Premature Prophets

The lost tomorrows of space colonies and nanotech


The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future, by W. Patrick McCray, Princeton University Press, 351 pages, $29.95

Remember the dreams of the late 20th century? Orbiting solar panels would beam down the planet's power supply. Machines on the moon would grind out raw materials and spit them into space to build space colonies and zero-gravity factories. Everything we wanted would be manufactured molecule by molecule, via contraptions smaller than the smallest objects we previously knew.

In The Visioneers, University of California at Santa Barbara historian W. Patrick McCray convincingly posits that the movements to plan and promote space colonization (which peaked in the late 1970s) and nanotechnology (biggest in the 1990s) were reactions to a cultural pall emanating from the elite Club of Rome and its notorious 1972 report The Limits to Growth. In that document, a gang of solons from MIT and the United Nations, funded by big corporate foundation bucks, got severe with us: Time to settle for less, folks. Fewer people, fewer resources, less growth, less excitement—a wrenching shift to a steady-state, gray world of knowing our place and keeping to it, tidying Earth in the process. Frontiers were out; boundaries were in.

Screw that, said the stars of McCray's tale. We can live, work, manufacture, and obtain power in space, and we can reshape the world from the atom up without fouling our nests.

McCray defines visioneers as people who not only imagine an exciting future but use "their training in science and engineering to undertake detailed designs and engineering studies" of that future. They "built communities and networks that connected their ideas to interested citizens, writers, politicians, and business leaders." The two key visioneers of his tale are Gerard O'Neill and Eric Drexler.

O'Neill, a physicist who had done innovative work with particle accelerators in the early 1960s, was a science fiction fan. By the end of the decade, he had become enamored with space and tried, but failed, to get a job at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Unencumbered by official space bureaucracy, O'Neill instead became a freelance astro-visionary while still teaching physics at Princeton. He began drawing up rigorous designs of orbiting space cities and hyping them in university lectures.

By 1974 O'Neill convinced the journal Physics Today to run a cover story on "colonies in space" and got Princeton to host a small conference on the topic (partly subsidized by the Point Foundation, which arose from Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog empire). That meeting got front-page New York Times coverage. Soon O'Neill was everywhere from 60 Minutes to Penthouse to The Merv Griffin Show to National Geographic. In 1976 he had a best-selling book called The High Frontier—back then that meant living and making things in space, not using it as a military high ground—promoting the idea that space was not, as McCray writes, "a government-run program, but…a place."

O'Neill's followers started the L5 Society, named after Lagrange Point 5, an orbital position especially suitable for a colony floating in a stable position in the Earth/Moon system. The society's founders, Keith and Carolyn Henson, resembled Burning Man devotees, keen on Tesla coils, homemade pyro, science fiction, and survivalism. By 1981 the L5 Society had 4,000 members, largely educated white men concentrated in the Sun Belt. They wrote filk music, a typo-inspired form of folk songs on science fiction themes, about Lagrange living. They canvassed science fiction conventions for converts. Stewart Brand and his magazine CoEvolution Quarterly started heavily promoting space living, to the dismay of many of the small-is-beautiful back-to-the-landers of his crafty-hippie audience.

McCray notes that the L5 types "presaged the odd political alliances that emerged two decades later when left- and right-wing writers and political leaders united in their enthusiasm for the Internet and…the new 'electronic frontier.'?" Former LSD advocate Timothy Leary, fresh out of jail, temporarily turned his career toward advocating space travel while openly celebrating himself as a "snake oil salesman," inspiring people with dreams that might go beyond what we know to be strictly possible. Meanwhile, Barry Goldwater endorsed the idea from the right.

O'Neill himself told 60 Minutes that he wanted space travel to be more entrepreneurial than governmental—something "forced on the government…by the people and not the other way around." (O'Neill did not appreciate Leary's intrusion onto his turf.)

By the end of the 1970s, seeking ways to get big money behind his ideas, O'Neill was talking less about people living in groovy, zero-gravity liberty and more about manufacturing in space—and, more important during the OPEC-fearing age of malaise, creating American energy independence via solar panels beaming energy from orbit to Earth. NASA funded some studies related to O'Neill's ideas; Sen. William Proxmire (R-Wis.), famous for publicizing government waste, got mad; Ronald Reagan became president; and by the end of the 1980s, most of the money and ideas going into space were about space-based lasers, not colonies, factories, or solar collection facilities.

