by Zohara and Dr. Bob Hieronimus
for UFO Magazine Dec 02/Jan 03

NASA does not have a monopoly on our space travel options. In fact, in America alone hundreds of individuals and private organizations are working toward the goals of sending ordinary people into space, both as tourists and permanent colonists. One of our recent guests on Future Talk with Zohara Hieronimus, Paula Berinstein, has conducted a series of fascinating interviews with many of these passionate engineers and entrepreneurs who are behind the private space movement. She joined us earlier this year to review her book, Making Space Happen: Private Space Ventures and the Visionaries Behind Them (Plexus, 2002), and the many challenges and ramifications of mass space travel. Reading this book is thrilling to gauge where our future is already today, and to be introduced to the leaders who are already pondering the questions about ethics, ownership, legislation, and even what kind of humans we will be as we venture forth off planet.

Berinstein recalls her surprise when she first discovered that private companies and advocacy organizations were working on getting humans into space, while attending a conference in 1998. “I was flabbergasted,” she recalls. “I had not known about this until I went to a conference given by the Space Frontier Foundation, which is an activist organization that is working to get humans into space. But up to that point I just thought that NASA and the European Space Agency and the Russian Space Agency were it as far as space was concerned. And I thought, if they’re not doing anything to get ordinary humans into space, then I’m not going to get to go, and neither is anybody who is not an astronaut or a mission specialist. So I got very, very excited when I found out about all the goings on, and there are many of them.”

Why Go To Space?

We must begin any discussion on “how” to get to space with a review of “why” we should even make the attempt. What is our purpose in space? There are many reasons that people advocate going into space, and of course, for each reason there is a counter argument from others who believe that that is not such a good idea.One of the major arguments put forth has to do with economic development, and there have been many studies on the economic effects of developing space commerce in general, and space tourism in particular. Others are concentrating on the economics of resources in space, concluding that the standard of living for everyone on earth could be raised by developing off-world industry and space tourism. “We’re talking about adding something like a trillion dollars to the economy by the year 2030, making jobs for close to 15 million extra people,” notes Berinstein.

Beyond an economic boost, however, other advocates believe space travel is a necessary part of our own evolution. “In case of a catastrophic event on earth, or an asteroid hitting us, or in case we blow ourselves up,” says Berinstein, “there are people who think that we should spread out and make sure that humanity survives. It’s a very compelling argument, but it is countered by, among others, author Kim Stanley Robinson who wrote the trilogy Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, who ask questions like: who will get to go? Most people won’t, and those who do will probably be the elite.”Difficult questions to ask, indeed, but perhaps we should look at it as the genetic sperm bank in the sky, because if you’re looking at the value of humanity as a species in the cosmos, you want your genetic bank preserved somehow – we need to throw our seeds to the wind, so to speak.

Other visionaries are driven by the notion that going off planet is something quite holy. They see space exploration as a search for beauty, a search for life on other planets, a search for other civilizations and an effort to find ourselves as well. Berinstein points out that of the fewer than 500 of the people today who have ventured into space, so many of them report on that pivotal moment of looking back on the Earth from space as a very spiritual experience. “In some cases it has actually changed them as people” she notes. “There’s a book called The Overview Effect by Frank White which includes interviews of mostly astronauts who have gone into space and had these sorts of life-changing experiences. What’s also interesting is that in market surveys people say the number one thing they would like to do in space is to look back at the Earth from space. That is absolutely number one, though there are other things people would like to do, like fly around in zero gravity, and have zero gravity sports, and look at the stars, but the first thing they want to do is look at the Earth.”

Real Estate in Space

A critical and contentious issue in any discussion of space exploration is the issue of ownership and rights. First, some question the validity of claiming ownership over a universal body like the moon, and second, because obviously, whoever is in control if “ownership” is allowed will make more money. Berinstein tells of the property right discussions that are taking place around the country, with one of the main people in this area being Alan Wasser. Wasser is looking at the possibility of a system whereby property claims on the moon, for example, are recognized on earth. “He specifically talks about the U.S. government, but obviously it would have to be an international recognition to work. And his argument is that if you go there and actually create something of value with that land, and then sell it off at a profit to yourself, this is a way to get economically sustainable activity on the moon, for example. Jim Benson, the CEO of a company called SpaceDev, a very small public space exploration and development company, has talked about going to an asteroid and claiming it as the company’s property. And the reason, he says, is to get a discussion started and even to get a test case started in court. The question is where do you draw the line? Can somebody go to a celestial body and claim ownership of it? If they do, what can they do with it? How is that claim recognized? What does it mean to own a rock in space? It’s not like there’s going to be trespassing there, but does he have a right to do that in the first place?”

It is disappointing to see so many of the space travel visionaries driven by the same economic models that have led to such imbalance in our own ecosystem on earth . We would hope that in space, we will give back, rather than simply attempting to reap the benefits of controlling it. Fortunately, there are completely alternative models, like the Antarctica model, for example, which Berinstein describes is put forward by a lot of people who feel that space should basically be a world heritage site. “You know, Antarctica is the only continent, the only land area on earth, that is not owned by anyone, and there are strict rules that govern what can be done there and what can be done with anything you find there. Antarctica has been set aside as a place for low impact activity, research, very low impact tourism, and it doesn1t belong to anyone, even though there are a number of countries that have research bases there. Some people are advocating that we do the same thing in space, starting with the moon. Rick Steiner, an ecologist at the University of Alaska, has written a letter to the U.N. asking that they set up a body that would at least be sure than an environmental impact study is done for any activity that is proposed in space. He also thinks that the moon should be designated as a world heritage site based on the model of Antarctica, so that you could have low impact tourism there, but you wouldn’t have what he’s called strip mining or invasive, destructive sorts of activity…. There is a U.N. moon treaty that specifies what can and cannot be done on the moon, but it was only signed by about seven countries and none of them had space-faring capability at the time they signed.”

