Science fiction author L. Neil Smith has written an open letter and posted it on Usenet - and it's a doozy. I hereby submit for your consumption said letter without comment (which I leave up to you, gentle readers):
The October, 2003 issue of Discover contains one of the saddest letters I've ever read. Gil Bell, of Duluth, Georgia, writes
" ... one would have to conclude that travel out of our solar system is impossible. The fusion, fission, and antimatter engines require too much fuel ... The laser sail is doomed by the fact that building a 6,600-mile-wide collecting mirror is simply not feasible, and ... a 600-mile-wide sail would be torn apart by cosmic debris on a daily basis. And why build a fusion ramjet when there's no fuel in space to run it, and its design would not allow it to attain the speed it needs?There are lot of unsupported assertions in Mr. Bell's letter, and a great many factual errors (most of them, I'm afraid, based on an incredible ignorance of history), but the saddest thing about it is its spirit of defeat. As I said in a recent essay, Americans seem to have given up on the future. This letter from Discover is typical and symptomatic.
"The fusion or fission engine concepts would be useful in getting around out own solar system, but what's the use in traveling to other planets in our neighborhood? Venus will never be inhabitable and neither will Mars or any of the Jovian planets or their moons, and changing the environment on another planet will never be within our capabilities. It is fun to speculate on way that humans might accomplish interstellar travel, but in the end it is just more science fiction."
But it doesn't speak for everyone.
I've been reading the works of Robert A. Heinlein (as the Brits say, "man and boy") for forty-six years, having found his books when I was sent to the school library to spend several afternoons there as a punishment. After all these years, I don't recall what for, more's the pity.
In all that time (and earlier, in fact) I always expected that, sooner or later, I'd end up space myself, maybe even die there (after living a couple hundred years, like Lazarus Long). And although I didn't necessarily want to move there, the one sight I always wanted most to see in person was Saturn and its rings, from one of its inner moons.
As I grew up, I became disappointed and disillusioned. The Mercury program came and went, the Gemini program came and went, the Apollo program came and went, followed by SkyLab, the Shuttle program, and the International so-called Space Station. What they all taught us (unless you actually care about fruitfly reproduction in microgravity) was that the only individuals who would ever be allowed to get into space were precisely the kind of government-approved jockstraps who were on the varsity football team when you were in high school -- oh yes, and an occasional cheerleader -- oops, make that public school teacher.
To all the rest of us, meaning those who are "encouraged" (at the point of a gun) to pay for these programs, the message was clear: "Get lost. Outer space, 99.99999999999999999999999999999999 percent of all there is, is government property, like the Lincoln Monument and Area 51."
Nothing has happened in all that time to change that. Just look at the bewildering maze of impossible regulations the government relies on to keep anyone else from trying out a new vehicle design, or from launching anything without their permission and supervision. Or the way they squirmed and struggled, trying to keep that zillionaire space "tourist" on the ground. Or the way they're employing the handy (if illegal) Homeland Security concept in an attempt to shut down model rocketry.
Novelist Victor Koman was dead right, when he said (in his great work, Kings of the High Frontier) that the actual mission of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration -- its not-so-hidden agenda, having nothing to do with the development of space travel and exploration -- is to keep scum like you and me from ever getting into space.
At the same time (as Victor also points out), NASA mouthpieces have been telling the public since the 1960s that our being able to visit space, perhaps even vacationing on the Moon, or in zero gravity at a space station, was "only about thirty years away". That's what they said in the 60s, that's what they said in the 70s, that's what they said in the 80s, that's what they said in the 90s, and that's what they're still saying today. It's always just about thirty years away.
In a way, you can't blame the government. Being what they are, politicians and bureaucrats, they have a very unhealthy tendency to project their own ethical and psychological shortcomings onto others, especially members of the unwashed public. Even before September 11, 2001 -- and before Luis and Walter Alvarez discovered what it really was that killed the dinosaurs -- someone in government read Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (individuals are paid to do that; see James Grady's Six Days of the Condor), in which penal colonists on the Moon ultimately achieve their independence by threatening major cities on Earth with boxcar-sized rocks, launched from an electric catapult.
Like politicians who push victim disarmament (erroneously known as gun control), they're afraid they're going to get what they deserve. So if you ever want to see Saturn's rings (or any other astronomical wonder) up close, you must absorb the following truth and never forget it: given their way, governments will never let ordinary people into space.
Quite aside from the question of boxcar-sized rocks, think of the historically unprecedented savagery with which the Union prosecuted the War between the States. Think of similar savagery at Waco. Think about the War on Drugs -- and recall why many folks use drugs to begin with.
You're not allowed to escape.
Governments will do anything -- absolutely anything, no matter how violent or morally repulsive it happens to be -- to prevent anybody from getting out from under their authoritarian thumb. If you don't shut your mouth, sit up straight, fold your hands, look at them when they're lecturing you, and spit that gum out this minute, they'll kill you.
However if there's on thing I've learned about politics over the last half century, it's that, when there's something you need to do, and government (or anybody else) stands in your way, you simply say you're doing it "for the children" -- and it helps if you really mean it.
I really mean it.
I have a little daughter I sometimes regret having brought into this world because it's become such a dark and horrifying place. If I believed that she could live her life in some of the places I've described in my novels -- that I'm describing again in the novels I'm writing now -- I would do virtually anything I could just to make that happen.
And if I could go there myself ... Well, there just might be a way.
Roughly a hundred years ago, Lord Robert Baden-Powell was having a tough time, don't you know, in one of Britain's last fun wars, because the soldiers she shipped to South Africa by the, er, shipload, didn't have a clue how to survive in the open country. Their foes were Dutch-African settlers -- "Boer" means "farmer" -- who lived and worked there very day. They knew what plants to eat and where to find decent water.