At this point McCray's tale shifts to Eric Drexler, after an entertaining chapter linking space and nanotechnology via the wonderful Omni magazine, the popular face of visionary science in the 1980s (or very popular face: The publication's monthly circulation was more than 1 million at its early-'80s apogee). Drexler started as an O'Neillite, a board member of the L5 Society, and a pioneer in thinking about "solar sails," superthin materials that could unfurl from spacecraft and help propel them slowly through the vastness of space via charged particles emitted by the sun. He then shifted his vision from vast to small, imagining how super-tiny machines could build whatever we needed molecule by molecule, including more of themselves—self-replicating nanobots, as they came to be known.

Drexler's first big visionary splash, like O'Neill's, was in a specialty journal, in his case the Proceedings of the National Institutes of Science in 1981. (He used the term molecular engineering rather than nanotechnology back then.) Also like O'Neill, Drexler moved quickly into popularizing his arguments, discussing them in Smithsonian in 1982. By 1986 an Omni cover story was hyping Drexler's ideas, and that same year he had his own popular book, Engines of Creation, which sold more than 100,000 copies.

Drexler and his then-wife, Christine Peterson, started the Foresight Institute in 1986 to promote nanotech ideas, deliberately placing the institution near the new energy and money of Silicon Valley. (Mitch Kapor of Lotus 1-2-3 and John Walker of Autodesk were early supporters.) Stewart Brand, always on the cutting edge of visionary science, jumped on the bandwagon. Science fiction became awash in nano visions, both wondrous and horrifying. Conferences were held, popular science articles bloomed, and in 1992 Al Gore, then a Tennessee senator, invited Drexler to speak at a congressional hearing on technologies for a sustainable world.

McCray tells how "official" nanotech, as valorized in the 21st Century Nanotechnology and Development Act of 2003, buried its Drexlerian roots, with research and developments oriented not toward his wilder visions but toward incremental advances in chemistry and physics, with results such as sunscreens and tennis balls made with "nano" substances. By 2006 one physicist in the field called Drexler "the name that can't be spoken in polite society." Still, McCray makes it clear that government, corporate, and popular enthusiasm for nanotech research can be traced largely back to Drexler's visioneering, even if we are still waiting for our nanobots.

Both O'Neill and Drexler, and both of the movements that arose around them, had a recognizably libertarian edge. Each wanted to imbue as many people as possible with the idea that the future is a free zone to be won with intellectual and physical labor. And each arose to fight the Club of Rome's authoritarian ethos.

As Club of Rome member and "lifeboat economics" popularizer Garrett Hardin put it, the organization's ideas implied that we had to "reexamine our individual freedoms to see which ones are defensible." O'Neill hated the totalitarianism he believed was inherent in limits-to-growth talk, grounding his visioneering in a "desire to be free of boundaries and regimentation." (O'Neill's critics on the left framed his vision as the ultimate in irresponsible suburban flight.)

Drexler, meanwhile, had been a fan of F.A. Hayek and Robert Nozick since his undergraduate days at MIT. He believed that nanotech's material abundance would, as McCray writes, "defuse tensions between libertarians and socialists." The anarchist philosopher David Friedman spoke at an MIT Nanotechnology Study Group conference in 1987.

While not making a big deal out of it, McCray makes it clear that even if visioneers wanted to be fully entrepreneurial-libertarian, in reality you probably need to enlist the help of big government and big business to turn science fiction into reality. And the best way to do that, as with the development of rockets, turned out to be demonstrating a connection to a specific military need.

By the Reagan '80s, many of the L5 crew were born-again militarists. In McCray's words, "a growing number of L5's members began to imagine that government funding and military activities in space could help open the space frontier," just as government forts and government-funded railroad ventures helped open the West.

McCray's well-detailed book includes enough social history to demonstrate that these ideas had real cultural heft in their heydays, a conclusion that certainly feels right to a reviewer who read Omni as a kid and was turned on to L5 and life extension by reading Timothy Leary's books around the same time. McCray dips into the prehistory of these ideas as well, including a revelatory discussion of the Irish biologist John Desmond Bernal's 1929 book The World, the Flesh, and the Devil. Bernal's text sounds like it invented transhumanism, with its prescient discussion of "new molecular materials" and off-planet colonies of "free communication and voluntary associations of interested people" who would "interfere in a highly unnatural manner" with the human body itself. McCray also explains how big names in popular science who retained their cachet for longer than O'Neill and Drexler did—Freeman Dyson and Richard Feynman—presaged the book's protagonists by decades with articles that had largely faded from memory by the time the visioneers independently revived their ideas.

