for books like Future Shock and The Third Wave); George Keyworth (Reagan’s former science adviser and director at Hewlett-Packard); and George Gilder (a critic of feminism, a speech writer for Reagan, and – later – an advocate for intelligent design). Despite their varied backgrounds, the four co-authors were all techno-utopians who believed in the emancipatory power of both the Internet and the free market.

Their preamble began with the memorable, if not hubristic, statement, “The central event of the 20th century is the overthrow of matter…The powers of mind are everywhere ascendant over the brute force of things.” Out on the new cyber-frontier, the contours of cyberspace were just beginning to come into focus.1 Written in the giddy afterglow of the Cold War’s end, the halcyon days of pets.com beckoned as the Internet bubble began to inflate.

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The sock puppet mascot of pets.com, c. 2000.

Today it’s easy to look back on statements like the Magna Carta and marvel at its prescience as well as its utter naivete about the “overthrow of matter.” A persistent flaw in cyber-advocates’ 1990s boosterism was forgetting that all of the stuff that made the Internet and the Web work was, well, made of stuff. And to imply that all of this was nothing but potential emancipatory energy…workers in Silicon Valley, Seoul, and Shenzen would certainly see it differently. Similarly, today’s server farms aren’t running on good intentions while generating Google search results. To be sure, the Magna Carta’s autors aimed at a deeper subtlety but their overall attitude was to denigrate the “desert of the real” in favor of the glory of cyberspace.

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In The Matrix (1999), Morpheus tells Neo about the “Desert of the Real”

I recently read two things that made me revisit and rethink claims – some more than two decades old – about the “overthrow of matter.” The first of these was George Packer’s recent and excellent book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America.

Screen Shot 2013-08-18 at 12.11.47 PMOne of the characters journalist Packer follows as he traces the unraveling of American institutions and ideals since the 1970s is Silicon Valley hero and study-in-contrasts Peter Thiel. A German-born entrepreneur, Thiel made his fortune by co-funding PayPal (along with Elon Musk) and investing in, among other things, Facebook. Stanford educated, Thiel set up an (in)famous program to pay talented young people to quit college to “build the innovative companies of tomorrow.” Owner of resplendent Bay Area properties, Thiel has given $1.25 million to the Seasteading Institute to help further its goal of establishing “permanent, autonomous ocean communities” – sea colonies – where libertarian principles will be put into action. And, despite his homosexuality, Thiel has donated money to political groups that are indifferent, if not hostile, to gay rights.

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Peter Thiel on 14 February 2011 issue of Forbes

Thiel, in Packer’s account, has also given up on the future. Or at least the future as it was imagined in the 1950s. No space colonies, underwater cities, or extreme engineering projects. As one of Thiel’s investment groups says in its prospectus, “We wanted flying cars. Instead we got a 140 characters.” Pulling an iPhone from his pocket, Thiel tells Packer that it’s no technological breakthrough. “The information age has made Thiel rich, but it has also been a disappointment to him,” Packer writes, “The creation of virtual worlds has turns out to be no substitute for advances in the physical world.” Jobs and wealth flow from improvements in manufacturing and industry, not just from shuffling electrons and dollars – the two are synonymous today – around the planet. And, to Thiel’s liking, not enough attention is being paid to the moving around of atoms and molecules – traditional industry – as opposed to bytes.2

In recent years, economists and entrepreneurs have made claims similar to those in the 90s’ about the Internet with regard to Big Data.

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Graphic by Chad Hagen accompanying 2012 New York Times article on Big Data

But is Big Data, James Glanz asked in a recent New York Times op-ed, going to be an “economic dud”?3 Or is Big Data the “new oil” as a report by the World Economic Forum claimed?

