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The Obligation and the vision of space settlement

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I have been involved in the space movement since the mid 1970s, when Gerard K. O’Neill’s writings opened the prospect of humanity settling space. Until 1975 I was a systems analyst working on manufacturing systems for Cummins, a progressive engine manufacturer based in Columbus, Indiana. After an impromptu conversation with our Director of Strategic Planning I discovered my interest in the future. In 1976, I worked with Barbara Marx Hubbard to launch Horizons Day, a celebration of the future prospect in the year of America’s bicentennial. Barbara came to Columbus to help launch our celebrations. She was an early supporter of O’Neill’s work. Organization of the Horizons Day community-wide meeting was a step in my transition to a position in corporate planning at Cummins as Business Trends Advisor.

NASA fell from a national priority to a legacy program that Congress seemed to keep alive more due to the jobs in key districts in Florida, California, and Texas, than to a commitment to US space leadership.

In early 1977, I developed and taught the course “Space Industrialization and National Priorities” at Coe College on a developmental leave from Cummins. I later presented “The Spacepower Economy” at the AIAA conference on Space Industrialization in 1978 and also had a presentation on “Anthropological Engineering and Space Colony Design” for a speculative anthropology conference organized by Magorah Maruyama. Later in Washington, DC, I met with George Koopmann, who was working with Barbara Marx Hubbard on a commercial Moon launch of the remaining Apollo spacecraft. Koopman later managed the famous chase scene in the film The Blues Brothers, subsequently forming the American Rocket Corporation, or Amroc. I caught up with Koopman in 1991 when I was at the Hudson Institute with my project, the International Baltic Economic Commission (IBEC). IBEC was organized by Hudson at the request of the prime ministers of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, countries that at that time were seeking to regain their independence from the Soviet Union.

My 1977 Coe College class was convinced that, by the 1990s, thousands of people would be living in space. This future did not happen, but the Soviet Union collapsed and a very different world has emerged in the 21st century. With the last Apollo flight, the momentum behind the space program fizzled with the Vietnam War and the resulting economic challenges facing the US. Although the Reagan Administration supported the space-based Strategic Defense Initiative, aka “Star Wars,” NASA fell from a national priority to a legacy program that Congress seemed to keep alive more due to the jobs in key districts in Florida, California, and Texas, than to a commitment to US space leadership. Now, we are in an era that demands increasing international cooperation on large-scale projects such as the International Space Station and also creates more and more opportunities for private ventures in space rather than massive government run programs. A new novel by Steven Wolfe speaks to those early visions of space settlement.

The Obligation is written from the perspective of John, a Congressional staffer working for Congressman Grant, chair of the Space Science and Applications subcommittee at a time when work on the International Space Station had begun, but continuing funding was endangered by multiple other national priorities. Congressman Grant is caught in a struggle to save the budget for the International Space Station in the face of pressures from a host of groups that include schools, environmental groups, senior citizens, and scientists in disciplines not involving space. The plot is built around this political struggle and John’s quest to understand the meaning of a plaque in Congressman’s Grant’s office: “The colonization of space will be the fulfillment of humankind’s Obligation to the Earth.”

John gains a sense of the vision underlying the message in the plaque through meetings arranged by Congressman Grant that are intended to reveal the six Endowments that are key to humanity achieving its spacefaring potential. These Endowments are embodied in living people that John visits.

  • Astronaut Chip Johnson, the Explorer – to go where no man has gone before
  • Urban planner, Professor Jacob Donnelly, the Settler – to develop and settle new territory
  • Dr. Judith Falk, JPL, the Inventor – to develop new technologies for new needs
  • Evan Phillips, CEO, Starblazer Launch Systems, the Builder – to build the system needed to settle space
  • Barbara Everheart, science fiction writer, the Visionary – to conceive of futures that can be realized by people
  • Terry Li, Astronomer, the Protector – to safeguard Earth from destructive impact from space

Through these encounters with people endowed with abilities to create a spacefaring future, John is transformed through an epiphany to experience and understand the Seventh Endowment. The book makes suggestions that there are higher endowments beyond the Seventh and the conscious evolution of humanity will continue and drive us to space settlement and beyond.

Space settlement is not just a geeky love of technology, although space ventures can satisfy the most demanding fascination with technology.

The book spoke to what I have felt for years, that humankind is an expression of the larger whole of the Earth itself whose stewards we are. O’Neill, Barbara Marx Hubbard, Krafft Ehricke, and others are identified by Steven Wolfe as influences that shaped the writing of The Obligation. These were also people that helped to shape my development.

I strongly recommend The Obligation, particularly for people committed to safeguarding the Earth and its environment. The book may speak to them showing that the drive to expand beyond the home planet is very deep and consistent with planetary stewardship. Space settlement is not just a geeky love of technology, although space ventures can satisfy the most demanding fascination with technology. It is also not about money, although space is likely to make many people very rich. It would be interesting to see how a filmmaker would treat the theme in The Obligation where Gaia, the organism of life on Earth seeking to expand into the cosmos, has evolved homo sapiens as part of the mechanism of planetary reproduction. As conscious beings, our responsibility to the planet and the life that it bears runs deep. The seeds thrown into the cosmos must be capable of surviving and evolving, must have a stable structure much like the DNA that shapes individuals. DNA largely remains unchanged, yet also produces the great evolving diversity that is needed to achieve spacefaring potential further in the galaxy over millennia.

John’s quest to understand the meaning of the plaque is an entertaining trip through the eyes of a person deep in the process of formulating legislation. One can get a feel of the extraordinary effort needed to get NASA programs funded against hundreds of conflicting priorities. Steven Wolfe was a legislative aide to the late Congressman George E. Brown Jr., a sponsor of the many bills relating to NASA. Wolfe authored the Space Settlement Act of 1988, which was passed as part of the NASA authorization and signed into law by President Reagan. He has articulated a vision of space settlement that unifies all the key drivers. The Obligation was an engrossing read that I finished in one sitting. I am eagerly looking forward to a sequel and more from Steven Wolfe as the struggle to achieve space settlement enters a particularly difficult and perhaps decisive phase.