Feb. 8 2012 12:00 AM

Talks revolve around Newt Gingrich's moon base plan at space industry 'unconference'

The future of mankind in space is dark.

I don't mean dark as in the absence of light, though that's obviously true. Nor do I mean dark in the sense that space exploration won't move forward—it will. Slowly but surely, the human race will extend into space.

The darkness is in the socio-political implications of a space race that could mirror the colonization of the Americas, with all the death and exploitation that came with it. Indentured servitude. Corporate rulers. Space cults.

At least, that's the impression I took away after attending the “Future of Astronauts (Colonization)” panel at SpaceUp San Diego, an “unconference” on space exploration held at the Ansir Innovation Center in Kearny Mesa over the weekend. ---

Rather than a formal agenda, the unconference format is designed to inspire innovation and improvisation through an open-ended schedule. Participants who wanted to engage in a certain discussion would slap a sticky note to a public grid and hope it would generate enough interest. The system worked, with outside-the-stratosphere ideas dominating discussion, as if going to the moon were as normal as deciding where to go for lunch. There were general-interest discussions on what kind of music could be made for space, or in space, as well as more technical talks on the future of "space trucking." There were also presentations from some of the world's top aerospace innovators, including the team behind the Xcor Lynx suborbital vehicle. In between, attendees were encouraged to build their own unearthly designs using Legos and pipe cleaners, or simply hang about exchanging ideas over a cup of Tang.

View a slideshow here.

In the colonization discussion, Rob Holland, an Air Force engineer, floated an indentured-serviture model, where space pioneers would need to give up just about everything, including their liberty and the right to breathe air for free, to gamble on the riches of the final frontier. Joe Carroll, president of Tether Applications, suggested that religious sects might be the answer to populating the galaxy, just as the Mormons spread out across North America looking for religious freedom. Zealots, Carroll suggested, may be more willing to sacrifice themselves and their children; that danger is just a reality of space colonization.

Throughout the first day of SpaceUp, colonization was a central topic thanks to Newt Gingrich, the Republican presidential candidate who, while campaigning in Florida, unveiled his plan to establish a moon base by the end of what would be his second term in 2020. Gingrich framed his proposal as a game plan for winning a new space race, in which the U.S. needs to beat China back to the moon. The idea was met by negative reviews in the media and regarded by many as little more than last-minute economic pandering to Florida's “Space Coast.” SpaceUp attendees, however, were happy that Gingrich had brought space back to the forefront of discourse, if only temporarily. The proposal itself, though, was met with ambivalence as space enthusiasts and professionals wondered what exactly Gingrich thinks we should do on the moon and doubted that he could actually get it off the ground.

“I'm excited about space exploration, but not just to beat China,” said Jess Sanders, one of the organizers at the San Diego Space Travelers Emporium in South Park. “I need more compelling reasons to spend that kind of money on what just may be a complete pie-in-the-sky, wannabe mission that's never going to actually do anything for the rest of us and just inflates Newt's ego.”

Gingrich's plan became the centerpiece of one well-attended talk, “Moon Base 2020: Bold or Lunacy,” led by Dave Masten of Masten Space Systems, a Mojave-based company that designs and tests reusable launch vehicles.

“The technology is there, we know how to do it, we can do it fairly inexpensively—if you can get the politics to go along,” Masten said. “The political considerations are where it becomes a real problem.”

The first hurdle a Gingrich presidency would need to clear is within NASA; Gingrich would have to convert the entire agency to the cause, Masten said. The second would be to convince Congress to fund the projects, and that's where space enthusiasts devolve from sky-is-no-longer-the-limit dreamers to political cynics.

“Understand what Congress people are there to do,” Masten said. “They're there to get reelected. How do they get reelected? No, believe it or not, it is not jobs in their districts. Jobs in the districts are nice; it helps them get reelected, but that is not the primary thing. The primary thing is campaign funds in their campaign chests. Where do those come from? Companies.”

Masten said that it will be up to aerospace contractors to see a profit motive in space exploration and push members of Congress to appropriate funds for the project.

“Yes, it is extremely bold,” Masten told the crowd of about two dozen. “It's probably silly in that I don't think any president of the United States over the next many years is going to be able to enact that much change to get it done and go through all that politics. Otherwise it's a multi-hundreds-of-billions-of-dollars project and 2020 is just not enough time.”

But Masten isn't a huge fan of Gingrich, nor does he believe Gingrich will win the nomination. A member of the audience asked him if he knew Gingrich could achieve the moon base, would he vote for him—Masten said, “No,” without pause.

SpaceUp attendees often brought up the question, “What is the tobacco of outer space?” That isn't a musing on drug culture, but a reference to the early explorers who came to North America looking for gold or a new trade route and instead made a killing when they discovered the potential of tobacco. This is the ultimate quandary: Many in the industry believe that we won't discover the value of space exploration until we've already begun exploring it. In the meantime, just as Christopher Columbus had to approach multiple monarchs before finding a backer in Spain, the space industry has to rely on wealthy patrons to lay the groundwork.

During a session organized by space-yacht designer John Spencer, the 99 percent movement even made a cameo. Sampson explained that it's space travel is a hard sell to the public when, at least at this stage, since only the mega-wealthy will actually go up into space. Spencer points out that these projects have the potential of creating thousands of jobs and that the average joe will benefit from other space-related experiences, whether it's films shot in space or at museums on the ground. But he acknowledged that the point stands: space travel—particularly space tourism and space yachts—will require playing to the desire for prestige and the egos of the 1 percent.

“Never in human history has there been so much idle money sitting around,” Spencer said. “It's not an issue of the money, but of the interest.”

As part of the terms of attending, I had to agree to participate in the discussions. So I did, honestly asking the chief question on my mind: How long until reporters are invited to junkets on space yachts?

Fifteen years, Spencer said.

Did I say the future is dark? Retract that. Where do I get in line?


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