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Thinking Clearly About Space Part I: Hustling the Future

By 1900, the prescient Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was thinking about staged rockets, liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen propellant, orbital stations, solar power in space, space colonies, and asteroid mining. In the 1920s, Germany's Hermann Oberth and his circle developed an agenda for expansion into space that is still with us today. Between their work and the science fiction that inspired and fed on it, no development in history has been so vividly described so far in advance of its realization.

We are all impatient to see it happen. Some of us devote our careers to making it happen. But there's a difference between hurrying the future and hustling it. Hustling means deceiving ourselves or others about how far along we are, about the timing and cost of the steps to come, and--crucially for space advocates--about how widely and deeply our enthusiasm is shared.

One way to hustle the future is to mis-read the past. How many times has space been compared to the New World? Yet the day Columbus returned to Cadiz, there were countless other European ships--working, money-making ships--capable of retracing his course. How often have 1961's manned space flights been compared to the Wright brothers' flight in 1903? Yet the day that Wilbur and Orville flew, there were countless machine shops capable of copying what two bicycle mechanics had done on a shoestring budget. We're not there yet in space. We're not even close.

Or think farther ahead, to space colonization. Europeans headed for the New World knew that it offered air to breathe, water to drink, soil to cultivate, and game to hunt. Space requires much, much more equipment per person just to survive. Resources in space? A lot of good thinking has gone into planning their exploitation--but their use will demand still more infrastructure lifted from earth before the process becomes self-sustaining and profitable. Von Neumann's self-replicating robots, busily turning silicon and nickel into space facilities, are still a long way off.

In the gap between hopes and facts, frustration grows--sharp and vehement among the enthusiasts, mild and puzzled in the larger public. We look at what hasn't happened in space since the moon race in the 1960s, at the Shuttle's woes. We nominate the scapegoats in a thousand newspaper columns and a million Internet posts: "America lost the vision set forth by JFK." "The space budget was undercut by social programs, by environmentalism, by anti-technology attitudes." "The Shuttle was under-funded, or crippled by this or that design mistake." "NASA has lost its way: the ISS just goes around in circles."

Impatience and frustration together breed a weakness for the Great Leap Forward: the one technology, or mission, or business model, or political silver bullet that will get us back on track. "If only we'd kept building Saturn Vs, or pushed on from the X-15." "If only NASA had another clear, compelling goal--like Mars." "If only we can line up enough sub-orbital tourists." "If only China would challenge us as the USSR did in 1957."

I understand impatience for space: I've felt it since age six, when "space program" meant Wernher von Braun on Walt Disney's TV shows. I felt it thirty years ago, as a science writer tracking the last Apollo missions and the development of the Shuttle. I feel it now, watching the evolution of the Vision for Space Exploration and of the private start-ups of But our frustration will not be resolved by scapegoating, or - almost certainly -- by any one radical development.

If we really want to hurry the future, we need to stop hustling it. We need to look realistically and critically at where we are, and what it will take to move on. The next three installments examine three hustles that get in the way.

Monte Davis is a science and business writer living near Philadelphia. He helped launch OMNI and Discover magazines, and has observed the path from lab to market for twenty years as a communications strategist and writer for leading corporations in IT, telecomm, engineering, and pharmaceuticals.

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