Glanz includes two useful graphics with his piece:

Screen Shot 2013-08-18 at 12.48.50 PMScreen Shot 2013-08-18 at 12.48.56 PMDespite the incomprehensible amount of data sluicing throughout the global pipes of the Internet, U.S. economic output has grown at a very modest amount (even after taking the Great Recession into account). One interpretation is that we still live and work in an economy based on stuff. An economics professor Glanz interviewed evaluated the “new oil” claim and deemed it “promotional nonsense.” Data, big or otherwise, isn’t comparable to the value of real fuel and the real vehicles it powers.

Glanz doesn’t totally dismiss the transformative effects that Big Data might have…perhaps these won’t be felt for years or decades and, of course, it’s difficult to disentangle its potential impact from other variables. Paul Krugman, in a response to Glanz’s piece, counseled patience. But he also recommended healthy skepticism to counter the hype around emerging technologies like Big Data and so forth.4 This same skepticism should extend to stuff-based emerging technologies, to be sure. K. Eric Drexler’s new book Radical Abundance offers an updated version of his radical vision for what was once called molecular engineering, later to be renamed nanotechnology and, now, “atomically-precise manufacturing.”

Here is where some perspectives from the history of technology can help give a better understanding. It’s entirely possible that the lives of many many Americans may be affected by Big Data in more and unanticipated ways as corporations and government agencies continue to exploit its potential. But should we expect that anywhere near as many people will participate in and draw wages from working with it as say, Detroit’s auto industry c. 1950?

Glanz draws upon a useful historical analogy, citing Harold Platt’s 1991 book The Electric City in which one finds similar curves showing the booming rate at which Chicago adopted electric power a century ago. Despite similar curves for the data explosion, electricity – just as intangible as Tweets, Bitcoins, and Instagrams are today – had a far more powerful effect on reshaping the material culture of industrial and domestic life in the U.S. and overseas. Matter still matters. Remembering the world of the real – hardly a desert – and the tangible nature of our technology, is one way toward using it in a more thoughtful manner and remembering the implications for doing so.

  1. For example, the first killer app for the Web, Netscape Navigator, was released just a few months after Dyson et al. shared their manifesto. []
  2. The fact that Thiel made his fortune via Internet ventures is an irony not lost on Packer or this reader. []
  3. Glanz used to report on science and technology – he has a Ph.D. in astrophysics – and then served as the Times’ Baghdad bureau chief for several years before rotating back to the U.S. []
  4. Krugman draws on some economic history by Stanford’s Paul David including David’s 1989 paper “The Dynamo and the Computer: A Historical Perspective on the Modern Productivity Paradox.” []

The Elysium Field of Dreams

Screen Shot 2013-08-14 at 1.03.38 PMLast night I saw the new sci-fi film Elysium. I don’t want to get sidetracked from the focus of today’s blog post so I’ll just say it was fair to middling. The visuals were great but the plot and (especially) the character development were weak. I was given no sense of why I should root for either the doomed masses on Earth or the one-percenters living on Elysium. Blomkamp’s earlier film District 9 was much better.

Anyway – in my last Leaping Robot post, I explored a few artistic connections between Elysium and paintings done by artists in the mid-1970s. The goal was to show how the look Elysium‘s makers gave the eponymous space settlement drew from and was influenced by paintings of space colonies done 40 years ago.

After reading my post, my colleague Ray Macauley at the University of Manchester pointed me to another spacey artifact from the same time period. In 1978, World Research (a firm I am not able to locate more information about) released a short film called Libra. (A short clip is here; the entire film can be viewed here.) Directed by Patty Newman, the 38 minute movie both complements and contrasts with Elysium.1

First, let me be clear about the obvious – Libra was a VERY obscure and low-budget film. I doubt ever saw much if any circulation (readers, feel free to correct me here) while Elysium is a Hollywood summer blockbuster with Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. So, I’m already mixing the apples and the oranges. Setting aside that difference…both films start in the same place – an overcrowded and resource-depleted Earth (another echo of the sonic boom caused by the 1972 The Limits to Growth report.

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Opening scene of Libra

Energy is at a premium on Earth, a point made when a gutless group of politicians and business leaders meet to consider an investment in the Libra settlement – the lights go out repeatedly forcing them to both curse the darkness and light candles.

