“It would be very interesting to speculate on what the human imagination is going to do with a frontierless world where it must seek its inspiration in uniformity rather than variety, in sameness rather than contrast, in safety rather than peril, in probing the harmless nuances of the known rather than the thundering uncertainties of unknown seas or continents. The dreamers, the poets, and the philosophers are after all but instruments which make vocal and articulate the hopes and aspirations and the fears of a people.
The people are going to miss the frontier more than words can express. For four centuries they heard its call, listened to its promises, and bet their lives and fortunes on its outcome. It calls no more” – Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Frontier
Webb’s prediction was correct, just as he feared.
We do miss the frontier more than words can express. We miss it so much that few can even contemplate its absence. But clearly, something is amiss. The political earthquakes presently rumbling across the planet are just symptoms of something bigger. Sure, we can validly attribute a multitude of causes to the present day state of the world. But undoubtedly, we miss the frontier. Man, do we ever.
Fifty years ago this July 20th, a five year old boy (yours truly) stood ossified in front of a black and white television in a living room in Lewiston, Idaho. While he didn’t fully appreciate the significance of what was happening, he knew it was a big deal. The cues from the adults in the room were ample evidence of that.
What the moment led to was a lifelong interest in space exploration, which included the devouring of one book after another on the topic, building plastic models of spacecraft, flying model rockets, and anything else that could satiate my appetite for all things space. More than that though, it created a hopeful anticipation for a certain future, a future of unlimited possibilities. Unfortunately, that future has yet to arrive. As Andy Tillison of the British progressive rock band The Tangent stated, the future was not as good as the book. Or, as venture capitalist Peter Thiel surmised, “we were promised flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” Queue the golf clap.
What happened to us since that glorious day 50 years ago?
Apollo 11, and the five moon landings that followed should have been just a beginning. Centuries from now, in the fullness of time, maybe they will be looked at that way. After all, Jamestown wasn’t founded until 1607, more than a century after Columbus first set foot in the Americas. From the present though, it’s hard to see the Apollo program as anything more than a glorious aberration.
Instead, we have increasingly seen Webb’s mid-century predictions borne out again and again. We seek inspiration (as if it can be found there) from things such as political correctness, speech codes, and enforced behavior. We’ve probed the harmless nuances of the unknown by inventing a multiplicity of genders and whole new classes of victims because we don’t have enough real victims. Malthusians scream doom and gloom, making predictions that invariably fail to come true (remember peak oil?), all the while imploring us to give up our freedom and aspirations as the only means of avoiding the next predicted catastrophe. When we have actually probed the thundering uncertainties of the unknown of our own solar system, it’s been with robotic explorers beaming back data to scientists safely and comfortably ensconced in their chairs at one mission control or another. Meanwhile, the human spaceflight programs of spacefaring nations have been confined to low Earth orbit, going in circles both literally and figuratively.
Since the closing of the last frontier, we’ve seen two catastrophic world wars. We’ve witnessed murderous ideologies like communism slaughter over 100 million people while failing spectacularly to deliver on their promises. We’ve seen cultural debasement, a loss of faith, and diminishing freedom. Yes, there has been some progress, socially (e.g., the civil rights movement) and technologically (e.g., the rapid advancement of computer and communications technology). And yet, we have taken at least one step back for every step forward. Despite impressive technological developments, we’ve seen tech tyrants like Google and Facebook misuse those advances as they eagerly seek to implement Orwell’s dystopia of enforced conformity, censorship, and an elimination of personal privacy. The technology they promised would be liberating has begun to do the opposite.
At the very best, we are now stagnating. Less optimistically, we’ve already started backsliding.
Contrast the above with the improvement in the human condition from the years 1500-1900. That improvement, as Webb so skillfully outlined in The Great Frontier, is staggering and unprecedented. Feudalism and hereditary aristocracy gave way to democratic republics and rule of the people. Human rights expanded dramatically. The ideals of the Magna Carta, stunted by geography and centuries of inertia, fully blossomed given the space of the New World. Republics and parliamentary democracies became the rule rather than the exception. Equally dramatic were the increase in aggregate wealth and decline of extreme poverty. Human freedom expanded at a rate never seen before or since. Mass illiteracy was replaced by mass literacy.
The benefits of the frontier were not confined to the New World. They boomeranged back to the Old World. For the Old World, the New World provided a shining example of a better way, of better institutions, of more humane ways of organizing society. For the masses in the Old World, the New World provided a beacon of hope, either as a place to seek freedom or an example over how to obtain it at home.
On a more practical, day-to-day level, the Columbian Exchange provided countless benefits to both the New and Old Worlds. To the New World, horses, livestock, and pack animals gave to the colonists transportation, muscle power for agriculture, and another source of food. To the Old World, crops like potatoes, corn, tomatoes, and cotton resulted in significant changes to the lives of millions. Can you imagine Italian food if tomatoes had never been introduced to the Old World from the New? QED.
