Just because we know where the L-points are doesn't mean we're going to live there any time soon.

Still be a while until the grand opening of Club Med Lagrange.

The High Frontier by Gerard K. O'NeillWhen I first picked up The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space in 1978, I thought the publisher was hyperbolizing, what with cover lines shouting, "They're coming! Space colonies -- hope for your future." But it turned out that the late Gerald K. O'Neill wrote about orbiting townships with all the caution and fastidiousness of a TV pitchman. He sounded, in fact, very much like the evangelicals who preached salvation through nuclear power before Chernobyl and Fukushima. Reading his book, I was reminded of H.G. Wells' The Shape of Things to Come. But by the third edition in 2000, a new publisher had turned down the volume; "The High Frontier" was now merely a "classic." After all, despite extraordinary advances in technology, very little that O'Neill envisioned has come to pass.

Not that projections of giant self-supporting cities and resorts dancing round the earth or plopping down on Mars are without appeal. Like much utopian dream-weaving, such schemes are frequently logical (if you accept their premises), humane in their ambitions, and efficient in their design -- but also, too often, quite mad. If you wish to read a brief in favor of space cities, however, The High Frontier has all the virtues of good propaganda: It's passionate (for all its gloss of sweet reasonableness), intelligent (within its assumptions) and unflaggingly optimistic (O'Neill, who was a member of the physics department faculty at Princeton and founder of the Space Studies Institute, believed he had outlined a workable plan that would have us
living in space by 1995; instead, twenty years later all we have is an aging International Space Motel nearly ready for the car crusher).

Should you find yourself swept away by O'Neill 's fervor, you'll discover healthy correctives among the arguments presented in Space Colonies, a collection of essays originally issued about the same time as O'Neill's book. Although editor Stewart Brand (he was founder-editor of the still-relevant Whole Earth Catalog and runs the Long Now Foundation) is something of a space colony partisan himself (he was editor of CoEvolution Quarterly, from which most of the book's material is drawn), it is O'Neill's critics (among them John Holt, George Wald and Wendell Berry) who have the better of the arguments in this book.

They excoriate O'Neill and his supporters for being sanguine about finding solutions in space to political and social problems that have never been amenable to solution on the planet's surface (it's utopian to imagine earthlings won't take their baggage with them), for offering a program that would require a commitment of resources sure to aggravate existing terrestrial difficulties, and for ignoring the fact that control of technology this sophisticated would almost certainly be placed in the hands of the military of the alleged great powers; they
also offer fatal criticisms of the technology that is the crust of O'Neill's pie in the sky.

In the years between then and now, the technology has vastly improved beyond what most of us could imagine. But the planet's resources have been further depleted, climate change looms, and visionary political leadership is suffering it's own great die-off. Approached as science-fiction, space colonies are fun to think on and dream about -- The High Frontier is as exciting a read as it ever was, and six new chapters point out the technological advances made in the 25 years since O'Neill's original manifesto, but science-fact they are not, at least not yet, and one hopes that until we can learn to live together more peaceably, they never will be.

When space tourism becomes viable, Detourist will be first in line to go. In the meantime, my bucket list is long enough without adding the Hyatt Europa.

The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space by Gerald K. O'Neill
Space Colonies, edited by Stewart Brand

For NASA's speculations on orbiting colonies, see Space Settlement Basics at Nasa.gov

Rocket man, I think it's gonna be a long, long time

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts