Erika Nesvold: Lucianne is an astronomer at the Adler planetarium in Chicago, and recently served as year as the Astrobiology chair at the Library of Congress, which is where we met, at an unconference that Lucianne organized called Decolonizing Mars. And after that we cofounded this organization, The JustSpace Alliance, which Andrés helpfully read our mission statement out earlier, which saves me from having to recite it again. But our goal is to have more conversations like this and to encourage more conversation between the space experts that’re talking engineering and science and their rocket ships, and people who are experts in sociology and history and how to not hurt each other quite so much. So, I hope that you’ve enjoyed the conversation that we’ve been having so far and that we can continue it.
So for our third panel, we’ll be talking about “What Do Community and the Social Landscape Look Like in Space?” We’re going to start off with a talk by Craig Calhoun, who is a Professor of Social Sciences at Arizona State University, and the former Director of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
We’ll also be joined by Fred Scharmen, who is an Associate Professor at Morgan State University in the School of Architecture and Planning, has a book out this week called Space Settlements that hopefully he’ll talk about.
And Alex MacDonald, who’s a Program Director for Emerging Space at the NASA Office of the Chief Technology— [MacDonald?: Not anymore.] Not anymore! He’s now a Senior Economic Advisor at NASA. I caught up eventually.
But Craig will start us off.
Craig Calhoun: Thank you Erika.
So in the spirit of provocations… And I’m not going to bother to repeat all of the disclaimers about how little we know. All of us, no matter what we’re experts in, know too little about this subject.
Anticipations of human settlement in space, though, are galvanized by utopian visions on the one hand, and by dystopian views of this world on the other hand. And it’s important to keep both in mind because they are both projections. In addition to being the continuation of processes of settlement and the expansion of human society that’ve been going on for a very long time, they are projections of issues we have with that.
So we have our hopes that may be realized. And I’m going to talk a little bit about how much is invested in the word “community,” these hopes. And we also have the idea that there are a variety of problems with an overpopulated and ecologically damaged Earth, that may be rectified by space settlement. It’s interesting if you go back and reread GK O’Neill in the 1970’s, you get a very familiar list of the Earth’s problems that are going to be remedied, at least mitigated, by space settlement. So the driver there of solving problems on this Earth is real.
Common to both utopias, and those who are reacting to this worldly dystopia, is a vision of space settlements as idealized communities. None of this applies to Fred because I haven’t read his book because I just saw it for the first time right here. And I’m sure he’s exempt from anything I say critical. But, he has already said anything I said positively here.
But, there is a tendency, an enormous tendency in the world of advocacy and in the world of futurism and projection, to think of space settlements as idealized communities. I don’t just mean the assumption that peace will win out over conflict or ienquality will be minimized. These assumptions are indeed common among many advocates for space settlement. But there are plenty of science fiction accounts of future space wars to counterbalance this, so that isn’t really the issue I’m after. I mean rather that the unit of imagined space settlement is very disproportionately something called the community. And what we might mean by that is a question.
Now, from here on out I am going to be taking a major legal risk, because a firm, Caelus Partners, has been claiming trademark status for the phrase “community in space,” sub: “tm,” right.
Now, note what a trademark is. It’s an effort to claim property rights, right. The idea that the very long-used phrase “community in space” could become private property reveals a significant set of issues, and potentially a contradiction. Now I don’t want to take up all of this and I have no idea who’s behind Caelus Partners and what they’re up to with their attempt to trademark “community in space” so they can become I think the predominant consultants on the subject. But, I think that the contradiction is interesting.
As property claims, trademarks are enforceable through laws made by states, right. Not the informal relationships of communities. So there’s this tension between saying “We’re all about community. We’re all about self-governing, informal relationships with almost no intrusive actions of government,” and “We’re going to trademarks this so that we have recourse in the legal apparatus, run by states, to defend our property rights.” Moreover, the agenda of Caelus Partners is explicitly the commercialization of space. Which is also not…precisely…community.
Communitarian visions of social life, in short, are importantly incomplete. It’s not that they’re all wrong, that nothing’s been said reasonably about community. But the idea that descriptions of communities would be adequate to give an account of the whole of space settlement is very problematic. Space communities can only be parts of larger systems.
Now. I’ve already suggested— I’m going to just gloss over something that’s come up in the previous panels but is important. The narrative of future space settlement really is an extension in many ways of the narrative of expanding society on the surface of the Earth. It’s not a radical departure. We haven’t yet made any radical departure. There are radical departures required in the technologies, to be able to achieve transport, at cost effectiveness, and to sustain life in space. But the narrative of expansion is largely continuous with prior expansions. Merchants and kings backed voyages of exploration. The great Dutch, East, and West India companies, which we heard about, and the British East India Company, were pioneers not just in expanding settlement but in inventing business corporations.