The frontier was also an accelerant to the industrial revolution that fundamentally altered life for the entire planet. The perpetual labor shortage of frontier conditions served as a crucible for innovation, producing one labor-saving invention after another. We owe an incalculable debt to the inventors of the frontier for many of the conveniences we take for granted today.
Simply put, the scale of Western Civilization’s ascension witnessed up to 1900 would have been impossible without the frontier. Similarly, the ability to ascend further will remain impossible without another frontier.
A Glimmer of Hope
“We have come recently to boast of a global economy without thinking of its implications, of how unfortunate we are in finding it. It would be more cheering if news should come, that by some freak of the solar system, another world had swung gently into our orbit and moved so close that a bridge could be built over which people could pass to new continents untenanted and new seas uncharted. Would those eager immigrants repeat the process they followed when they had that opportunity, or would they redress the grievances of the old Earth by a new bill of rights…? The availability of such a new planet, at any rate, would prolong, if it did not save, a civilization based on dynamism, and in the prolongation the individual would again enjoy a spell of freedom…” – Webb, The Great Frontier
It’s easy to be a pessimist about our present trajectory, the one we’ve been on since the closing of the last frontier. But we still have time to stop the backslide. No world is going to swing into our orbit per Prescott’s hypothetical. But there are worlds available to us. We’re just going to have to build a longer (metaphorical) bridge. Thankfully, there are a few people doing just that.
Some of those people are the employees of Space Exploration Technologies, more commonly known as SpaceX. The founder of SpaceX, Elon Musk, is quite the controversial figure, and certainly receives a fair bit of well-deserved criticism. But when it comes to SpaceX, a firm line should be drawn, as there is no other company that has done more in the past two decades to propel humanity toward a true opening of the final frontier. In 2008, SpaceX became the first company ever to launch a liquid fueled rocket into orbit developed using private funding. They are the first private company to launch, orbit and recover a spacecraft. In 2015, they became the first, and thus far only company that has ever launched a payload into orbit and then recover the booster using a propulsive landing. In 2017, they became the first (and again, so far only) company to re-use a booster stage that had previously put a payload into orbit. In February, 2018, SpaceX successfully launched the Falcon Heavy for the first time. The Falcon Heavy is quite notable, not just for its payload capacity. A launch system with equal capacity developed by lazy, non-innovating companies like Boeing, using government cost-plus contracts, would incur at least thirty times the development cost, and at least double the development time. Oh, and three quarters of the Falcon Heavy is re-useable. In short, SpaceX has done more innovation in the field of rocketry in the past seventeen years than the traditional aerospace companies have done in the last forty plus. It’s not even close.
SpaceX was founded in 2002. The first concepts of the Falcon Heavy were put forth in 2004. The total development cost was $500 million. That might seem like a lot of money to you and I, but when you are developing space launch vehicles, that is chump change. Consider the NASA project Space Launch System, or SLS for short. Originally authorized in wake of the Space Shuttle’s demise, the development costs for SLS have so far consumed nearly $14 billion. Estimated development costs through 2025 (and, sarcasm alert here, we know government projects never exceed estimates …) are $35 billion. So what do we have to show for the $14 billion already appropriated for SLS? Lots of pretty pictures, and a few static fire tests of solid rocket boosters (SRBs) that it will use – and please note, these SRBs are shuttle-derived, so they are not new technology. Thus, you’ll have to excuse me when I scoff at the SpaceX bashers, given that companies that rely almost entirely on government largesse to develop rockets have done far, far less with far more money. Those companies are one big reason why the next frontier has thus far not been opened. Musk’s company is one reason why it finally may be.
Blue Origin, a company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, is also developing launch vehicles, with re-usability as a key feature. Although they are behind SpaceX in the race thus far, they have made significant progress nevertheless, including a sub-orbital flight with a propulsive landing of a booster stage. While Bezos is another lightning rod of controversy, on this endeavor, I support him fully and unequivocally. If nothing else, the presence of Blue Origin should push SpaceX, with the resulting competition further driving down launch costs.
The upshot of the above is that private sector billionaires are now starting to do what NASA and its sclerotic, fatcat contractors have failed to do since the Apollo program. They are pushing the boundaries of rocketry, innovating, and rapidly driving down the cost of putting payloads into orbit. While NASA, since Apollo, has reverted to the mean of inherent stupidity that defines government bureaucracies, the private sector is now doing (if you’ll pardon the pun) the heavy lifting. Both Musk and Bezos have a stated vision of humanity as a multi-planetary species, with Musk taking it so far as his refusal to let SpaceX go public before they have put humans on Mars. More power to both of them, at least in this particular arena.
If you ask proponents of opening up the space frontier why we should do so, you will get a myriad of answers.
Some will say we should go for the scientific knowledge, and will note the inherent limitations of robotic explorers and unmanned probes. A good reason to be sure, as humans in situ can make decisions, in real time that machines simply cannot, even with the advent of artificial intelligence.