McCray himself does not come across as a true believer, but he does not seem inclined to complicate his characters' beliefs. He does not note, for example, that for all of O'Neill's aversions to "limits to growth" thinking, life on an actual early-generation O'Neill colony would mean shoving yourself into a world of limits far, far narrower than any mandarins wanted to impose on Earth. McCray does acknowledge that Drexler speculated far beyond the currently possible—although Drexler did, after his first popular exploration of his ideas in Engines of Creation, produce a more technically grounded book, Nanosystems, in 1992. Still, the lab chemists and technicians never quite cottoned to Drexler.

O'Neill and Drexler imagined progress in their respective fields faster than reality warranted. But it is too early to declare them prophets of what McCray calls "failed futures." I don't think either of their stories is over, despite being entombed here in a book from an academic press. As McCray mentions at the end of his tale, modern concepts of transhumanism and the Singularity arose from the nexus of O'Neill and Drexler's belief that no limits in space or matter could hold back human progress.

Nanotech was widely imagined as the technical key to life extension and the revival of cryonically frozen bodies—possibly to its detriment in being taken seriously by big science and big industry. Most of the mavens of private space travel can trace their inspiration back to O'Neill, either first or second hand. Less obviously, the seasteading movement is essentially a replay of the early days of O'Neillism. Both are animated by the same promise of dwelling in newly built living spaces in a surprising place.

O'Neill died in 1992 of leukemia. He didn't make it to L5. But entrepreneurs shot his ashes into space in 1997, along with those of Timothy Leary and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Engineer, snake oil salesman, story teller: They were all equal in the end. When mankind does get to L5 and beyond, all three men and all three roles they played will deserve credit, just as the more sober industrialists of modern nanotech owe Drexler a debt.

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  1. Where. THE FUCK. Is my jet pack?

    1. uptil I saw the bank draft for $5947, I have faith that my sister woz realey erning money parttime on their apple laptop.. there aunt started doing this for only 8 months and resently took care of the dept on there apartment and purchased a new Land Rover Range Rover. we looked here, Click Here

      1. Yeah, and where is my flying Range Rover?

      2. Don’t you mean purchased a new Mars Rover? You didn’t even bother to read the article, did you? Sheesh!

    2. Just wait till the year 2000. You’ll see.

  2. As far as manned spaceflight is concerned, isn’t it totally obvious that the problem has been the government monopoly? That’s about to end, and unless the government decides to interfere, it may end in a big way. All we need is reasonably priced access to orbit, then the rest will quickly follow.

    1. Amusingly, the best thing to ever happen to space travel is the government now failing to prioritize it.

      1. This is so lost on the Statist Astronomers

        1. Most astronomers hate the manned space program since they see it as sucking dollars from the astronomers’ projects.

          1. I was stunned many years ago when I realized that there was some huge war between some space scientists and manned spaceflight proponents. Apparently, there’s this idea that all we need are robots to explore the solar system. Which is bullshit. Land a few scientists on Mars for a decent amount of time, and we’ll get hundreds of times better data than we do with a few toys cruising around the surface.

            1. We will not be putting people on Mars for a very very very long time.

              The dust issue on the Moon was never settled and caused immense amount of safety hazards for astronauts. And they were on the moon for at most 22 hours.

              The dust issue on Mars is exponentially worse. And that’s before you start dealing with the radiation issues.

              1. Radiation on Mars is fairly easy to deal with. Cover your habitat with some dirt.

                1. That sounds good, but as yet untested.

                  1. That sounds good, but as yet untested.

                    Well, the internet has led me to believe that nobody understands how magnets work. So it might as well be run on witchcraft.

              2. “will not be putting people on Mars for a very very very long time.

                The dust issue on the Moon was never settled and caused immense amount of safety hazards for astronauts. And they were on the moon for at most 22 hours.

                The dust issue on Mars is exponentially worse. And that’s before you start dealing with the radiation issues.”

                You have too many “issues”.

            2. Also, what’s the point of just learning about space if we aren’t going to go there ourselves?

              We need a new manifest destiny.

            3. For the cost of landing a few scientists for some amount of time, we could land hundreds of robots.

              1. Again, that’s an artificial issue caused by a government monopoly on spaceflight. I guarantee you that, like everything else, a more free market approach will quickly reduce the costs.

                And it isn’t hundreds even with the current costs. Robot missions are more expensive than you think.

                1. No, it’s not an artificial issue caused by government.

                  Sending robots is always going to be cheaper than sending people. Robots don’t need life support systems, atmosphere, water, etc. etc.

                  1. Hell they don’t even need to be round trips.

                    1. Voyager is a robot. It’s gone further than any other manmade object.

                      It wouldn’t just be unaffordable to send people out of the system it would be impossible. Those people would have been dead by now probably, even if we had the means to keep them alive this long and we sure as hell don’t.