And they behaved also like states in many ways. They employed armies to enforce their property claims. They depended on states for additional security, not least against pirates or privateers who sought to intercept their ships and cargos. Though these might in fact be sponsored by rival states, so it was a complicated world, right. Now the importance of this—and I could go on and on about the story—is that we remember that some of the issues have very long histories of contending with these issues.
There are similar proposals today to base community in space on a large-scale property rights given to those who will fund building the settlements. Exactly what we heard about in the case of the Dutch East India Company. I quote one of these:
We have the power to create a “pot of gold” waiting on the Moon, to attract and reward whatever companies can be the first to assemble and risk enough capital and talent to establish an airline-like, Earth-Moon “space line” and lunar settlement. How? By making it possible for a settlement to claim and own — and re-sell to those back home on Earth—the product that has always rewarded those who paid for human expansion: land ownership
Alan Wasser, The Space Settlement Initiative
Now. There’s a lot of ki—…you know, issues here. This isn’t a reality of legal framework. Advocates are proposing the US Congress pass bills guaranteeing recognition for land claims. This hasn’t happened yet. But a couple of quick observations on this. One, land is usually not thought of as a product in the same sense but as a preexisting endowment.
But two, right, this is a proposal for preemptive deployment of property claims in space. They’re a set of arguments about the treaty that I don’t want to go into that claim that while national sovereignty is excluded private ownership is not. I think this is a sort of dubious argument and a false debate. My point is the imaginary. The kind of motivation people have, what they think they’re up to, not whether they can actually defend it in a court of law.
And there’s a reason this debate is taking this form, by comparison to 1967. In 1967 it was pretty clear that governments had the resources, if any Earth-bound entities had the resources, to launch into space. And it’s pretty clear now that corporations have the resources, not governments. So that we have to recognize behind a lot of this argument a dramatic shift in resources. The extent to which there’s been a concentration of wealth in private hands… Which has been aided by tax cuts, it’s been aided by tax evasion, but it also has been simply a product, right, of a variety of different forces that I can’t go into any detail, although some of those forces have a direct relation to space because they are the products of government investment space exploration in the 1960s, which the government allowed to be commercialized, by others, without retaining property rights. So that a good deal of what we think of as the post-1970s expansion of microelectronics and a range of other technologies has roots in large-scale government investment. Some of it from the space program. Others for defense purposes. Others for health purposes. But it has led to a shift in who has the resources, and this then leads to different proposals and different concrete projects (Elon Musk or whoever) about how to go into space, and different challenges.
Now all of this still plays out against a background of this idea of community. I would mean by “community” a relatively discreet population linked by dense networks of interpersonal ties where individuals are sort of knowable or recognizable. Where the organization is largely informal. And where the whole is more or less readily surveillable. So that you can as a member of a community—a neighborhood, a small town—sort of see how the whole works.
Well that is almost by definition different than how global systems work. Organized in terms of infrastructure, the global transportation system, the global communications system, the global market. And extending beyond the globe into space. We have a tension between an idealization of something like a “local community…” islands in space, as the phrase has been ever since GK O’Neill and before, small settlements, which people can know in a certain way; and the larger systems, which are more opaque to that kind of personal experiential vision, which you have to know other ways—through engineering, through statistics, through whatever.
Community, in other words, is different from nation-states, far-flung markets, multinational corporations. And throughout the whole modern era, this very difference has been thematized in a sort of nostalgic value on community—the world that we are losing, the world we could really know and understand—versus this other, more complicated world. And that plays out in the space discussion, too, which has its own varieties of unrealistic nostalgia in evoking communities. And I won’t say much about this but just the island trope is a good example of this. It has been a part of the discussion of community and idealized communities since the early modern era, right, in which Pacific islands became exemplars.
And the imagined self-contained island settlement sets up innumerable utopias which are imagined in that context, inspires Rousseau, right, inspires a variety of accounts of what life could be like in another way that are remarkably like accounts of space settlements. In which there will be freedom from want, there will be communal sharing, there will not be the need for an intrusive government. And so forth and so on. So we have something remarkably like a 17th century account from explorers of what they at least imagined they saw, and a modern—even future—settlement.
Let me quote O’Neill on this, alright. O’Neill imagined islands, again, as I suggested in this, self-contained settlements of a moderate scale; bigger than space stations, bigger than starships, but smaller than planets. He wrote:
The self-sufficiency of space communities probably has a strong effect on government. A community of 200,000 people, eager to preserve its own culture and language, can even choose to remain largely isolated. Free, diverse social experimentation could thrive in such a protected, self-sufficient environment.
