The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Armadillo team
Efforts like Armadillo Aerospace other other Lunar Lander Challenge competitors may be precursors to a vibrant amateur space sector. (credit: J. Foust)

From the garage

Why the majority of the work in colonizing the space frontier will come from amateur effort


Currently, there is one way of accessing and developing the space frontier: the professional way. Like the sports world, space efforts have degraded into a spectator sport where enthused fans cheer on their champions to conduct combat against the high frontier. Like professional sports, nothing is expected from the fans except their love and tribute: love to translate into political votes to ensure that more tribute is extracted from public coffers to be thrown at the professionals so that they can perform more spectacular feats. Anyone reading this essay over the age of 35 probably remembers the extraordinary way in which our understanding of the solar system has exploded from a vague diffraction-limited understanding into a in-depth high-resolution first-order reconnaissance, much like the era when the first accurate outlines of Earth’s continents replaced “Terra incognito” on maps of 500 years ago. For spectators, and professionals, it is a golden age. However, for those who wish to participate, or yearn for a human dimension to the experience, these are frustrating times. For them the solar system is a new world just within view but out of reach.

The historical role of amateurs on the frontier

Historically, opening frontiers began with professionals but were sustained and developed by amateurs. Amateurs perform the work of transforming a frontier into a developed society. While professionals tend to work for others who will own the fruits of professional labor, amateurs tend to perform their tasks to further their own interests and own the final product of their efforts. They turn the work of settlement and development into a means of extracting a living from undeveloped resources. The tools and procedures they develop become a technological base that forms the backbone of the society founded by their efforts.

Like the sports world, space efforts have degraded into a spectator sport where enthused fans cheer on their champions to conduct combat against the high frontier. Like professional sports, nothing is expected from the fans except their love and tribute.

Amateur-derived technology often provides the base for professional efforts. Additionally, the amateur community is the feedstock of the professional population. Many modern 20th century industries began with amateur efforts. Aviation had its first success with the Wright Brothers: systematic, industrious amateurs who funded a decidedly unprofitable boondoggle, the Wright Flyer, with a mildly successful bicycle shop. Their effort stands in contrast to the decidedly unsystematic, haphazard, and over-funded boondoggle of S.P. Langley: a professional who, ironically, spent some of his public pen to criticizing the amateur efforts as being haphazard, unsystematic, and underfunded. For the most part, he was correct. The early days of aviation illustrates many of the problems with developing a radical new technological capability. When there is little to no direct experience with the problem, efforts are disjointed, erratic, and no amount of funding or education seems to ease the human predilection to descend into what with hindsight is clearly a boondoggle of disjointed effort.

Like other movements and industries, space travel was founded by amateurs of various degrees. By far the most successful amateur efforts were the Soviet and German efforts. While independent effort was outlawed in the Soviet Union, GiRD was so underfunded and supported by volunteer effort it is not too much an exaggeration to consider the formative years of the Soviet space program as an amateur effort. Weimar Republic Germany’s VFr is by far the most blatant amateur effort. Ironically, it is hard to consider Robert Goddard’s efforts to be amateur as he was funded almost at the start of his efforts by public funds. While the professional Goddard met with much early success, the amateurs in Europe so eclipsed his efforts when they became professionals that it was their efforts that would form the base from which humans would first leave the planet. America’s Interplanetary Society cum American Rocket Society became the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, an organization that is neither amateur nor open to the general public. Another amateur group of note that still survives to this day is the British Interplanetary Society. Outlawed from practicing its creed outside of theoretical work, they were never absorbed into the professional realm. After almost 60 years of professional space travel, one must either sit at the sideline pay and cheer, or work to enter a professional field.

The importance of amateurism in space

For the past 15 to 20 years, amateurism has been making a slow comeback. In this time several efforts have started in the garage with the goal of entering space and then the market place. This effort is still trying to grapple with these two goals, and the jury is still out on the final outcome of this effort. With many of the first wave enterprises gone and some of the second wave starting to wash out, a third wave is just now beginning to emerge from households. While this process is good and needed, the race to enter the market has prevented the formation of a stable middle that can constitute a base from which to spring into the market. The beginnings of a formative middle can be seen starting with the new do-it-yourself (DIY) movement. However, this movement has yet to generate any series of projects that are documented enough for good repeatability, nor are the project functions targeted at achieving a set of interrelated outcomes that will act as a foundation for an interplanetary society. If space is going to become another theater of activity and life for humanity, a spectrum of efforts attacking the set of problems that constitute space travel and colonization are needed.

Once access to space is no longer an overbearing problem, a whole slew of other crisis-level problems to survival will present themselves as a barrier: water, food recycling, how to wash clothing, how to bathe, grow food, extract resources, manufacture, have fun, make new spacecraft from scratch, harness energy, and the most important process of all, make new humans. In other words, how to live. We cannot expect the professionals to solve all of these problems. If we do, then each effort could present a series of programmatic delays on par with however long the delay will be from the 1970s to the day we begin leaving the planet again. If you are reading this essay, it is unlikely you have the patience for this.

What might an amateur space sector look like? It is an important point that it does not need to be an integrated effort at all.

Our society has been fed a steady diet of science fiction for the past century. The past 60 years have seen a key item missing from our myths: the means of developing and producing technology. Modern science fiction assumes the technology and then forms human drama around a background of capabilities. Industry is in the background, and none of the characters are producers, rather they are users and consumers. They usually consume resources at an outrageous rate, and destroy almost everything in sight. There is always a source of replacement parts, and a new shiny set of goodies stand at the ready to be used for the next technological temper tantrum. Nowhere is the plight of the poor engineers and manufacturers who have to design and make this endless stream of hyper-technology, let alone what would have to constitute an outrageous flow of raw materials.