Libra‘s plot isn’t very complicated – an investment banker and a “world senator” travel to the Libra colony on a fact-finding mission. One wants to see if its solar power and space manufacturing facilities warrant investment while the other is considering how to constrain the unbridled libertarians & capitalists who populate Libra.

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The banker and the senator confer…

Libra is far less about plot development and entertainment. Instead, its main goal seems to have been instructional. First, a good part of the film is devoted to explaining how a space colony could be built, how it would work, and how bootstrapping one could lead to the eventual manufacture of solar power satellites which would beam energy (in the form of microwaves) back to Earth. In the 1970s, this was pitched as a rationale for building space settlements in the first place. Solar power beamed back to earth would be a valuable commodity that would justify the economic investment in outer space. It eventually underpinned Gerard O’Neill’s concepts for the humanization of space. It provided O’Neill with a rationale for space development and it meshed space exploration with environmental and societal needs.

So, we should not be surprised when we see that O’Neill is listed as a “special consultant” to Libra:

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O’Neill in Libra’s credits. Henry Kolm was a colleague of O’Neill’s at MIT who worked on mass driver and mag-lev technology at the Francis Bitter Magnet Laboratory while O’Leary was another pro-space advocate and O’Neill acolyte.

In fact, Libra appeared – like Elysium does today, to a degree – as a nice advertisement for O’Neill’s for space settlements and space manufacturing. One can even think of it as a tutorial for O’Neill’s ideas. As shown in Libra, the colony looks like:

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Space settlement (yes, it’s a model) from Libra

while Rick Guidice’s 1975 rendering is:
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Inside, the happy space settlers are shown as:

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Screen Shot 2013-08-14 at 1.07.05 PMOK – so far nothing too surprising. The makers of Libra (and Elysium) borrowed from space art. Yup. But where it gets much more interesting is when we start to learn more about life on Libra. In fact, on the space ride to Libra, we learn via an instructional video shown to the ethnically diverse group of passengers that it’s a libertarian-flavored economics experiment.So the film also functions as a tutorial about libertarian economics.

One example – the banker and the senator talk (in a manner that resembles debates about “who built this?” during the 2012 Presidential election):

Senator: You know, it’s their conceit that bothers me. They portray themselves as some sort of rugged individualists. Oh hell, it was government supported schools and programs that led to the technology that put this casino they call a society into space.

Banker: Yes, but it was the market economy that put the technology to work.

The film’s narrator describes Libra’s government as “small, democratically elected, but strictly limited in its areas of responsibility.” The head of the government “Dr. Paul Baker”, a “former professor of market philosophy at Stanford University” (played by James Avery).

Screen Shot 2013-08-14 at 2.15.44 PMThe message gets even more clear when one passenger asks the senator when they should exchange currency. On Libra, no one uses dollars or pounds or rubles. Instead, transactions are conducted in “Hayeks.” Yes, HAYEKS. As in Friedrich, not Salma.

To hammer the point home, every so often Libra cuts back to Earth’s failing systems and the corrupt and over-regulated world government system leading it. Socialism and an “equal distribution of the planet’s resources” is the only solution they seem to have. One of the reactions to actual reports like The Limits to Growth was the claim that only a strict, perhaps totalitarian, world government could enact the change from a growth-oriented economy to one based on a steady-state equilibrium. (Paul Sabin‘s new book The Bet contrasts the positions of 1970s catastrophists and cornucopians quite nicely.) One of Libra’s characters sums up the result of this confining attitude – “No place for intellectual curiosity…No new horizons.”

