The L-5 Society
February 2, 2001 5:39 AM   Subscribe

The L-5 Society was created to support efforts to colonize space (in a very specific way, see article). The interesting part of this history lesson is the hopes people had in the late 60s of living in space in their lifetimes. Was it naivete or something else?
posted by Sean Meade (20 comments total)
for some of you this won't be a history lesson. some of us weren't born yet. (smile)
posted by Sean Meade at 5:40 AM on February 2, 2001

I've read somewhere where if space progress were to continue as it had been up untill the moon landing we would have landed most everywhere and stuff by now. That or the commie basatards that would keep the race on would nuke us into nothingness; you know, whichever. heh.

Actually, we're on our way back
from the moon. We've just
spent three months calibrating
the new antenna at Tchalinko.
And what about you?

Well, as it happens, I'm on
my way up to the moon

Are you, by any chance, going
up to your base at Clavius?

Yes, as a matter of fact, I am.
posted by tiaka at 6:22 AM on February 2, 2001

Well the Challenger thing didn't help either. I'm sure that we'd have at least had a more functional space station by now if not for that setback.
posted by ritualdevice at 6:55 AM on February 2, 2001

One of the reasons that Challenger was destroyed was that NASA was under pressure to keep up a very aggressive schedule of flights, which was really beyond their technological capability. To keep that schedule they began to cut corners and run risks which were unacceptable, and finally they took one chance too many and 7 people died, and shuttle launches were suspended.

If Challenger hadn't been destroyed, it would have been because NASA had operated conservatively (as they do now), which would have meant slowing the launch schedule down. That would mean less capacity. A large number of the original shuttle launches were under contract to the US Air Force, used to launch classified satellites. (This was in exchange for funding in the 1970's from the Air Force which helped make the Shuttle possible in the first place.) The amount of capacity available to civilian flights would have shrunk more in proportion.

What the L5 society missed was that the Apollo program was a political fluke. It was mainly a response to the assassination of JFK; "We can't let his dream die" and all that. Once it was over, the sentimentality was satisfied, and NASA's budget was slashed. The L5 society based its extrapolations on an assumption of continuing funding for space at the level of the peak of Apollo, and politically that was never possible. (Kubrick and Clark made the same mistake. On the other hand, during the optimistic 1960's, it really did seem as if even the sky wasn't the limit.)
posted by Steven Den Beste at 7:19 AM on February 2, 2001

In the 1970's I remember that the Apollo landings became the stuff for rhetoric, e.g. "If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we provide clean drinking water for everyone on earth?"

Speaking as an engineer, the answer to that question is clear. To solve any technological problem, three things are needed: technology, will and money. Will and money are usually the limiting factors; the technology is usually the easy part. If will and money can be found, nearly any technological problem can be solved.

We put a man on the moon because the assassination of JFK provided the will in Congress and among the American people; they then came up with the money. With those in place, the engineers proceeded to develop the non-trivial technology required. The problem itself was difficult, and that usually means that it will be grossly expensive. But for a while, NASA had a blank check, and that provides the means to solve many problems. Hence the program was successful, despite one near-disaster.

As to "providing clean drinking water" (or any of the other big social efforts which used the same rhetoric) the engineer's answer is "Those things are easy, if you can find the money and will. But money and will are not engineering problems, they're political problems. The reason we haven't done those things is because the country doesn't care about them."
posted by Steven Den Beste at 7:28 AM on February 2, 2001

So, have we lost the will to explore/colonize space?
I gather from what I've read so far that most here are of a libertarian leaning. Does the government have any business running a space program? Should NASA be privatized? are the benefits of the space program worth the costs?
posted by citizensoldier at 9:16 AM on February 2, 2001

cs: my take:

we haven't lost the will, and if it could be privatized it'd happen a lot faster. there'd be more loss of life, but it would be those people's choice. the benefits are worth the costs, but maybe not tax-supported.
posted by Sean Meade at 9:29 AM on February 2, 2001

First, the Challenger accident did NOT set back the space station program. There was never a political commitment to the space station program on the order of Apollo. If anything, the elimination of defense and commercial launches from the shuttle roster freed up its mission goals to where they could effectively support a station construction program.

Second, the future shown in 2001 was plausible ... based on the assumption that we would continue a bitter Cold War via nuclear brinksmanship. The Vietnam War, however, demonstrated that our proxy fights with the Soviets would be lengthy and bloody, so another approach would be required: the beginnings of détente. With detente, SALT, and START, we agreed not to escalate our arms race to nuclear weapons platforms in orbit, which in turn obviated the need for the support infrastructure, which in turn meant that science and exploration would not get a free ride on the military dime. It's unfortunate in hindsight, but the dreams of people like O'Neill depended on that infrastructure being there and wresting it away for peaceful purposes.

Steven, I disagree that the JFK shooting gave the will to fund and complete Apollo. It may have contributed, but the importance of the moon race was also seen in the missile technology and the overall buildup of the aerospace industry. That's a lot of money to spend on a legacy, but not much to spend on defense technology. Meanwhile, Vietnam War spending was skyrocketing and by the Nixon era it was clear that we were going to have to borrow like crazy to pay for it.

The key to any further human exploration (and eventual expansion) into space is dramatically lower launch costs. We just went through a period where that was seemingly within reach; LEO satellite "constellations" like Iridium and Globalstar apparently presaged a huge (replacement) launch business, and spurred development of prototypes like Rotary Rocket. With Iridium's business failure, though, that expectation dried up, and we're left dependent on non-reusable rockets little changed from the 1960s.
posted by dhartung at 9:42 AM on February 2, 2001

So, have we lost the will to explore/colonize space?