It is no surprise that when we debate space policy, we take the same point of view. The public discourse centers around inspiration, education, and the support of services. These are needed, yet it lacks consideration of the goose that lays these golden eggs. Other than the doling out of jobs in congressional districts, nowhere in our public discussion for developing space as a people is any consideration given to the dirty work of actually getting it done. This is unfortunate because while we in the space community advocate for a space program from the point of view of love and desire, or analysis, the nuts and bolts are doled out by a metric that has nothing to do with space access, and everything to do with distribution of wealth. As non-producers we miss the point, and miss the opportunity to become players at the fundamental level.

Creating an amateur space sector

What might an amateur space sector look like? It is an important point that it does not need to be an integrated effort at all. It could constitute any form of participation, from contributing to a blog and no more to a full machine shop with at least a lathe and milling machine. Also important would be an electronics engineering and fabrication ability, or even a consortium of home fabs and labs. They would operate at their own pace, on projects of their own choosing. Individuals could and probably would enter and exit partnerships with other home shops or consortia, and perhaps even entering and leaving the commercial sector as opportunities and economics dictate. They would work in directions they see fit and cooperate at any level that suits them. There need not be a set minimum or set maximum amateur effort. A spectrum from just above zero to overlapping with the current professional standard can be expected. Currently, though, the means of amateur production is almost non-existent and need to be established.

Each home fab/lab could execute a chosen sequence of projects that support the needs and desires of the owner. Suppose a person were interested in dealing with the food problem in the colonial home. After having chosen a diet to develop, they could work on a series of methods for growing foods, and maybe even elect to deal with the waste stream and try to close the loop. This effort would require extensive use of metalworking, power generation, and controls systems. The home developer could tap from other colonizing individuals who were fascinated by the controls problem and the power generation problem. The food producer would still need some extensive industrial capability in their house, and this would act as a base from which they could help themselves and contribute to the greater colonial technology and industrial base. The most important development of these systems is not that they are developed; rather, that they are used, modified, and documented. As people live their lives with these systems on Earth, and develop them to survive the test of time, a mature technological base will be established.

One can imagine these systems being tested in extreme terrestrial environments as they emerge from the garage but before they are used off world. A proto-colonial home would require a lot of work and expertise from the owners. As the years go on, a new generation of people who grew up surrounded by these efforts will begin to enter society: people who are steeped in the process of systems development with scaled mature expectations on how to get things done and what to expect from others. The novelty of living in your own technology development project will both attract and repel people. However, no group of people who decided to develop technology and the means of production has ever been poor, or experienced extreme want. They certainly won’t be bored waiting for others to execute their dreams for them.

Putting the means of production into the amateur community is a no-lose proposition. No matter what track taken, everybody wins. Individuals get to put their ideas to the test and live aspects of the lifestyle they want to explore off-world. An interlocked operational technological base independent of facile political needs and semi-independent from market limitations will be available to draw from. It also firmly establishes the existence of a “chicken” to provide a source of “eggs” to help escape the endless cycle of current space projects where technological bases are created and destroyed in order to meet the political or financial needs of the day, thereby preventing the crisis of where to start and stop for the next vision to replace the old. Perhaps most importantly, it will create a pool of individuals who will understand the physical nature of the problem. These members of the voting public will act as moderators and guides for what is now a blind public debate over how, when, and why we should colonize space. Also, a number of people who grew up as children in proto-colonial homes will work their way into the professional community and bring their wealth of experience and insight to the job with them. It is unlikely that many individuals will adopt the means of production into their lives. However, as the decades go by, and the tools and skill levels to use them become less extreme, more people might choose to participate. This could act as a minimal industrial community from which a nation’s industrial base might regenerate no matter the disaster, either economic or military.

Putting the means of production into the amateur community is a no-lose proposition. No matter what track taken, everybody wins. Individuals get to put their ideas to the test and live aspects of the lifestyle they want to explore off-world.

The largest barrier to an amateur industrial complex is the skill base needed to effectively develop systems. Nothing about this endeavor is easy. The tools are expensive and require a skill set that constitutes a profession. The scientific background needed to design effective systems are for the most part only available with a university education and experience in the professional field. There is the Internet, but net-based educational systems currently lack the touch of years of human experience to make them complete. Given the nature of the problem, however, Internet-based education will have to be made to work. The frustration level will be extreme and the time required to develop some systems will run into years. While this lifestyle will be difficult, it will mirror in many ways what real colonists will experience. Terrestrial developers will have it easy with many resources, ready access to the established industrial base, and an environment that is by definition as forgiving as can be expected. As systems emerge from the garage it will be possible for others to recreate and add on to systems targeted to key problems of supporting life in space and on Earth. At some point it may be reasoned that demonstrable applicable systems coming from the garage may outnumber systems from the professional sector. This is not an outrageous proposition if the development of real systems from the professional sector does not change in a radical way.

Outside of space launch, the problems of human habitation and even exploration of space are within the technical and economic grasp of the average American, European, Australian, and Japanese populations. The populations of China, India, Southeast Asia, and Russia are fast on our heels. There is no reason that members of the space enthusiast community cannot spend at least some of their time developing the future of space travel as they see fit. The gumption to do it is the first difficult barrier. Why should an amateur begin attacking these problems? So they can obtain some of the promised payoff that was supposed to come from the professional development of space.

It is obvious that any current ongoing thread of the current space program is not going to change your life in the radical ways expected by most of the people reading this essay. What might be the solution if current space efforts don’t address your needs and desires for direction? Make your own. Instead of waiting for space colonizing to produce the technological base from which you can exercise a richer and more capable lifestyle on Earth, develop the richer, more capable systems here on Earth that will be used in space. Instead of colonizing your home with space technology, colonize space with technology made in your home. That’s the way all past successful colonial efforts were achieved.