                      Voyager is a great example of a mission that’s only possible because of robots. Robots are not only cheaper and safer they can go places people can’t.

                  2. Cheaper versus insanely expensive. If we got down to, say, $100/lb. to get to orbit, the difference wouldn’t matter.

                    I think cracking the cheap-access-to-orbit nut will be a lot easier than creating the true AI needed to actually do effective exploration.

                  3. Cheaper for both versus insanely expensive for both. If we got down to, say, $100/lb. to get to orbit, the difference wouldn’t matter.

                    I think cracking the cheap-access-to-orbit nut will be a lot easier than creating the true AI needed to actually do effective exploration.

                    1. What’s ‘effective exploration’? Effective at what? Our robot explorers are effective in that they tell us where shit is (or shit isn’t) that we didn’t know before.

                    2. If a biologist spent a couple of weeks on Mars, bet we’d have definitive proof about Martian life, one way or the other. Or we could scrape the ground a bit for the next twenty years.

                      I’m not opposed to robotic exploration, but there’s not a whole lot of point to it if we’re not going there ourselves at some point.

                    3. I’m not opposed to manned exploration, provided we’ve already sent a dozen robots and know damn well there’s something there actually worth sending a person to investigate, not just for romantic shits and giggles.

                    4. Not anti-robot. Anti-robots only.

                    5. I must say as dumb as I think the other side of this argument is, at least they only want to waste their own money or that of other willing investors. It’s the “NASA will take us to space” crowd you believe in Mars or manned exploration nonsense who really chap my ass. And they’re the majority by far of true believers.

                    6. I find it irksome that there’s a debate about manned missions to the Moon or to Mars. Why not those and whatever else someone feels like funding/doing?

                      NASA could’ve served some purpose, I guess, trying to encourage low-cost access to orbit. But I don’t think the government is wired that way.

                    7. Why not those and whatever else someone feels like funding/doing?

                      Have a nut. When you find something out there that you cannot get cheaper here on earth, let me know and I’ll invest heavily in your endeavour.

                      Pretty much all exploration in human history has been done to make a buck (and rightfully so). I doubt technology will be invented for the sole purpose of space travel, as there is no known return on investment. We may develop tech for other purposes that could eventually be used to make space travel cost effective (for asteroid mining and the like), but resources will need to get pretty fucking scarce down here first.

                    8. Pretty much all exploration in human history has been done to make a buck (and rightfully so).

                      I respectfully disagree, Frank. Many of the colonies in North America were founded by religious groups who were persecuted back in europe: Mass (puritans), Penn (quakers), Maryland (catholics)…

                      Also, suspect that the first people to walk across the land bridge from Siberia to Alaska were just looking for a new place to live.

                    9. So they did it for a better quality of life. Same thing.

                      Escaping persecution (or starvation in the case of the land bridge) = wealth

                    10. That’s an interesting observation, Zak. I suspect the NASA fans predominate only because they saw NASA as the best way of getting humans out there. With private spaceflight becoming a reality expect to see more support for those activities.

                  4. More to the point, if space isn’t eventually going to be used by actual human beings, where the hell do governments get off spending taxpayer money on it? Presumably government money is spent for the public interest, not for a few scientists to indulge their curiosity at taxpayer expense.

                2. And it isn’t hundreds even with the current costs. Robot missions are more expensive than you think.

                  The estimated cost of doing Mars Direct would be about 50 times more than the cost of the Spirit/Opportunity missions.

                  And then you can keep going back cheaply because you already have everything developed, and infrastructure in place.

                  BTW: Opportunity traveled 36 km in its mission. That means the equivalent manned mission of 4 people would have to cover only 1800 km in their 18 months on the surface to have a better return on investment.

            4. Mars! WTF?

              There is a planet with;
              1. Gravity analogous to Earth
              2. A section of atmosphere that’s 70% nitrogen and 19% oxygen at near 1 atm of pressure and around 300 kelvin.
              3. Has an orbit nearer to Earth’s than any other.
              4. Despite 3, is still closer to the sun and thus, more desirable photovoltaically.

              Sure, it’s got a hot, thick lower atmosphere, but we’ve been floating things on warm thick atmospheres of various densities much longer than we’ve been flying planes.

              1. Are you referring to Venus? I read a sci-fi novel years ago where humans were terra-forming Venus (I wish I could remember the title or author). They were using some kind of genetically-modified microorganisms to convert a lot of the methane and C02 in the atmospher to oxygen, and the project was close enough to completion that they had people already starting to live on the surface. It actually sounded fairly plausible.

              2. I think Venus will take some serious work before we can even think about sending people there. Mars, less so. But what the heck, why not all of the planets?

