Freedom Needs Frontiers
by Jim Davidson


Since I was six, watching the Apollo 11 landing from Taiwan with my family, I've been interested in space. For all that time, I knew that opening the space frontier was vital. It would save the world. I learned later that we could get our resources from lifeless planets and planetoids instead of from the only one capable of supporting life. We could create new materials in weightlessness, use vacuum for exciting industrial processes, see the world from a new vantage point, create hotels and tourist facilities, bring solar power down from a place where there was no night and no clouds. Most of all, we would not be threatened with extinction just because some disaster made Earth unlivable. Eventually, we would spread to the stars and even a disaster like our sun going nova would not wipe out the human race.

What I didn't realize at the time, and what many space activists still do not accept, is that our desires were never reflected in the space program. Most of us felt that the way to make space settlement a reality was to support the government space program. We were encouraged in this view by Congressional staffers, aerospace industry leaders, and others involved in the complex of organizations surrounding NASA. Many still feel this way. We were wrong.

Frontiers are not opened by governments. They are not opened by centrally planned efforts. They are opened chaotically, by the motives that can drive tens of thousands of people, by self-interest, by tens of thousands of different ideas of what is possible and desirable. Governments did not build clipper ships, railroads, covered wagons, riverboats, or any of the instruments that opened frontiers to settlement. Governments at best encouraged certain lines of inquiry. So supporting government space development was never very productive and in many ways counterproductive.

Frontiers are good for freedom. Consider the closing of the American frontier in 1893, the year the Oklahoma territory was settled. Within a generation, freedom in America was under attack from every front. Muck-raking journalism was developing a now-traditional rivalry between business interests and the media. Anti-trust regulation was initiated to break up rail companies, oil companies, and other well-developed industries. The prohibition movement was gaining ground, with fervent demonstrations in major cities. Populist sentiment forced a Constitutional amendment to provide for an income tax. The Food and Drug Administration was formed to regulate food production, and increasingly control access to life-saving medicines. Labor unions were on the rise. Agricultural price controls were instituted, beginning a debilitating trend toward farm subsidies. By the time children born in 1893 were twenty, all these threats to freedom were accepted practice. By the time they were thirty, Prohibition had made legislated morality real, institutionalized organized crime, and created popular support for a strong national police agency, the FBI. By the time they were forty, the New Deal was underway, with Social Security numbers for everyone, a Securities and Exchange Commission with increasingly frightening powers, and a host of agencies too numerous to malign individually. At fifty, the military industrial complex was introduced with World War II. And the rest you probably know by heart.

Frederick Jackson Turner, in his great thesis on the closing of the American frontier, said that the frontier represented an important part of the American psyche. For, whatever their situation in Boston or New York, any American could walk to the frontier. That power to vote with their feet made their working and living conditions more bearable. In many cases, it caused employers to improve wages and conditions to keep their trained workforce in place. Always, though, it was a place to escape, a safety valve. The refined stayed back east, the rough moved west.

Oceania is a step toward opening a new frontier. And from the frontier of the open ocean, the frontier of space is no further away than it is from any piece of land, about 100 miles straight up. If we are successful in opening the ocean frontier, we will have more resources and better ability to open the space frontier. Developments in single stage to orbit (SSTO) vehicles make the use of ocean-based launch sites just as attractive as land-based sites.

Most important, though, Oceania represents a paradigm shift. The grand strategy from which the Apollo program grew had been detailed in a series of articles in Collier's magazine in the fifties by Werner von Braun. That strategy was conceived by the same man who had made rocket technology available to the Nazi war machine. It was not designed to open the frontier of space to human activity. It was designed to establish government activity beyond the atmosphere. The plan included Earth-to-orbit shuttles, Earth orbit space stations, bases on the Moon, and culminated in the establishment of a base on Mars. There it ended, without so much as a whisper about families moving into space, companies developing space resources, cities in orbit or on other planets.

For three decades, the agency and its contractor community that was created to pursue that strategy did so with a vengeance. Anything that stood in the way of the vision was demolished. Even the vestiges of Apollo, the Lunar Science Experiment Packages were shut down to preserve funding for the next step in the plan, the shuttle. Rescuing Skylab was never seriously pursued by NASA because having no space station justified creating a new, larger program. When, in 1988, space activists managed to get the Space Settlement Act passed, amending NASA's charter to have it support the creation of human settlements in space, it was ignored. NASA to this day flaunts the Space Settlement Act, having never reported to Congress its actions to advance space settlement, although required every other year.

In 1988, I was working for a small company, Space Services Incorporated of Houston, Texas. We had developed a small launch system, the Conestoga, even test launched it from a Texas Gulf Coast island. And every effort we made to attract customers was undercut by NASA, offering the same service for less. Analysis of their budget showed repeatedly that they were not charging even their marginal cost for launches. This dumping kept on until 1985, when a Florida funeral home company thought it could make money launching people's ashes into space. Since that idea made NASA people worry about being laughed at, Space Services had its first customer. That customer would later be driven from business by the Florida state commission that regulates funeral homes, using a law that says that a two-lane paved road to the funeral site had to be maintained by the funeral home. NASA did not give up its fight to dominate space, even after the Challenger accident brought an executive order to remove most commercial satellites from the shuttle.

The paradigm shift that Oceania represents is the objectivist shift, that the only person who will do for you exactly what you want is...you. Many in the space community still look to the government to give them what they want, shining cities in space, earthly cities powered by cheap, clean space solar power. Until we get away from the old way of thinking, we can only get, at best, what the old strategy was headed toward: bases of government employees carrying on missions to new places. We cannot have an open frontier until we go and open it, cannot have new cities, new societies in space until we build them, cannot have the wealth of the Solar System until we mine it.

Inherently, that is what Oceania is about. That is why there is an Atlantis Project. To go, to do what needs to be done, to prove that it can be done, to do it in spite of all the obstacles put in our way. And if we can do it once, we can do it a thousand times; if we can do it at sea, we can do it in space.


Jim Davidson is President of the Houston Space Society, a group that is working to change the way people think about space. He has been involved with the Atlantis Project since September 1993.
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