When Baden-Powell got home to Old Blighty, he created the group that was to become known as the Boy Scouts, to fix the shortcomings he'd seen in Africa. The idea was imitated in many other countries, including the United States to impressive effect. I was in the program myself, from 1954 as a Bear Cub, to about 1963, by which time I was an Explorer Scout, an Eagle, and a Brotherhood member of the Order of the Arrow. I also held 23 merit badges, a God & Country Award (believe it or not), a translator bar (German), and a whole ladderful of BSA/NRA sharpshooter bars. Although the roots of the Boy Scouts are sordidly statist, scouting was practically my whole childhood, and a very good one.
About the same time I first got into scouting -- and well before the Soviets' Sputnik scared the Eisenhower Administration shitless, spitless, and witless -- I began to collect newspaper clippings and magazine articles about space and space exploration. I also bought a book about going to the Moon on a visit to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry -- the author opined that no single government would ever be able to afford such a trip, so the idea must be turned over to the United Nations; and wouldn't that have been interesting? -- and I'd vowed that very evening to stand, someday, on the Moon, myself.
So what have I found in all my experiences that might be useful in solving our little space problem? The basic idea is simple, it's just a lot of hard work. At the moment, I'm writing Ceres (a sequel to my 1993 novel Pallas) which concerns itself with terraforming asteroids and preventing "extinction level events" like the one 65 million years ago that killed the dinosaurs. Ceres is not meant to be anybody's fantasy (although one of my former editors informed me that I'm not qualified to write on this subject); it's meant as a blueprint for the future.
I'm also doing research now for another novel, Ares, which will stand, chronologically, right between Pallas and Ceres. It's about the men and women who terraform Mars, despite violent opposition from Earth.
At the same time, I've begun collecting ideas and material for a third book, the working title of which will be (for lack of anything better) The Space Scout Manual. That book will try to do three things.
First, it will help young people (I'm aiming the book at a certain mindset, rather than a given age group; it should appeal at some level to everyone of both sexes between the ages of 5 and 20) to prepare themselves for working, living, and eventually settling in space, in more or less the same way that my old Boy Scouts of America manual, A Handbook For Boys (1955 edition), helped to prepare me to survive -- and even prosper -- in several different kinds of wilderness on this planet.
The book will also contain detailed instructions and suggestions for establishing your own local chapter of what I'm presently calling (again, for lack of anything better) the "Space Scouts" and everything necessary to affiliate it with a national organization of the same name. Unlike a great many other organizations I've been involved with, I want this one always to grow from the ground up, not from the top down.
The The Space Scout Manual's third mission will be to establish a political constituency for abolishing NASA and getting government out of the way of space exploration. If the book, and the organization it creates, are useful and interesting enough, then within a few years, there should be hundreds of thousands of young Space Scouts and maybe, a few years after that, millions. Politicians and bureaucrats will eventually be up against an enormous group of voters who are educated, tough, who won't take "No" (or even "Give us another 30 years") for an answer.
I want this book to get into conventional distribution channels and to show up on paperback racks everywhere. I want this book in airports and grocery stores where the words SPACE SCOUT MANUAL will leap out at all those who had almost -- but not quite -- given up the dream.
Please note that the manual will not be about the current hardware of government space exploration (which is constantly changing anyway) but about personal physical, mental, and moral preparation. It will draw on history, and on both factual and fictional sources. Also, it will give its readers the beginnings of a decent science education (another thing public schools were never up to), and encourage in them a proper skepticism with regard to public education and the democratic process.
Another reason not to get bogged down in such details is that there's no telling what methods of spaceflight will evolve if this idea works.
The book's moral outlook will be rooted in the Bill of Rights and the libertarian Zero Aggression Principle, but it will not preach. It will assume from the outset that individuals own their own lives and the products of their lives, and that no one has a right to initiate force against another human -- no, make that sapient -- being for any reason.
The book will advocate "Reconstitutive Unanimous Consent" as the preferred means of making group decisions and settling disputes. It will also advise politicians and bureaucrats that, from the moment that the first off-planet settlement is created, on Mars, on the Moon, in the Asteroid Belt, or wherever, it should reasonably be expected to become politically independent of Earth whenever its people want it to be.
Don't let any of the above mislead you, however. This will not be a book about libertarian or constitutionalist philosphy. It will be a book about getting into space and staying there. It will be guided as much by the scientific method as it will be by the Zero Aggression Principle. Its largest section, by far, will be a detailed survey and commentary (despite that editor's view that I'm not qualified to write it) on everything that's known, at the moment, about the Solar System, including its constituent star, its planets, moons, planetoids, and comets.
It will also talk -- again in detail -- about all of the many reasons we might want to see these things close up, and even go to live on, in, or among them. Those reasons will range from what might be called the "spiritual" -- because it's the destiny of humankind and a good first step to the stars -- to the exceedingly practical: our species won't survive another rock like the one that put an end the Cretacious; we're 15 million years overdue, so we have to go out and stop it, the topic of a lecture I delivered to the Eris Society in 2000.
Your thirty years are up, NASA.
They've been up a couple of times over.
There will be no more waiting politely. Even if it has to be done like the moldy old joke -- the hotel clerk admits that a room is available, but you'll have to make your own bed; upstairs you find you've been supplied with a hammer, saw, and lumber -- it will be done.
So this is what I've given up electoral politics for -- at least this decade, when the goodguys are powerless. But I think I've traded up. I'm ready to make my own bed. And to plant the seedlings for the lumber.
How about you?