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Review: Reopening the Space Frontier

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Reopening the Space Frontier
by John Hickman
Common Ground Publishing, 2010
softcover, 198 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-86335-800-2

One of the most pervasive—and disappointing—metaphors associated with space exploration is that of the frontier. It’s pervasive in that it’s hard to escape the concept, at least in the United States, that space is a frontier to be pioneered, an idea that has found root in everything from the names of organizations (the Space Frontier Foundation) to one of the most famous opening lines of a television show (“Space: the final frontier” of Star Trek fame). Even this publication references that “final frontier” meme when it comes to spaceflight. But the concept of space as a frontier, final or otherwise, is also disappointing to many in that, nearly 50 years after the first humans ventured into space, we have done little to open that frontier as a place where people can live and work. After a burst of activity in the early years of the Space Age, culminating with the Apollo lunar landings, human activity in space has been literally going in circles, confined to Earth orbit, as proposals for exploration beyond have time and again fallen by the wayside. Why that might be the case, and what can be done to change is, is the subject of a provocative new book by John Hickman, Reopening the Space Frontier.

“What was exciting and considered all but inevitable never occurred,” he writes of early space exploration.

Hickman, a professor of political science at Berry College and past contributor to this publication (see “Space colonization in three histories of the future”, The Space Review, November 29, 2010), argues in the book that the space frontier was opened during that early race to the Moon, only to be slammed shut when the Nixon Administration in particular failed to build upon Apollo with lunar bases or other future human exploration in favor of developing the shuttle. “What was exciting and considered all but inevitable never occurred,” he writes.

Hickman identifies two key factors that closed off the space frontier. The first, he argues, is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, specifically the language that prevents nations from making any claims of sovereignty on celestial bodies like the Moon. That created what he calls the “tragedy of the anti-commons”: discouraging the use of space by preventing nations from staking claims to extraterrestrial territory and utilizing it. The second is creating a compelling rationale for humans to be in space. He is sharply critical of many of the reasons put forward in the past for human space exploration: for example, he notes that contrary to claims humans have an innate urge to explore, many societies on Earth have been content to not venture out from their homes for centuries or millennia. He is equally critical of basing human space exploration on international cooperation, given the challenges of getting countries to work together, as he is of proposals of turning everything over to private interests, given the extreme expense of space projects.

Hickman’s proposal to get out of this quandary is to use a model from the settlement of the American West. There, the US Army established a network of forts, around which settlements sprung up; in many cases these became cities that exist today. He imagines that if NASA and the US Air Force were to establish a lunar base staffed with hundreds of people, it would stimulate private development in an analogous manner. And what would that base, which would be far larger than what NASA proposed several years ago under the Vision for Space Exploration, do? Hickman doesn’t go into much detail into the book, but suggests it would play a role in planetary defense, protecting the Earth from any asteroids or comets that pose an impact risk.

Long-term interests are a tough sell when we have difficultly looking beyond the interests of our children and grandchildren (or, institutionally, beyond the next electoral cycle or earnings report).

That is, perhaps, the one weakness in Reopening the Space Frontier. Early in the book Hickman discusses planetary defense as one reason for establishing a human presence beyond Earth, but also notes that the risk of global catastrophe from an asteroid impact is not well appreciated because it’s a low probability event. Why, then, would we spend most likely hundreds of billions of dollars to establish a large lunar base to protect ourselves from an impact, when we have difficulty finding the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars needed for telescopes and robotic missions that can help better understand the risk? A second scenario briefly mentioned in the book is a scramble for territory on the Moon after one country withdraws from the Outer Space Treaty. Why that would happen, though, is unclear, particularly when we haven’t seen a similar rush for territory in Antarctica, which is much more accessible and hospitable than the Moon.

There is, of course, a fundamental reason why humanity should expand beyond Earth: its survival, given the natural and man-made threats to its existence on Earth over the long term. “Life is the ultimate justification for action,” Hickman writes, and it is indeed in our long-term interests to ensure our survival. But long-term interests are a tough sell when we have difficultly looking beyond the interests of our children and grandchildren (or, institutionally, beyond the next electoral cycle or earnings report). Reopening the Space Frontier may not be a solution to the difficulties of making a case for human exploration and settlement of space so much as a better explanation of why it’s so difficult.