Gerard K. O’Neill, The Colonization of Space
Now, that’s…not borne out particularly by the history of what happened to small societies on Earth. And we have to ask why we think it would happen there. And it’s only by sort of willfully disregarding the larger systemic qualities that would be necessary to sustain space settlement that we can imagine each of these settlements—discreet, self-contained, free, and entirely self-governing—in this way. This is also reinforced by the genric requirements of novels and film, where narration gives a premium to having identifiable heroes, identifiable characters, who can see what’s going on, who can recurrently meet each other and know each other, who can be recognized as individuals. Something that’s possible in certain scales, but hard to imagine on the scale of many many millions of people, right. You bump into people you know downtown in a small town. You don’t bump into people you know with anywhere near the same frequency in very large-scale societies unless you are in a very restricted group within that large-scale society, restricted by class or by occupation or something else.
There’s more that comes from this, and I’m gonna wind up quickly. An image of empty space. It’s worth recalling how much the image of empty space informed European imaginings of the rest of the world. They weren’t empty, exactly as we heard in the first sessions. Of course there were indigenous peoples. And the indigenous peoples that we call “Indians,” but indigenous peoples in Africa, indigenous peoples in Asia, indigenous peoples elsewhere, right. So this idea of emptiness was odd. John Locke began the Second Treatise on Government with the line “in the beginning all the world was America,” and went on to say that what that meant was it was empty, underdeveloped, and unexploited. But these are exactly the terms that we use in space.
Now let me just give one twist to the conversation that we began earlier about indigenous peoples. Europeans did unthinkable things to indigenous peoples. They also did unthinkable things to slaves, whom they brought in from elsewhere. And so it’s kind of a red herring to say space is empty therefore there won’t be any of the kind of issues of domination and power and exploitation with which Europeans dealt with indigenous peoples. Because Europeans are fully capable of bringing in slaves and indentured labor in a variety of different forms. There’s a lot of power that goes into who goes into those settlements. Not just attracting adventurers, right, but forcing people into situations. And the same thing can happen again, analogously in space. Now it doesn’t have to. And this is the sort of thing we could act to try to head off. But it could, in that sense.
The emptiness of space is at most transitory, right. Potentials for forced migration and forced labor are large. And then think about, again, the extent to which the dystopias on Earth matter. Are space communities to be modeled on idealized small towns and Jimmy Stewart movies? Are they to be modeled on the resettlement camps in which refugees find themselves? Are they to be modeled on a variety of other things—what are the models?
How about mining camps? Where overwhelmingly male populations work under difficult labor conditions, in mines. Is that the model for a space community? Well it doesn’t sound like a community exactly, right? How do you get— By what path do you get from the mine to the eventual community of a different kind? Is this an invitation to sex trafficking, as indeed mine communities have been almost universally on Earth, right? Or is the model something more like the military base? Because for the foreseeable future, there are going to be pretty stringent life conditions in any space settlements that are created. They are not like— As you say, suck the air out. There’s an issue of a potential attack. These are going to be potentially constrained, if not extremely harsh living conditions, for some time into the future. So they may be more like military encampments, or scientific outposts at the poles. Research stations that work under difficult conditions for long periods of time. We need to look at this wider range of models, not leap to an assumption about community.
On the theme of slavery before I leave it, we need to note that while the states were complicit in slavery in many cases, it was also largely an illegal enterprise. And in our imagining of space settlement we need to pay attention to the possibility that treaties and laws will be ignored. Something like a third of global capitalism is illicit today in at least some part of the circuit of the money involved. There’s no reason to think that all of the capitalist engagement in space exploration will remain entirely legal at every step of the journeys involved. So we have to put the illicit into the picture at the same time.
Nonetheless, the scale of investment required simply to solve the problem of initial transportation and construction guarantees that either states or large corporations will be essential to establishing communities in space. We can value communities for what the idea of community means to us. But if we do value communities, we need to then ask what conditions are required for community kinds of social organization to thrive in these large-scale systems of capitalist markets, or of corporations, or of state power. Because those are not communal. And they are not intrinsically friendly to community. So, community it requires some sort of defensive counterweight if it’s to be the model in this sense.
Well I’ve probably talk too long. And I hope I’ve been at least somewhat provocative in all of this. But we have a variety of questions to ask, and the questions about space settlements have to include questions about who’s putting them up there, who’s paying for them, what their motives and business plans and models and agendas are, and then questions about who will get recruited to them on that basis. Is it more the indentured labor model? Or is it more the adventurer model? Or is it very much an open job market in a modern economy? All of these are possible, right, but we can’t think that it’s guaranteed to be the sort of happy model of community.
Erika Nesvold: Thanks for that Craig. So Craig was not the first person today to drop Gerry O’Neill’s name. And this came up in a conversation that you guys were having during the email thread prior to the conference. Alex, let me start with you. Can you talk a little bit about how the early discussions of space settlement from… I think you mentioned the pre-Apollo era in your email, but also the 1970s when a lot of this conversation was going on, how that affects the conversation today. And I’m hoping that Fred at some point will have some contributions as well.