    2. I don’t see how. Getting into orbit is still catastrophically expensive and apart from a tiny niche of extreme tourism for billionaires, there’s still no real practical reason to bother beyond science research.

      To have the private sector blast us into space, first someone is going to have to find some profit out there.

      1. asteroid mining.

        1. Really?

            1. Yes, I saw the announcement, too.

              1. First movers often fail.

            2. I think they had some serious plans for a space elevator (slow lift into orbit) a while back, and there’s also the whole idea of space station assembly. In other words, you rocket up smaller parts into orbit and space station crew then assembles the parts into a larger craft. That craft, once completed, is already in orbit and it’s much easier to travel away than when you start out on the surface of Earth.

        2. Sure. NASA is just starting to now plan experiments that could lead in that direction. Maybe in 30 years.

          Honestly that’s why I find this ‘tow an asteroid’ stuff way more exciting than any of their Mars mission crap.

          1. How are you going to drop it onto Earth in manageable chunks?

            1. Good question.

            2. I think the greater potential for asteroid mining is to mine the materials we need to build other shit out in space, so we don’t have to launch it all into orbit in the first place.

              If we put a robot factory next to the robot asteroid mine maybe they can build the satellites up there for much cheaper.

            3. How are you going to drop it onto Earth in manageable affordable chunks?


            4. Many years ago, I read a proposal for delivering mined asteroidal metals to the surface of the Earth. I think it was in the book Spaceships of the Mind by Nigel Calder. It went something like this:

              1) Use mirrors to concentrate sunlight and melt a large chunk of the metal to a molten state. (“Large” = about the size of a house or so.) Inject air bubbles into it so you have a foamy mass of molten metal.

              2) Use a mold to form it into the shape of a lifting-body re-entry fuselage. Let cool. You now have a large lifting-body-shaped re-entry projectile made of metal with a foamed/honeycombed interior.

              2) Attach flight-control flaps, an autopilot computer and small rocket engine (for de-orbiting) to the mass.

              3) De-orbit the mass, let it re-enter the atmosphere, then use the autopilot and control surfaces to fly it to a splashdown. (One of the Great Lakes was suggested, but an ocean splashdown farther from inhabited areas might be safer. At least until we get really confident in our ability to fly these things accurately to a very specific splashdown point.) The foamed metal mass will float.

              4) Use a tugboat to tow it to a processing center onshore.

              But I think the poster named “entropy” is more correct: The great value of asteroid mining is that we can use the materials to build structures in-space (spacecraft and habitats) instead of launching materials into orbit from the Earth’s surface, which is incredibly energy-intensive and expensive.

                1. STEVO HOLT!

          2. Waiting for NASA is silly. They haven’t managed to get a person out of LEO in forty years. Screw that.

            1. They haven’t tried to get a manned mission beyond LEO in that long. Which isn’t to go all booster (!) for big govt space, but credit where due.

              1. They have the technology to do it, sure, but they haven’t the will. NASA is no longer an option for running manned spaceflight.

                1. For good reason. Currently, manned space flight is stupid. There is jack-all a human can do that a robot can’t do 10 times cheaper and safer.

                  1. Robot ain’t gonna fuck no green bitch!

                    1. Ain’t no green bitches to be fucked. When a robot finds one, I’ll entertain sending a man up to satisfy her.

                      Otherwise you’re just making a billion dollar pair of blue balls.

                    2. Of course, you’re missing the business opportunity of painting women green, launching them into space, then charging men for their services.

                    3. As a kid, I had the hots for both of the green Orion girls shown on the original Star Trek (the one in pilot episode “The Cage” and the one in “Whom Gods Destroy”). I suppose seeking out hot women of color are as good a reason as any for space exploration.

                  2. That’s crap. Because we had a government organization with no interest whatsoever in reducing launch costs, we therefore shouldn’t attempt manned spaceflight?

                    It can be done cheaper, and it can be done reasonably safely. It’s not like we have no idea how to do it, either.

                    Robots are extremely limited, and it amazes me that people believe otherwise.

                    1. Robots are limited only by their design.

                      If you send up a robot and you find a question the robot can’t ask, with the amount of money you have left over (vs. sending up a person) you can design, build and launch 2 more robots to follow up.

                    2. Robots are (usually) great at whatever they are designed to do. And they suck at anything they weren’t designed to do.

                    3. What I would do, if I had to use robots, is launch a million Roombas to terraform Mars.

                    4. I’d feel weird if I moved into a place that was that spotless.

                      Also, I am not opposed to using robots. I am opposed to using robots in every instance.

                2. It’s the politicians who lack the will to do this, not NASA. The politicians control the purse strings.

                  Also, proggies hate manned spaceflight even more than astronomers. Just go to any manned spaceflight thread on Wired and there’s always a proggie posting about how we’d “destroy other planets, just like we have destroyed earth.”

                  1. I don’t blame the people at NASA. I blame the bureaucracy and the government as a whole. Look at what happened when the president was willing to back a Mars mission–NASA comes back with a plan that would cost eleventy billion. Yeah.

                    1. The investigation that spiraled off Mars Direct came up with a half a trillion dollar price tag. This is because rather than think “Maybe we shouldn’t make the ship so damn big” they thought “well, let’s just make more infrastructure to make this damn big ship”.

                    2. If Mars Direct had been the original proposal back then, we very likely would already have gone to Mars.

                    3. Even if it had taken twice as long as anticipated in development, people would still have already landed on Mars.

      2. Thank you.

      3. Homesteading, entropy. People have always sought the next frontier.

      4. Actually getting to space should not be so horribly expensive. The Energy required to reach LEO with any given quantity of cargo is roughly the same as a trans atlantic flight with that same cargo. The problem is that to date all of the systems for reaching orbit have been designed around the same inefficient concept of a vertical launch rocket and with not a whole lot of technological innovation between the 1960’s and 2010.

        There is absolutely no reason why we cannot eventually get the cost of putting something into orbit down well below $1000 per KG and I wouldn’t rule out seeing it fall into the $100 per KG range. Currently the most efficient systems are sitting around $4000 per KG.

        There is also a shit ton of money to be made just in LEO. Imagine being able to offer in orbit repairs, refueling, and upgrades of sattelites so that sattelite owners do not need to buy and launch a whole new sattelite every 10 years or so. That right there is enough of a business model to justify dropping a couple of billion in R&D money into developing a cheaper system to reach LEO. The rest of the industry taking advantage of your cheap access to orbit would be riding on your coattails

      5. Real estate. Lots and lots of real estate.

        Also space beer.

          1. Space sports.

              1. I now find your interesting the Lightening to be disturbing.

                Also: space drugs.

                1. I was making a ha-ha that space porn and space sports were the same thing.

                  You just know there will be some kind of scary space drug, like in Outland.

                  1. Or Dune.

                    I got what you were saying. I found calling you a pervert to be more humorous. So much so, that I couldn’t even type straight.

                    1. Yes, really, that’s the best space drug ever.


    1. Space, exciting and new.
      Beam aboard; we’re expecting you.
      Space, life’s sweetest reward.
      Let stuff go, it floats back to you!

      The Enterprise, soon will be making another run.
      The Enterprise, promises something for everyone.
      Set a course for adventure,
      Your mind on a new romance.

      And Spock, ain’t so logical anymore.
      It’s an open smile on a friendly shore.
      Welcome aboard, it’s SPAAAAAAAAAAAAAACEE! (hey-ah!)

      1. Im old enough to appreciate that.

        A bet some of these young ‘uns hanging around here wont have a clue what that is.

        1. Shit does that make me old then too?

          1. Yes, but probably not as old as ProL.

            I still have to get off his lawn, I think.

            1. I’m hardly the oldest commenter here. Though I don’t know who is. Isaac, maybe? Or am I mixing him up with someone else?

              1. Old Mexican and John C Randolph were here when I followed Gillespie over after “Suck” closed. RC was here, too, but not sure if he’s coming back. The late JsubD (you are missed, dude) also deserves mention.

                1. That’s the wrong kind of old.

                  1. By my estimates, John is 97 years old.

                    1. I think they’re talking calendar age, not emotional age.

      2. Er, what?

        1. Sorry, it just popped in my head. I came up with those lyrics years ago. I actually had the first stanza in my head before the Stewart SNL appearance along those lines, but he owns the concept now, damn him.

          1. It took me a minute to figure out the tune. Hers and hers and his.

            1. It’s due for an epic reboot, don’t you think? Christopher Nolan’s Love Boat.

              1. m night shyamalan

                1. He’s not gritty. He’s something that rhymes with gritty.

              2. Speaking of reboots (or not), did anyone know this was going on in 00-01 timeframe?


                This might have been much better than what we got.

                OBSG Continuation.

                1. Does it involve flying motorcycles?

                  1. I don’t know what you are talking about. That show in 1980 never happened.

                    1. It’s burned into my skull. Into my skull.

                2. I actually like the way the Galatica looks in that movie more than it did in the sci-fi reboot.

                  Though the sci-fi channel version still wins because of Helfer.

      3. Once space travel tourism is in full effect, I bet you anything we’ll eventually see an orbiting space station made to look like a small replica of the USS Enterprise.

  4. I’m always amazed by Mars enthusiasts. Why would you want to go live in perpetual poverty in a barren wasteland? Just go live inside in a dome in Antarctica with no internet for the rest of your life if you find that a romantic destiny.

    1. Why would you want to go live in perpetual poverty in a barren wasteland?

      Ask the people who moved to Alaska in the 19th century.

      1. They could trade with others in a reasonable amount of time and build something up to become more wealthy. Going to Mars requires immense investment in order to live in poverty, not going somewhere with nothing to create something.

        1. You’ve got a whole planet of resources to utilize. You may not be rich yourself, but if you’re one of the early settlers of Mars, your great-great-great-grandkids are going to have a lot of valuable land.

          1. Land is valuable for what you can use it for.

            In an urban environment, location. When are you going to have a big population on Mars with enough density to make your descendants rich? Not a few generations.

            You’re not going to grow crops on it. I

            f you have the technology to make mining on Mars efficient you have the technology to do it cheaper from asteroids, I imagine.

            Suppose I create an empty continent on earth, but with Mars gravity, terrain, and atmosphere. You can get there and trade cheaply, though. Is moving there a great idea?

            1. Yup. In a fairly short amount of time I’ll have transformed it into, if nothing else, an agricultural goldmine. It doesn’t even have to be efficient when it’s that big.

              1. “Mars terrain.” Water aside, is there any reason to believe a non-terrestrial soil is good for our crops? Not all of our soils are.

                1. Well, we could just sit here and speculate, I suppose.

                  1. Or you just add some nutrients and dead plants and don’t worry about it.

                    1. Our ever increasing percentage of income devoted to food demands it!

                    2. Say, why not make all Mars produce organic? I’m seeing a way to the money of the easily manipulated.

      2. They have salmon and elk on Mars?

        1. martian elk.

          1. Someone did find a lizard.


        2. Damned right. And they’re delicious served up with a nice thick slice of Moon cheese.

    2. How else will I have room to construct my clone army of disembodied brains in robotic exoskeltons? No government interference on Mars yet. And if I have my way, there never will be!

      For me, I mean. I’m sure my cyborg-enhanced tyranny will interfere with other people plenty, but that’s not my problem.

    3. Why would you want to go live in perpetual poverty in a barren wasteland?

      Oh, I dunno. A little peace and quiet?

    4. Sex in low gravity.

  5. Twelve years overdue, I’m still waiting for my real-life 2001: A Space Odyssey to be delivered. At this rate I’m going to die of old age before it’s finally arrives.

    1. All hail the acid trip space fetus!

    2. Real-life 2001 will occur about 2 years after real-life Space 1999.

      So watch for the moon being blown up or whatever and then set your clock.

      1. The Moon did blast out of orbit in 1999. What you see now is a small, but much closer, orbiting imitation Moon.

      2. my much younger self thought that Barbara Bain was a hottie.

        1. I dunno, maybe in Mission: Impossible.

    3. I was a member of L5, got O’Neill to sign my copy of his book at a talk, have met Keith Henson, and know Christine Peterson. The fact that the space-travelling nanotech future of my earlier years never happened is a regular source of disappointment to me.

  6. Here is my humble opinion as to why we don’t have the nice things predicted:

    Innovation/growth/wealth creation has stagnated since 1998. I know looking short term at the stock market isn’t a great indicator of growth, as there are many other things affecting it, but I put it to you that over long periods of time it is. And the DOW has essentially flat lined since 98.


    Why is there no innovation? Death of a million cuts. The Government has done everything in it’s power to quell innovation for the last 15 years.

    Regulation, class warfare, energy policy based upon AGW rather than growth… And now a suicidal monetary policy combined with exploding debt.

    Business (in the aggregate) in the US is significantly more concerned with survival than it is with innovation.

    Predictable consequences are predictable!

    1. Growing and expanding societies grow and expand. A forward-looking, do-anything culture would be doing all sorts of interesting things that we wring our hands about or just take on the sour grapes attitude in our society, which is increasingly stagnant and navel-gazing.

    2. That’s part of it, but techno-optimism is often far too optimistic. In the ’20s they thought flying cars were right around the corner, in the ’50s they thought controlled fusion was a few decades away, etc.

      1. In the 20’s they thought practical electric cars were right around the corner. They still are.

      2. “That’s part of it, but techno-optimism is often far too optimistic.”

        NOSHutUpShutUp!, *sticks fingers in ears*

        I will get my vat grown meat and regenerative medicine before it’s too late!

      3. Q. What killed nuclear power?

        A. Government regulation.

        We might have had controlled fusion by now if not for the regulation.