Another answer you will get will focus on economics. And certainly, there are good economic reasons to go. We live in a solar system ridiculously rich in resources. A typical rocky asteroid (about 1 km in diameter) contains, at today’s prices, nearly $1 trillion worth of various metal ores, including large quantities of platinum group metals that are rare on Earth. While those prices will certainly drop if asteroid mining ever achieves economies of scale, the economic and technological possibilities resulting from access to these easily obtainable raw materials stretches the imagination to its limits. If helium-3 fusion reactors are ever made practical, the amount of energy available in our solar system is simply beyond our current comprehension. It’s not an overstatement to say that, in that scenario, energy will not be a problem for the next thousand generations. It might be an understatement. And Mars? It has an abundance of virtually every element needed to support a modern civilization.
Yet others will argue we should go as an insurance policy for humanity, given our own planet’s propensity for mass extinction events. Sixty-five million years ago (a mere blip in geologic time), an asteroid slammed into what is now the Yucatan peninsula and wiped out 90% of all life on Earth. So yes, it might be wise for us to take out a cosmic insurance policy.
But by far, at least in this author’s opinion, the very best reason for opening the next frontier is summarized in one word – freedom. The freest people that have ever lived anywhere, at any time in history, are those who went to the frontier. While they were – and will be – constrained by the laws of physics and the mood swings of Mother Nature, what they were not constrained by was any existing political order from whence they came. The pioneers of the past did exactly what Thomas Paine wrote about in 1776 – they began the world anew. In a space frontier, disparate groups of pioneers will have the opportunity to begin many worlds anew. They will at some point break from the bonds from existing, Earthbound political, economic, religious, and social institutions, establishing their own wherever they go.
This is not to say they are going to Utopia. Far from it. As Bobbie Draper, a character in the sci-fi book/TV series The Expanse stated, with regard to new starts, “all the new ones pack the old ones along with them. If we ever really started fresh, it’d mean not having a history anymore.” But taking that history with us has far more advantages than disadvantages. Indeed, the American Founding Fathers were perhaps more well-versed in history that was brought across the Atlantic than any generation before or since. That informed their design of a new republic that grew – despite some serious hiccups – into the most prosperous, humane and free branch of civilization ever known.
Of course, there will be naysayers. They will say it can’t be done, the challenges are too great or that we should first solve all of our problems here on Earth. Those timid souls, should you pay them any attention at all, are worth nothing more than your mockery and derision. They are the heirs of those Europeans who thought the New World to be nothing more than a vast, useless wilderness, of those who would have sheepishly settled for the prevailing order of rule by birth, peasantry for the masses, and human potential in a straightjacket.
Yes, the challenges will be daunting – but no more so than the challenges of the New World were to the pioneers who chose to make their mark on it. We take crossing the ocean for granted today, forgetting how difficult and uncertain such an endeavor was in their time. We forget that the first settlers arrived in the New World not knowing anything about the land, its hazards, its climate, or its inhabitants, human and animal. We don’t think about the difficulty in clearing land, plowing fields, and planting them using nothing but manual labor in a place far from anything they knew prior, in order to simply provide enough food to survive. In contrast, we already know far more about the worlds we will be going to than the first settlers could have hoped to know with regard to their new environs. We know what resources are available and know how to extract and make use of them. We can take a significant amount of food, and already have figured out how to produce more in certain locales of the next frontier. The first settlers of the New World would have given much to have such foreknowledge. Many of them died for the lack of the same.
Yet, even knowing what some of those challenges are, they will be many and persistent. The next pioneers will have to make their own breathable air, extract water from places it’s never been taken from, and modify the soil of other worlds to grow food. There will be, as there is on all frontiers, a shortage of human capital. More will be demanded of each new settler than they would ever face on Earth. And the margin for error will be exceedingly thin. There will be no participation trophies, no room for political correctness, no ability to invent problems, and no time for navel-gazing. Who has time for an existential crisis when their very survival is at stake in a new world?
And that is another thing that will make the next frontier as least as great as the last – the challenge. This is no small part of the greatness of Apollo 11. When President Kennedy committed Americans to put a man on the moon, he did so at a time when our space program had but one manned flight, a single astronaut in a sub-orbital flight that lasted only fifteen minutes. Meeting the commitment he made, from the point of beginning, yielded NASA and its contractors less than nine years to put a man on the moon. And yet, in an exceedingly rare instance of government competence, the challenge was met with several months to spare and enough time to put a second crew on the moon before the decade was out.
The challenge faced by the next pioneers will bring incalculable benefits, both practical and transcendent. New technologies, necessitated by the lack of labor and the will to survive will bring numerous inventions just as the American West did in the 1800’s. Unimaginable economic riches will be had by both those on the new frontier and those who stayed behind. Old institutions will be replaced by new, and old power arrangements will be upended. And best of all, the tide of freedom will again flow, reversing the ebb of the last century or so. That is, if we choose to go, if we choose not to squander the grand inheritance of Western Civilization.
In this and the next few days, we look back and celebrate one of humankind’s greatest achievements, our first visit to another celestial body. But this should also be a day when we look forward, ponder the fate of our civilization, and realize that we have a choice as to what that fate eventually becomes.