More Economics 101 and Space Colonies for Dummies follow as various self-satisfied Librans explaining how it all works. For instance, O’Neill and Kolm’s mass driver is detailed as a tool for getting lunar materials out to the colony where they can be processed into metal and glass. Like Elon Musk’s recent revelation of his Hyperloop, the technologies of Libra are glossed over with the actual engineering details left unexamined. Screen Shot 2013-08-14 at 2.34.43 PMThere’s even a computer called ABACUS which provides consumers with information – repeating the word “freecision…freecision” while calculating –  so they can make the best choices in the free market. The message – computers (like those used to crunch the data in the Limits report) can’t make decisions for people. This “freesponsibility” is the secret ingredient that’s been attracting more and more “regulation refugees” from Earth. Libra culminates in a debate between Dr. Baker (Matt Novak calls him an über-Galt) and the “world senator.”

Screen Shot 2013-08-14 at 2.51.27 PM Baker comes out on top…and, back on the Earth, the only solution the regulators and bureaucrats have is to try and tax Libra (as the evil political consultant tells the senator – “We still hold the one important card. The legal force of government”). However, more people will decide to join the homesteaders on the High Frontier. The space colony drifts past the sun, music reminiscent of Daft Punk plays, and the credits roll…

Libra was a very modest film. It doesn’t even exist in the IMDB. So why does it matter? Here are four reasons…

One: Libra illustrates the libertarian-inflected nature of the 1970s-era grassroots pro-space movement.2 Gerard O’Neill would not have been recognizable as a libertarian, certainly not by the standards of, say, Ron or Rand Paul or the Tea Party. I’ve seen no evidence that he read Hayek. But he did believe that space was a place, not a government-run program and he later became more closely aligned with Reagan-era deregulation and privatization. O’Neill was also an avid science fiction fan, especially enjoying works like Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (to which Libra bears more than a passing resemblance).

Two: Libra gives us a window through which we can see how people imagined what living in a space colony might be like. Recall that O’Neill’s ideas were presented to millions of people in the U.S. and overseas via mass market magazines while his appearances with Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson popularized the space colony idea for an even wider audience. While many people dismissed him or were simply entertained by his visioneering, some percentage of this audience actually used them as ingredients for further imagination, speculation, and dreaming. Space colonies à la Libra were clean, environmentally sound habitats – Petri dishes where people could engage in social, political, sexual, and economic experimentation.

Three:  Sci-fi films reflect not just the present but also some sense of what we think the future could or should be like. The stark differences between 2013’s Elysium and a modest film like Libra gives a sobering view of how American politics has drifted rightward while social inequality has grown. Libra’s inhabitants seem a happy (if smug) combination of earnest pioneers. Ayn Randian entrepreneurs, and main street small business owners. The residents of Elysium appear as bloodless technocrats, ineffectual politicians, or the type of folks one might encounter at a prep school reunion mixer.

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Jodie Foster in Elysium (looking a lot like IMF head Christine Lagarde)

Finally: Both films share a common feature – an unrealistic depiction of how regimented and routinized life aboard an ecologically self-enclosed habitat like either Libra or Elysium would have to be. It would be far from the self-governing social experiment of Libra or the lush private venture of Elysium. In 1978, physicist Freeman Dyson, although he supported O’Neill’s goal – “the free expansion of small groups of private citizens” into space – critiqued his colleague’s vision for what this would look like. Forget citizen-astronauts. If such space settlements were ever built, they cannot “be considered as a private adventure.” Instead, it “must inevitably be a government project, with bureaucratic management, with national prestige at stake, and with occupational health and safety regulations rigidly enforced.”3 So forget cruise ships in space…think submarines.

So much for the free-wheeling zero-g sex.

  1. Matt Novak, whose Paleofuture blog has since migrated from the Smithsonian site to Gizmodo had a great piece about Libra which Ray also pointed me too. []
  2. These same attitudes are found today’s AltSpace or Space 2.0 movement. Here the idea is that space exploration is something that doesn’t require a bloated federal agency or clumsy aerospace giant to lead the way. Instead small privately-held technology firms like SpaceX can do it (albeit with NASA contracts to pay the bills). []
  3. Freeman J. Dyson, “Pilgrim Fathers, Mormon Pioneers, and Space Colonists: An Economic Comparison,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 1978, 122, 2: 63-68. []