Mars As The New Frontier

One of the best known space advocates is Robert Zubrin, the founder of the Mars Society, which has attracted a great number of enthusiasts in a very short time. Zubrin is an engineer who has worked out a plan for a low cost way to settle Mars, or at least establish a base there, with a phased approach. The first tenet that he relies on is using indigenous resources on Mars rather than bringing them with us. “Before we send any people there,” explains Berinstein, “we send the vehicle carrying equipment that will prepare the site for people. You send up equipment to make water and air out of the atmosphere so that there are resources for us to work with, air to breathe, water for propellants and for drinking, and then and only then do we start sending people. When the people arrived, they’d have life-sustaining resources and a vehicle for getting around, and then when another launch window occurs a couple of years later, then we send another vehicle with another crew,” leading to gradual construction of the site over a period of a few years.

Zubrin advocates that Mars as the new frontier for America is essential to recapturing the soul of our country. Back in the 1890s at the official closing of America’s western frontier, historians began to associate the importance of “the frontier” to the American intellect. Zubrin asks what has happened to America and all it has stood for now, a century later. “Can a free, egalitarian, democratic, innovating society with a can-do spirit be preserved in the absence of room to grow?” he asks. “We see around us now an ever more apparent loss of vigor of American society: increasing fixity of the power structure… the banalization of popular culture… the loss of willingness by individuals to take risks, to fend or think for themselves…. Everywhere you look, the writing is on the wall,” says Zubrin, and Mars is the answer. “Mars has what it takes,” because unlike the Moon or the remote corners of the Earth and under our oceans, “it’s far enough away to free its colonists from intellectual, legal, or cultural domination by the old world, and rich enough in resources to give birth to the new.”

Although it is not covered in her book, Berinstein does acknowledge how the weaponization of space and the notion that space is a new battleground could add to the race for development or even destructive exploitation. “At least two American administrations have proposed having space-based defense systems,” notes Berinstein, “and of course, this is a really controversial use of space. The military actually has a lot to do with space, and always has. The Air Force develops many of the vehicles we test and use, and the technology which causes some people to worry. They fear that some hostile country will come along and either zap us from space or at least threaten us. There are surveillance satellites now that take pictures, and they are put up there by a small number of countries, including us. It is a sort of two-edged sword, because in a way, when militaries develop technology on earth, it eventually becomes commercialized and works its way into consumer areas. Undoubtedly it will do the same for space, but on the other hand, it makes space a very dangerous place. What will happen there I can’t tell you. It’s anyone’s guess at the moment.”

How to Pay for It

The attempt to put public space travel into the hands of the common people includes those who are envisioning how to pay for it. Berinstein’s book covers the Colony Fund, the brainchild of Tom Olson and Paul Contursi who reasoned that individuals cannot really invest in sending humans into space unless they buy stock in a public company that works in the space industry like Boeing or Lockheed-Martin. Unless a person could buy unrealistically huge amounts of stock, however, no one individual could ever have much control over these rocket-building companies; thus the birth of their public fund. “The Colony Fund is an investment fund,” says Berinstein, “in which people can invest as little as $1,000. This fund would be dedicated to developing technology and missions and projects to get people into space. This way people around the world, not just in the U.S., could actually band together and make a difference and fund projects that are much more likely to get humans into space. You can’t contribute money to NASA; you can’t say, ŒI want to give $100 or $1,000 or even $100,000 to NASA and I want them to do this with it.” It’s impossible. So the Colony Fund was their idea, and they are working on setting up this fund. It has a long horizon. They’re envisioning people making investments for their children or even for their grandchildren.”

As a woman, Berinstein may have been more inclined to look at “making space happen” less as a mechanical phenomenon, and more as a human problem encompassing what mass space travel means to us as humanity, to our relationships, to our purpose. “Obviously, I would like to see us go into space in a peaceful way, and in a fun way, and in a respectful way,” says Berinstein. “Of course, the questions of who owns space and who controls it are major questions, and a lot of people worry that we will export the same problems that we have on earth into space, which is one reason they argue we shouldn’t go. I think we should, and I think we need to go. My major reason is that I don’t want to see all of the accomplishments of civilization destroyed. I want to see them preserved, and no matter what happens to the Earth, I want to see Shakespeare and Mozart and all those other things preserved…. I also agree that if we do go, it will change us as a species. It will change our outlook in a number of ways. There’s very little question in my mind that it will make us more respectful of the universe. There will also be a spiritual dimension to it. How can you go out there into this void of space with nothing around you and not feel awed and a variety of emotions that are a lot harder to feel here, I think.”

Paula Berinstein has added her voice to what is often a very mechanical and militaristic vision—one that is almost a replication of the model we have on earth of extracting resources and making a profit. Her book begs the question of defining what is our reason for going off planet. Space is universal, and before we venture forth there en masse, we must find an ethical vision with which to structure a mindful and loving colonization.

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