Most people have lost not just the will, but the desire. Not only the desire but even the interest. It's easy to think otherwise if all your friends are science fiction geeks but among the lay public there just isn't much interest in space exploration. Most people are satisfied hearing occasional bulletins from the space exploration front, that Pluto's not a planet after all or that some comets are going to slam into Jupiter and release an assload of energy and we'll get it all on video.
posted by kindall at 10:11 AM on February 2, 2001

It's easy to think otherwise if all your friends are science fiction geeks but among the lay public there just isn't much interest in space exploration.

Personal anecdotes are meaningless but still satisfying. I sure have lost the will to colonize space; Star Wars and the first Shuttle launch set the tone of my youth, but as the years went by it became increasingly obvious that the U.S. space program was lost in a bureaucratic muddle. Not only was there no hope that I would ever get to Mars, but it became obvious that nobody else was going there, either. The Moon is farther away now than it was two generations ago, and LEO is still the playground of extremely rich telcos and militaries. Where's the fun in that? Why should I care about yet another shuttle flight launching yet another satellite? Why should I care about the latest fantastically expensive, overdesigned orbital Winnebago? We're taking gold plated baby steps here, and it couldn't be less inspiring.

posted by Mars Saxman at 11:24 AM on February 2, 2001

it became increasingly obvious that the U.S. space program was lost in a bureaucratic muddle

I think the fundamental problem that we have had with space exploration/colonization up to this point has been people depending on their governments to get it done.

An Earth-based government has very little to gain from expanding its reach off the planet. There's no chance of expanding their tax base. It'd be very expensive to utilize any resources found. There's no monetary benefit for them.

I think the only possible exploration/colonization effort that could succeed would be a privatized effort. Are there any such efforts underway?
posted by Neb at 12:28 PM on February 2, 2001

Fuck the moon, I want to live on Mars.

And I believe Mitsubishi is one of the few companies actually seriously looking into space exploration, specifically mining, i believe. I'm sure there are a few others.
posted by ookamaka at 1:01 PM on February 2, 2001

It's not reasonable to expect businesses to make investments which are not only highly risky but which can't be expected to pay off in less than fifty years if they pay off at all. Except for satellite technology (which is privatized now) the more speculative aspects of space exploration won't be financed by private investment.

Space exploration is still a realm where I think a moderate investment by government is the right answer.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 1:32 PM on February 2, 2001

Humanity does have the resources to colonize the moon (and possibly Mars). However, how often is it that most of the world actually gets along with each other? The only thing that holds up all of these thing is people.

We do have the resources to solve a lot of the world's problems, but it all comes down to people. (Thinking about several inventors of ultra efficient engines who were conveniently bought out by oil companies, and such)

African people could eat well every day, but their civil wars are screwing things up for them in a big way. The world is able to sustain itself, but it's the choice of humans (usually the more powerful ones) as to whether to let this be.
posted by wackybrit at 10:53 PM on February 2, 2001

Now, is what I'm talking about. Putting private money into motivating innovation in space vehicles is a large step in the right direction, IMO.
posted by Neb at 2:27 PM on February 5, 2001

I have slight (read as, pretty damn slight) fears of private space exploration in so far as I don't know if it is good for a company to lay claim to an asteroid full of minerals, or colonize a planet. How much worse this is than the possibility of America Manifest Destiny-ing Mars I do not know, but it will be sad if that comes about.

With that, if we have no collective will to go into space as citizens of our respective countries, the day will come when corporations will do these things, and we won't have much room to complain since we sat on our hands for so very long. I'd rather get a crummy job that gets me into space before I die, than wait around on Earth, hoping politicians line up enough pork dominos to make exploration possible.
posted by thirteen at 3:06 PM on February 5, 2001

Good points, but I'm of a fairly utilitarian mindset on the issue. Whatever gets the most people into space the fastest is the way I think we should go...
posted by Neb at 7:17 PM on February 8, 2001

Throughout history, the mass movement of people has not taken place without either a pulling factor (better hunting grounds, arable land, gold in them 'thar hills) or a pushing factor (imprisonment, persecution, famine).

Even if it became technologically feasible and economically expedient to colonize space (much less escape Earth's gravitational pull), there needs to be an incentive for common people to want to move off of this still green planet. And even if valuable mineral deposits or microgravitational manufacturing processes made it attractive for governments/corporations to overcome the huge financial hurdles, enough people need to be found to pack up their interplanetary moving vans.

Short of imminent global catastrophe or persecution of a particularly wealthy group of people, there will be no incentive to move. It's not enough just to lower launch costs.
posted by Avogadro at 8:15 PM on February 8, 2001

I don't know. I think there's plenty of young, adventurous humans who'd love a chance to see another solar system, and lay the paths for future generations...

And, in case you haven't noticed, the Earth is starting to strain under the use of the growing number of resource consumers... I think it would be a bad idea to wait until the world is unlivable to begin looking for new places to settle. But, that's just me.
posted by Neb at 8:24 PM on February 8, 2001

Oh, I wouldn't say that we have everything that we could possibly need at our present levels of consumption. But, I think that it would be wiser (and cheaper, realizing that money makes the world go 'round) to utilize sustainability before tossing aside this world and starting anew.

By the bye, there may be plenty of adventurous kids out there (self possibly included), but name me a single sustained colonization movement that began because of adventure and not due to the factors that I mentioned above.
posted by Avogadro at 8:53 PM on February 8, 2001

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