Stars in Our Eyes
As the saying goes, it was déjà vu all over again. Twenty-five years ago, on the nose, my story "2001: The Space Entrepreneurs" appeared on the cover of TWA Ambassador, the inflight magazine of Trans World Airlines. Countless things have changed in the intervening quarter-century—including TWA and its magazine being merged out of existence—but the current hoopla over building a spaceport in southern New Mexico is eerily familiar. And here I am, writing about it again. This time, though, I'm a tad more skeptical.
For that 1981 story, I flew out to New Jersey to interview Princeton professor Gerard K. O'Neill, whose book The High Frontier had inspired a new generation of space enthusiasts. "L5 in '95!" was their rallying cry—meaning a space colony at the stable point in earth orbit designated Lagrange 5, and meaning 1995. But this giant step for mankind wasn't going to be a government project like the Apollo program—it was going to be fueled instead by free enterprise. I wrote, "O'Neill is, in a fundamental sense, the leader of a new breed—a space capitalist."
You might even say he paved the way for Sir Richard Branson, the Virgin Group billionaire who now proposes to fly tourists, for profit, to the edge of space and back from the Southwest Regional Spaceport in Upham, NM. Never mind that Branson's capitalist venture requires a $225 million infusion of state, local and federal tax dollars to get off the ground. The whole point of the spaceport—at which Branson's Virgin Galactic would be the lead tenant—is to jump-start commercial space enterprises.
O'Neill could almost have been writing Gov. Richardson's press releases, 25 years early, when he talked to me: "When with venture capital one has shown these things can really pay, our investment friends have said, 'Don't worry. The money's going to flow more rapidly than you'll know what to do with.'"
But O'Neill and his L5 fanatics weren't the only free-enterprise space visionaries back in 1981. Robert Truax, a former Navy missile developer, planned to launch two astronauts on a privately funded rocket. Entrepreneur Gary Hudson promised a private orbital-launching business that would undersell NASA by a factor of 10.
If these remind you chillingly of the competitors attracted by the X Prize, that's understandable. (At least no one in my 1981 story was babbling about a "Rocket Racing League," but NASCAR hadn't yet boomed back then.) In fact, both Truax and Hudson get mentioned in a 2004 St. Louis Post-Dispatch story about the X Prize and promoter Peter Diamandis. When Diamandis visited Truax (who also built a rocket-powered motorcycle for Evel Knievel), "his rocket remained packed in a rented storage locker in San Diego." That was, yes, in 2001. The year before, Hudson "ran out of money for his venture . . . and the company's assets were seized for back taxes."
Diamandis, meanwhile, moved on to New Mexico. That was him showing a model of Virgin Galactic's combination launch vehicle at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe at the opening of the 2006 legislative session.
Similarly, advocates of space industrialization told me almost exactly the same things in 1981 that you'll hear from today's boosters: In zero gravity, you can make perfect bearings, high-purity drugs, cheaper circuitry.
And all this would come to pass by. . . well, now. We're living in the future that those "space capitalists" looked toward, except that we don't enjoy cheap energy beamed from space colonies, solar sails aren't flying around the solar system, and space manufacturing remains mostly a promise. Just as we don't commute via jetpack, "Jetsons"-style, or take the Pan Am (also defunct) shuttle into orbit, as in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
What happened on the way to the "high frontier" future? In many ways, technology has far outstripped even the most fervent imaginations: Our wildest predictions for computers back in 1981 seem naively pessimistic today. The Internet and World Wide Web have altered our culture in ways only the most wide-eyed science fiction writer could have foreseen.
But space remains a challenge, as the Space Shuttle—whose reusable technology O'Neill envisioned being adapted to haul his space-colony parts into orbit—has twice tragically reminded us since I wrote that article. Part of the problem may be the unforgiving nature of space travel, where a single faulty O-ring or loose tile can domino to fiery death—a risk level that 2006's space-tourism boosters seem to overlook. Perhaps, too, we have simply been bogged down by more pressing problems here on earth (problems to which dreams of millionaires paying $200,000 a trip for five minutes in space also seem tackily oblivious).
I grew up with the space race. One of my earliest memories is watching John Glenn rocket into orbit as I ate my cornflakes and got ready for school. When I thrilled to Neil Armstrong's first footsteps on the moon in 1969, I couldn't have imagined that we would go back only a few more times—and that by now we would have gone no further, not at least to Mars.
Maybe the Southwest Regional Spaceport really will be the next giant leap into "the high frontier." Or maybe it's a risky bet, with numbers that don't all add up, on a space tourism enterprise that looks more like the next Concorde or Hindenburg than the next Apollo. You can decide for yourself after reading our in-depth report in this issue, beginning on page B1.
I hope the spaceport boosters are right, I truly do. I want to believe them, just as I wanted to believe Professor O'Neill a quarter-century ago.
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.