Alex MacDonald: Yeah, I mean the idea of how we’re going to live in space has at least 150 years of history. The first story of how we would live in space that I kind of can point to is a story called “The Brick Moon” by Edward Everett Hale. And Edward Everett Hale himself is an amazing figure of history. He ends his life as I understand it as the chaplain of the US Senate. He participated in fundraising for gunrunning to Kansas in the effort in the mid 19th century keep Kansas a free State. And he was a minister.
But he also wrote the very first story of people who live in space. And we were talking about this kind of in the back room there, that he essentially comes up with a story of people who were building a GPS system for visual navigation to solve the longitude problem An idea he actually came up with as a teenager at Harvard with his siblings. And they go about building a contraption. By accident people get put into it. And then it gets launched into space.
What’s interesting is that once they’re up there they don’t have a way to come down. And so he goes into significant discussion of the type of community that they form. Now it’s essentially few families that’re living up there. And they ultimately form what he considers a spiritual community. Obviously as a minister that’s an issue of significant interest to him and why he thinks about living in one of these islands in the sky.
Nesvold: And this is written in 18…
MacDonald: 1860s. Yeah, 1869 it’s published. So that’s kind of the first example of that. And we have other examples in the 19th century that actually by even the 1890s you have examples of really thinking about an America that extends throughout the solar system, even before the turn of the century. And then of course in the 1920s and 30s you start to see societies develop. Groups all across the country who are rocket societies or space societies, that talk about well you know, let’s develop this capability to go into space somehow. At the time of course there was no reason for the government to invest in it. Right? That of course changes with the association between the rocketry required for space flight and the rocketry required for—not really going to say required, but used for military purposes. Those two forces them become significantly allied through the 30s, 40s, 50s, and then in the 60s you have of course a civil space program for space exploration.
And then what’s really interesting about the O’Neillian piece that comes in, and I think Fred can speak better to this, but it comes up specifically for I think similar reasons to why we’re seeing a resurgence in the discussion today. Which is that there was at that time an expectation that the space shuttle would provide truly cheap, truly reusable, regular access to space. Where you’re talking about launch to orbit at hundreds of dollars per kilogram. And those promises are again being made by various commercial companies today, although I’ll note [toward Calhoun] that companies like SpaceX are still predominantly reliant on US government funding—
MacDonald: —for their operations. But there’s that interest again, based on hope for advances in reusable rocketry to reduce the cost. And once you can reduce the cost very very very significantly, people start to think that they have ways to figure out how to fund living in space for different periods of time. And so that was the kind first beginning of that O’Neillian community and I suspect Fred’s got kind of a more interesting history of exactly what that does to the community than I do.
Fred Scharmen: Well, no. It’s a really fascinating set of issues, and there’s so much to be learned from…like you call it in your book the Long Space Age, right. And I’m really glad that Craig you brought up the idea that the community is always part of a system that we sometimes can or cannot see or recognize. And in Gerard O’Neill’s proposals for these islands in space, those communities did— They were supposed to perform a very specific function in a larger system. They were supposed to be experiments.
So this is in the 1970s, when of course the Oil Crisis had just hit. And one of the things they were supposed to be doing was mining the moon and mining asteroids to build these large power satellites. So it was in some ways a mining camp, like you say.
But also there was a sense in O’Neill’s writing and the writing of Carl Sagan and Stewart Brand, who wrote about O’Neill’s project, that this would renew the American project because just like The Brick Moon there would be so many opportunities for these individualized small communities to try new stuff. Stewart Brand writes about if you can try stuff, do it. Try anything, try everything.
So the function in the larger system was to be this kind of…social Darwinism, almost, where communities could build experimental societies and, Gerard O’Neill’s really specific about it and so is Carl Sagan in a few places, some will fail. The failure means the collapse of an entire miniature world. 200 thousand or 10 thousand or even a hundred people. So, the function is to sort of produce the new, or to fail. And what that would do at best is create new… That was a kind of mining too, its own way, because it would produce new social models that—and Brand and even Carl Sagan are explicit bout this—that could then be reimported back to Earth, as a lot of the other panelists today were talking about, and change the way we thought about how social and political life could exist on Earth.
Calhoun: And just as a footnote to that, these are at times. So the Brick Moon story’s in the middle of the 19 century, a time on the heels of the big wave of the founding of utopian communal settlements. Of Fourierist communes, Owenite communes, religious communes of various kinds around the United States. And the O’Neill story, picked up by people like Steward Brand, very much a part of the communal experiments on Earth: We’re gonna go off to the woods in Oregon. We’re going to try a different kind of community. We’re gonna see some will work, some won’t. The consequences of failure may not be as immediately severe—though I don’t know, Jonestown. Looked kinda the same story.
Scharmen: But if you could escape from Jonestown at least you still had air. You still had gravity. So, there’s a really weird contradiction there in that failure is kind of genocide, in advance.
Scharmen: So it is also very much a colonial kind of project because this is a colonial worldview. It’s the production of new economic realities or death.
MacDonald: But I would say that that’s part of the kind of the narrative of people think about the social impacts of it. And then of course there’s the real space program.
Scharmen: Mm hm.
Calhoun: Yeah. Exactly.
MacDonald: And you know, the reality of what we’ve been doing over the past…at this point you know, thirty-some years depending how you want to think about it, building the International Space Station is very different than any of this, right. I think Henry actually did a great job of discussing what the community is, and you’ve gotta put you know, scare quotes around that in the case of the International Space Station but it’s a community of nations, right. And it’s due to international agreements. Nation-states and, you know, people through the representatives in government, came to agreements where they had to pass laws, in their respective governments, to create a shared effort to live in space. And today we’re on the sixtieth expedition of crew to the International Space Station. The next crew is launching on July 20th. And it is effectively an effort to learn how to live in space. Corporations are contractors who supply logistics, right. We are currently experimenting with policies to think about you know, what more commercial activity could there be. But the 98 percentage of what is current and expected is coming from government taxpayer dollars. And therefore it’s there to serve public ends. And in this case the public ends include scientific investigation, preparation for exploration missions, as well as international partnership, which has a goal above other objectives as well.
Calhoun: Absolutely. But what it means is…getting back to the sense of community…the internal organization of social life in a space station is centered on work roles that people have, groups have. So different crews have a set of missions that they’re to carry out, individuals have roles within that. And so we have one kind of…“organization” (just trying to avoid the word “community”) that is formally organized, highly structured by work roles. And we have something different that is an imagined…life together, right. The commune in Oregon isn’t that, right.
And these two senses of how things are organized are in a real tension through this. It’s almost in rebellion against formal organization that we have the informal model, but we also have questions about what’s the future of work? What are the work roles, if we were to launch the cylindrical orbiting O’Neill islands now, right, what would be the work roles that 200 thousand people would have in that setting? Or would this be work that is very secondary? I mean O’Neill himself does try to grapple with what are the kinds of roles they’d have. Well we won’t need many people to do agriculture. We can automate construction, right. People will do other kinds of things. They’ll design. (They won’t do that.) But it’s a basic question we’re facing here on Earth, but we would face it in a space settlement too if we weren’t organizing it around workplace roles.
Nesvold: So, I want to go back to a comment that you made Crag, about what were the— Sorry there’s a mosquito.
Scharmen: No mosquitoes in space.
Nesvold: No mosquitoes in space, that’s the best part.
Calhoun: Fewer and fewer on Earth…
Nesvold: You were talking about what kind of communities do we want to model our future space communities. And you mentioned the Jimmy Stewart small town. And when I think of that particular idealized model, it’s usually that sort of 1950s, happy small town is extremely exclusionary and very conformist, right. And this made me think of something Fred was talking about over email, which is the way that design can be exclusionary. And in particular when we design for space we have to design so many specific parts of the environment. More than here on Earth, where we can just sort of ad lib a lot of the work. And so I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about ways that design can exclude groups. In fact I can see an example right now in this room, which is the stage, which has been designed by someone and you can if you think about it for a second notice that it designs a certain type of person which is someone who can’t step up onto it. There’s no ramp for it. So can you maybe give us examples of those sorts of pitfalls we could run into in space in our communities?
Sure, start with Fred.
Scharmen: My favorite example is ASHRAE Standard 54. Which is… ASHRAE Standard 54—I hear some other architects in the audience laughing—is the standard which sets the parameters of the air that we’re occupying right now. So it is the design of the air itself. And that brings into play a lot of different things. The rate at which the air is moving is one of the factors. The temperature is a factor certainly, but also the humidity. So is the kind of expected metabolism rate of the individuals who are within the room. And this is the set of assumptions had been unquestioned until 2015, when a group of researchers went back and sort of dissected the science that had gone into ASHRAE Standard 54. And it included research in the 1960s that took for granted that most of the occupants of something like an office space would be men wearing business suits. So, when—
Calhoun: Is that why it’s too cold in here?
Scharmen: That’s it’s too cold in here! Exactly. When when groups feel excluded from the space because the air is designed to include someone else, that represents a set of very real choices made by real humans at points in time. They designed the air to exclude you.
And of course, in outer space all these parameters that we take for granted become totally explicit. The light levels. If it’s a rotating, free-floating habitat. Even the gravity can’t be taken for granted. Certainly the design of the ground as a product is something that comes into play.
So, I wonder about that. I don’t know what the answer is to that, because it brings into question certain utopian possibilities; how do we truly designed a space for all people? But as someone in the design field, I know how difficult that really is.
Nesvold: Do either of you have comments on this?