        1. No, I think fusion just turned out to be far more difficult than was thought.

          In fact, I would relate a lot of mid-century technical optimism to progressive political thought. E.g. the Futurians, Technocracy, the “scientific socialism” of the USSR, etc. They thought science and technology would solve poverty and crime, via centralized planning by elites. O’Neill and Drexler and company were not in this political category, of course, but I think they were similarly intoxicated with How This Technology Could Work To Fix Things Soon.

          1. Fusion is a huge frustration. As I’ve said before, being a researcher in the field must be annoying, with the sun mocking you each day.

  7. As exciting as space is, I’m more excited about the nanobots that will course through my body killing cancer cells and cleaning up my arteries. Transhumanism is a more exciting frontier than space imo.(space is pretty cool too though.)

    1. Well, we need those nanites to clean up the damage from hard radiation traveling through space will incur. So nanites first or space tumors. Your call.

      1. Mars Direct would result in the astronauts increase their likelihood of eventually dying from cancer from the average 20% to 21%.

        At the time of printing, half a dozen astronauts had received more radiation in LEO than they would have on a round trip to Mars.

        1. And there are a number of proposed solutions to limiting the radiation exposure even more.

          I think it’s telling how little can-do attitude there is about things that are technically achievable. We’re not talking FTL, fusion, or AI sexbots here, after all.

          1. You take that back. We can create fusion reactions just nothing sustainable. But we will be able to in 20 years. Really.

            1. No, I’m on board with that. Twenty years.

              This will all be funny once we actually have fusion reactors.

              1. I hope so.

                I know I’ll probably be gone by then but fusion reactors will be a game changer.

            2. That’s the problem with predicting technology, Doc. You don’t know what the missing puzzle piece is until you discover it. So, could be tomorrow. Or 2113. Or never.

              1. Fusion would be a game-changer of epic proportions. Hope we get it soon. Might solve many of the manned spaceflight problems, too.

                1. Power is everything. Particularly in space flight. With enough power, you can make shit big. You can generate magnetic fields around the ship to shield it from radiation…

                  It’s the biggest lim fac we face right now.

                  1. Well, then, where’s my fusion? [Stomps on ground.]

        2. Lack of gravity for a year is going to be an even bigger issue. Not undoable, just makes it significantly more expensive.

          1. Spin the spacecraft. Then you’ve only got low gravity during the time on Mars (when it’s still 1/3 of Earth’s anyway).

            1. It distresses me that we’re closer to the Logan’s Run Carousel than to the spinning carousel on Discovery in 2001.

              1. I really want that space elevator/ring from 3001.

                1. With a space elevator, we’d be all over the system. My dream of a ranch of Warty-buffalo hybrids on Mars would soon be a reality.

                  1. Also it’d be super easy to ship my space beer down. Just run a series of tubes.

                    1. Space beer with Warty burgers–I’m seeing a cross-promotional opportunity.

                    2. We can get Jayne to be the spokesman.

                    3. I’m Adam Baldwin, and I love me some Space Brew and Warty Burgers.

            2. The stuff I’ve seen on the subject said the radius of the circle would need to be over a mile (for 1 G) so as not to induce motion sickness.

              I suppose you could have the living quarters on a mile long tether spinning around the propulsion section.

              1. I’m vomiting just thinking about it.

                On trips, I suppose another option would be constant acceleration at 1 g, though that would require something different than what we have now. Probably nuclear or fusion.

              2. I suppose you could have the living quarters on a mile long tether spinning around the propulsion section.

                That’s pretty much it. Even better, in (once again) Mars Direct, the crew vehicle is light enough that you can just use the burnt out shell of the launch vehicle for the counterweight.

  8. What’s the over/under on de-evolving into giant horny salamanders?

    1. Depends how fast you are traveling. Go faster=more radiation=more mutations=more sexy salamanders.

      1. You know, someday, someone is going to combine that episode with Galactica 1980 to give the world salamanders flying on motorcycles, guided by Starchildbuck.

        1. Those would have to be some fast flying motorcycles.

          1. I was thinking after they turned into salamanders, but either way.

  9. Thanks for this, Brian Doherty. I have far more confidence in you than that other Reason staffer who previously covered spaceflight.

  10. I just read “The Forever War” by Joe Haldeman. It was written in the mid 70s and it’s set in the late 90s early 2000s. Not only in that short 25-35 years was interstellar space travel invented, but Earth has a population of 9 billion, mostly starving unemployed people and all currencies are replaced by a global currency in food calories controlled by the UN.

    1. Yeah, the dystopians were at least as far off as the utopians.

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