The High Frontier

37 MinutesAs the Space Transportation System’s thirty-year career winds up (depending on the weather, the final mission may be departing later this morning), it’s important to look ahead to what’s next. It’s hard not to feel a little despairing; for the first time in a half century — think about that for a moment: in a half-freakin’-century, people — the United States won’t have its own way to put people into orbit. Think about it another way: there’s a really good chance that the next time people step onto the lunar surface, the first words out of their mouths will not be in English.

(Personally I think that will be a great moment in human history, but I predict it will also generate a deafening amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth in the country of Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and Neil Armstrong.)

Once NASA turns off the lights in Mission Control for the last time, it will fall once again to the enthusiasts to pick up the banner of manned spaceflight and carry it forward into whatever comes next: ranging from amateur rocket builders and space memorabilia collectors all the way up to entrepreneurial startups and private space launch companies. But there is one group conspicuously missing from the cadre: science fiction fans.

A pair of cylindrical space colonies, painted for the Ames Summer StudyThe last time the United States found itself in between manned space programs — between the end of the Apollo program (plus its Apollo/Soyuz and Skylab codas) to the first Space Shuttle mission — fandom was a crucial force in keeping public awareness firmly aimed at the stars. It’s probably not a coincidence that when Stanford physicist Gerard K. O’Neill asked a seminar of his top freshmen to think about whether a planet’s surface was really the optimum place for an expanding technological civilization to do its thing, Star Trek was broadcasting its final season. And when, in 1976, O’Neill was the featured speaker at a standing-room-only Senate hearing on the potential of space colonization, the august gallery looked more like the audience at a Worldcon GoH keynote.

But the space colony movement was also, arguably, the high water mark for large-scale fannish engagement with social policy in the United States. It’s not hard to understand why. A grassroots space movement had generated enough momentum to land on the shores of Congress; most of the young enthusiasts expected that moment to be followed by a ride on the new Space Shuttle to go build a giant colony where the L-5 Society would then disband in a mass meeting, Woodstock style, holding hands and swaying to its song:

Home, home on Lagrange,
Where the space debris always collects,
We possess, so it seems, two of Man’s greatest dreams:
Solar power and zero-gee sex.

But nothing saps the enthusiasm of young and old alike quite like the boring process of government. (Not that government goes out of its way to be exciting, mind you.) When the unstoppable force of youth met the immovable object of committee hearings, the inertia quickly dissipated. Since then, fandom has been largely absent from the heated debates over the benefits and drawbacks of the many amazing developments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics that are busy shaping and reshaping the future of the planet — along with everyone and everything that’s along for the ride on it.

Logo of the NASA Ames Research Center Space Settlements siteI think that’s a crying shame. Fandom collectively has a lot to say. Not that fandom speaks with one voice — far from it, and wonderfully so — but by and large fandom is home for people who are more intelligent and imaginative, more attuned to subtlety and sensitive to nuance, more poetic, and frankly more optimistic than other groups of people. Fans are busy imagining whole new worlds; not idyllic utopias where they can chill out all day, but harsh, cold places where survival is a challenge and where brains, brawn, and improvisational genius make a difference.

It’s time that we started piping up again, started clamoring to be heard once more. We have communications tools that the grassroots space movement couldn’t have even dreamed about 35 years ago; we need to use them to raise the level of debate above partisan screaming and sniping toward thoughtful and respectful discussion among men and women of good will. Beneath the shallow sloganeering, there are matters of real import that require the kinds of deep, thoughtful, informed, passionate debate at which fans excel.

We can keep dreaming about living in space and visiting other planets, or we can do something about it.

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