Calhoun: Well, let me jump in with a quick comment that… The design…world is a dialectic between innovation and standardization, among other things. And so is a lot of the economy. And we at the moment are very wedded to a language of innovation. And disruption. And all the new that we’re gonna create. And this affects also the way in which we talk about space exploration, in which we talk about new technology, right, so all innovation. But in fact the success of these technological systems depends equally on standardization. The success of globalization, the global economy, is a project of the International Standards Off—
Scharmen: ISO, yeah.
Calhoun: Exactly. I mean of the ability to get international agreements, like the space station, but all kinds of international agreements about railroad gauges or about electrical current or about all manner of things. And this matters a lot in the context of space settlement, too. So the image of everybody freely creates the different is up against the need for spare parts. Which is then the need for some kind of standardized measurement system for the spare parts, and so forth.
MacDonald: And we’re already dealing with that, right. So space suits on the International Space Station is a great example of this. Space suits are not cheap. The logistics of bringing up these bulky items is not trivial. And yet, you have to have space suits for a very diverse astronaut corps. Because we want a diverse astronaut corps.
And yet at the same time, you have to balance the standardization elements (because of the logistical complexity with it) with that need for diversity. And so our engineers struggle with that all the time. This is one of those cases where there’s no…one answer to this. It’s simply a design problem with which we can continue to struggle and try to get better solutions.
Calhoun: Different tradeoffs.
Nesvold: So it sounds like the physical environment of space itself, and its isolation, is going to cause this tension between accommodating the outliers and trying to just work towards a standardized model just just for economy, if nothing else. Can you think of any other potential sources of conflict between…maybe not in the physical sense but our values, our democratic freedoms for example, versus the kind of controls you need to put in place to ensure safety? This is something you [Calhoun] brought up via email.
Calhoun: Let me throw one out just…that’s directly design-related. The design quality that the well-off get is very different from the design quality that the not very well-off get. And it pervades community. You get a lot of kind of relatively well-designed civil society spaces in prosperous suburban communities that you don’t get in declining towns that’ve lost their factories. And so, the inequality is pervasive in this. It’s not just the starting point of how do you get motivated to go to space. It’s things like will we introduce those kinds of inequalities in the design experience into the new settings? Will we have— Well, we essentially have— I mean, I think that the kind of advocacy community…it’s not NASA it is the advocacy community if I can call it a community. The advocacy for what amounts to a real estate development model of space would yield exactly what we get in real estate developments on Earth. With the partial exception that we wouldn’t get as much spontaneous settlement, because it’s hard to move spontaneously into space at this point.
Scharmen: I think… I mean, you [MacDonald] were talking about the International Space Station and I think it’s a great model for international corporate cooperation? Partly because the way the spaces are organized. It’s almost all hallway. It’s almost all public space. So there are chances for all these kinds of encountered and shared experiences.
And I like to also juxtapose the kind of image of the… Picture a 1950s city on Mars, right, as it would’ve been designed in the 1950s. It looks like a big dome, right? And the big dome is a social model. It’s an image democracy and public space. In 2017, SpaceX released this image of their vision of a space city on Mars. And it was a series of disconnected little capsules, sort of sprawling across the landscape in a rough grid. That’s a very different spatial architectural model, but it’s also very different social model, a kinda every person for themselves… “If you get a puncture over there I’m just sealing the tube and you’re on your own, buddy. I’m here in my capsule and I’m good.”
So, the configuration of the space itself, how much public space is made and how much public space is represented, I think also affects our social values, our sense of shared purpose and shared community.
MacDonald: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think I can speak as well well to the design elements, but as an economist I think one of the central tensions, and I think it’s going to be a healthy tension, is the tension between the public sources of support that are the current predominant source of support for human space flight. But the also emergent and increasingly capable private sector sources of both space flight capabilities but also funding.
In the book I wrote, one of the summary pieces was basically recognizing that in the early 19th century—I should say the mid 19th century, the late 19th century, and the early 20th century, the predominant funders of astronomical observatories and early liquid-fueled rocketry development, were private sources. It was the Carnegie and Rockefeller fortunes that built Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories. It was the Guggenheim family who provided Robert Goddard with most of this funding.
But that was very small, compared to the amount of funding that came in from the public sector for both military purposes and then civil purposes in the 1960s and to today. Today, the vast majority of all funding for space exploration activities and human space flight still comes from the public sector. And yet, it’s a good, healthy dynamism that we’re seen new private capabilities emerge. And that balance of the priorities of private organizations and individuals, with the balance of the public who’s funding it, is not a new balancing problem, it is the balancing problem of social life. And we’re going to continue to have that. And I think it’s good and we need to be conscious of that. But that’s one that is never going to end.
Calhoun: And there’s no static solution, partly because the economy goes through phases where one or the other model grows. Those of us in the academic world will remember times when public universities were ascendant. You really wanted to be a Berkeley not Stanford. Those times are gone. But they could return, right. I mean there’s the shifts in which kind of model is uppermost.
Nesvold: Craig, you brought up something via email that I thought was really interesting which is that we’ve discussed now in this conversation today communities that are these sort of closed, steady-state systems—these islands. But we’ve also been talking repeatedly about growth, and change. And so I think you asked…maybe you can answer, how do we balance those two things? The idea that we’re going to have to have a lot of closed cycles in space for sustainability and survivability, but at the same time this is expansionist, we’re constantly changing.
Calhoun: Right. I don’t think I have an answer. I think the question is well-posed; that was the question I was trying to get at. I think it’s one that we’ve had throughout hundreds of years of modern history, right. I mean the whole of “modernity,” of the era of capitalism, the era of nation-states, all of that era has been an expansionist era. It has yielded world wars, it has yielded peace movements. It’s yielded lots of different kinds of outcomes. But it has been relentlessly expansionist, that’s been a near constant. And there have been various attempts to stabilize the expansion. I think you could see nation-states as an attempt to stabilize the expansion, by contrast to empires and other sorts of things.
So there are various efforts to stabilize at the same time but there is an effort to make more money, to reach farther in various ways. And if it becomes economically and technologically feasible to have large-scale space settlement in the near future, this is another wave of expansion, like going to America from Europe or something. And there will be all sorts of people who want to stabilize it.
Now note stabilization is things like yes, my ancestors were immigrants but no more immigrants, right. Stabilization is often people who benefited from the last round of expansion declaring that the doors need to be closed in some way.
Nesvold: What’s our time, Anthony? Look at that. We’re gonna stop for questions. Let’s start with…she didn’t get an answer last time.
Jessie Kate Shingler: Jessie Kate Shingler. I wanted to go back to the topic of how do we truly design for all people. And, I think that perhaps we don’t have a sort of single design that’s ever going to work for all people. And I think that to also go back to it to Craig’s initial provocation, what defines a community is in fact in many cases it’s the differences. It is what is the identity that we hold that is different from other folks. And so I wonder in the context of space settlement, maybe what we need is not a universal answer and maybe universality, to go back to the original panel, is actually the colonizing factor. It’s the singular answer for all. And so I just wonder if we could talk a little bit about what plurality looks like, or what what a non-colonized, non-homogeneous or non-universal future looks like in space.
Craig Calhoun: [to Scharmen] Do you want to say something? Because that’s very much the project O’Neill and you write about?
Fred Sharmen: So, during the 1970s when he was responding to O’Neill’s project, the islands in space project that Craig talked about, Carl Sagan hoped for—in a passage he wrote to Stewart Brand. He said I don’t like the word “space colonies,” I prefer the word “space cities.” And I think one of the things that Sagan was after is this notion that cities are places that are cosmopolitan. That accept and absorb identity and difference. And that the implied subject of a cosmopolitan citizen is very different than the implied subject of a colonizer that’s out there on a frontier somewhere alone with an axe.
So Sagan went on further to kind of mess it up and say other problematic stuff like it could be the America of the skies. And he’s writing in 1976 on the American bicentennial. So there was this hope for… there’s always this hope to recapture that difference and use it to recuperate the American project pf some kind of melting pot dynamics, too. So again, that push and pull between identity and difference is very much there in this project. And even in The Brick Moon, the brick moon a separate community. It was a secessionist kind of community, so it was a separatist project. And there are many people who write about space settlement that hope for “well, people will get along a lot better when they all have their own bubble floating off a million miles from the next-nearest bubble and they won’t get on their neighbors nerves or try to take over the other bubble.”
Calhoun: I think communities aren’t uniform, but they tolerate certain differences and not others. And what distinguishes one from another is sort of which kinds of difference it tolerates, accepts, embraces and which ones it finds intolerable. Even the term “cosmopolitan” can be used completely coherently to refer to the polyglot difference of early Manhattan, or the relatives standardization of global universalization. We’re gonna have a model citizenship which is the same. I mean national citizenship is after all a highly uniformitarian, universalistic notion everyone gets it the same way, and that’s what gives them the rights to then be different in other ways. So I don’t think we’re going to resolve this in space but we better constantly be aware of it as an issue.
Scharmen: Could I add one thing?
Erika Nesvold: Sure.
Scharmen: On an optimistic note, one of my favorite parts of the International Space Treaty is the rescue and return provision. Because that is a very kind of utopian gesture towards no matter who you are, if you’re in trouble in space…if we’re enemies, if we’re friends it doesn’t matter. I’m obligated as another person in space to rescue and return you. And I think that’s really beautiful.
Carl MacDonald: And as we know from the movie The Martian, that was super helpful.
Scharmen: Mm hm. Yeah.
Nesvold: Let’s go to this one in the back.
Audience 2: Hi. So eventually, once there is hypothetically a settlement in space I’m sort of curious what you think the challenges that a local government there would face that would be unique to those that we have here on Earth, and what might be the same or similar to the ones that we’re already seeing local governments face today.
MacDonald: Yeah. Probably for me, one of the first big problems will be probably the fact that the people who live there didn’t fund it themselves.
MacDonald: I think what is going to be uniquely— Well, that’s not entirely new. That’s been a problem—
Calhoun: [crosstalk] Not unique, but distinctive.
MacDonald: It’s not unique, sorry. But distinctive. That’s exactly right.
So I think that’s going to be a challenge. There’s been a lot of conversation within the space settlement kind of discussion world for decades that “Don’t you want them to have autonomy?” And that is a wonderful ideal. The challenge is they have probably been put there, sent there, by some entity which has a purpose in sending them there. And again, that’s going to be a tension. But I think that’s going to be a distinctive one for space settlement that may not be true for another local terrestrial development where you could imagine much more easily people self-funding their way.
Calhoun: Can I add another—just a really concrete one that I think about, because I completely agree with that and I was trying to point to it. You know, it’s corporations or states or whomever.
The idea of local government is going to have to confront a degree of enclosure that is different. And I think it’s going to be interesting to see what is developed as mobility and migration regimes among space settlements, if they emerge. We tend to think you know, how do we get there. And then everyone will be there. And what system would make them happy? But I’ve never seen on Earth any system that made everybody happy. There’s always somebody who wants to go somewhere else, you know. They’re gay, they want to go to San Francisco or New York. They’re are an artist— You know, there are the people who don’t like Dubuque. I don’t know how that’s imaginable. And I think that it needs to be considered that we’re talking about relatively challenging mobility among space elements. And most of the assumptions of the design of them is that you have a high degree of enclosure and autonomy and self-sufficiency. And so a big question is going to be regimes for leaving.
Nesvold: We can fit one more question I think. Let’s go up front here.
Audience 3: Hi. So, my question has to do with how do you plan a society for a sense of adaptability and a sense of emerging technologies being in another planet or whatever. How do you keep it constantly updating for the technologies of tomorrow? And keep in mind the government, they plan something for twenty years, let’s say a space city, but in that amount of time technology could be totally changed. So how do you take that into into account when playing a future?
Nesvold: I think that’s a great question especially in terms of something Henry brought up a couple of times today, which is that it’s really hard to come up with a legal system, which is what we were talking about, when you don’t know what things are gonna look like. When you’re working so far ahead of time that you can’t predict how things are going to go.
MacDonald: Yeah. One word that is used a lot at NASA is modularity, right. The International Space Station is built not as a monolith, but by a number of different pieces that’ve come together. Individual habitation modules. Science models. And what that has meant is that now as we’re considering further potential commercial activity, there’s now the opportunity to add another model, right. So I think that modularity element—and of course in theory, since we have the wonderful science fiction introduction to this panel, if anyone has seen…I forget the title of the movie exactly, but Valerian? Right? How does Valerian start? It effectively starts with the International Space Station, growing modularly, for hundreds of years, until it is the size of a moon and then must be pushed out of orbit on its journey across the cosmos. And that is a vision of a future that is very diverse, it’s almost infinitely diverse if you watch the movie. And it’s one that comes from perpetual modular growth over very very long periods of time.
Scharmen: And I think, as somebody who’s interested in the ISS as a design object too, I find it really fascinating that this is like, you could call it the most expensive building ever made, right. And nobody knew what it was going to look like when it was done.
MacDonald: Interesting point.
Scharmen: So there’s another great takeaway there about faith in the future and expandability through modularity.
MacDonald: And I would argue we don’t yet know it [crosstalk] will be done.
Scharmen: We still don’t know. [crosstalk] Yeah. Yeah.
Calhoun: We still don’t know what it’ll look like. So I think this is interesting and there’s a tension in the idea of planning for this. I’m not a lawyer, so I defer to Henry and others’ thinking about legal systems. But there’s law that is enabling and there’s that is regulatory or managing, right. So there are laws like what are the rules for establishing a corporation? Which allow lots of corporations to be created, eventually allow corporations to be created for completely different purposes that were not envisaged at the beginning.
So thinking of that kind of enabling law rather than always thinking of regulatory law, or law that is prescriptive in some sense, I think may be a clue as to how to do this. Because almost all organizations have huge amounts of entropy. Business corporations, universities, whatever they are, even when they’re devoted to scientific research and the new, they tend to become devoted to their existing ways of doing things as well. And so it often involves creating new and different organizations to spur the change, not planning in the method of change inside one of them.
Nesvold: Unfortunately we have to end there. I think Andrés is going to say a couple of words about what happens next, but let’s thank my last panel here.
What Will Humans Really Need in Space? by Fred Scharmen, at Slate/Future Tense
There Will Be Crime in Space by Erika Nesvold, at Slate/Future Tense
How Will We Govern Ourselves in Space? event page