Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Space Colonization and its Historical Precedents 2

Martian Sunset. Captured by the Rover Spirit on May 19, 2005.  NASA/JPL/Texas A&M/Cornell.

Count James C. McLane III among the enthusiasts who want to colonize Mars - and do it quickly!  Over at The Space Review, the former NASA engineer has just written an article in which he strongly advocates one-way manned missions to Mars, just to ensure that the United States achieves the milestone of sending humans to the Red Planet first.  But to start, this will be a colony of one.  One cosmonaut, one-way.  Hmmm.  It is a debate that relies heavily on realities and clichés from colonial history.

At the heart of McLane's article is a sense that the greatness of America is jeopardy - threatened by a sea of formerly 'Third World' engineering and tech talent - which no longer migrates to the United States because professional conditions in America for aerospace professionals have declined to the point where they are now treated like "migrant farm workers."  Nothing less rests on this project than America's status as a world leader: "If America discards its hard-won preeminence in human spaceflight, another nation is likely to appreciate the opportunity, take the challenge, go to Mars, and become the new world leader."

McLane is certain that a successful one-way Mars mission (one-way because of limitations in time, tech, money, resources) would be just the shot in the arm that NASA needs to get the public believing in its projects again.  The International Space Station, he says, is a white elephant.  Even a moon base - not what's wanted.  He appeals to history as setting the precedent for taking risks before our technology is fully ready:
"Some suggest we should wait for better technology to arrive so we can make a human trip to Mars safer. How very silly! What if Columbus had decided not to travel across the Atlantic until he could go on a steamship? Ironically, the risk of human death for a manned Mars landing is probably in the same order of magnitude as the danger Columbus faced 500 years ago. Today, the knowledge that’s needed to put a hero on Mars either exists right now, or is close at hand."
The key to McLane's proposed short duration project to "send a human to live permanently on Mars" is not the achievement, so much as the elements of popular inspiration and belief that they engender.  And inspired belief is all about return on investment: "Some experts claim that the return on investment (ROI) to the US from new and applied technology acquired during Apollo was as much as ten dollars in public benefit for each dollar our government spent. For a manned Mars program, do we really want to invite other countries to be partners and then have to share the tremendous ROI with them?"  One critic responds: "Mars is a Chimera that has wasted many professional lives and billions of taxpayer dollars on unworkable scenarios."

One commenter sees truth in McLane's 'civilizing mission' and sees it not only as a source of rejuvenation for Western Civilization (now a politically charged concept) but a recipe for the continued development of Western democracy:
"Mars should be and always has been a dream goal of mankind for at least a century. The resulting en-mass depression that will result from a society that turns in on itself if there are no goals beyond Earth for humans (not just robots), is a gradual rotting of the societies that no longer are expanding. This effect is so dangerous for a Western Society in particular (the European model), that democracy cannot withstand such a contraction for long. In other words, if man does not reach beyond Earth (continue into space), it effects the very system of advanced civilization itself. A stagnant society cannot survive for long without mass pestilence, suppression, and dictatorships. (Which may eventually get to Mars as a military regime - the democracy dead.)" 
So this is about maintaining the health of the civic polity, as well as the social and cultural fabric beneath it - and only humans, not robots, can attain these goals.  On the other hand, a different critic maintains such undertakings destroy both colonizers and colonized:
"Well, let's see... the populations of places Columbus reached would not have been destroyed by European disease epidemics. The population of those islands was one six hundredth of what it had been following those disease wipeouts. The remaining natives were forced into slavery, forced to change their religion, and their culture destroyed forever. The analogy with Mars and the ... possibility of irreversibly contaminating what we go to study - unless we take time to carefully create technology - seems clear."
Yet another says historic civilizing missions take a long time:
"There is, unfortunately, no quick way to develop this. I try to keep in mind that Columbus discovered the New World in 1492, but the Pilgrims didn't come to Massachusetts until 130 years later. It was another 150+ years before the United States gained its independence."
One commenter says that this project won't inspire:
"if you send astronauts on one way suicide missions to Mars, the public will come at NASA HQ with pitchforks and torches! Do it to lock the US into a expensive useless white elephant space project and they will really get nasty!"
Another says this is about the bottom dollar:
"In order to make space exploration viable it needs to have an economic pay-off. Queen Isabella didn't hock her jewels for Columbus to go sight-seeing."
Yet another says, not to worry, we'll make our money back somehow, once we get out there:
"Recall that none of the financial backers of England's Jamestown colony ever imagined how their venture would eventually become economically viable: tobacco. We need to explore all options (other than addictive and harmful drugs). The Administration should NOT announce a destination. It should embrace the ambitious goal of human expansion into the solar system, and pursue the two R&D objectives that are needed to meet that goal: physical AND ECONOMIC sustainability. The destination should be determined by the outcome of these explorations."
Whatever view one takes of this piece and responses to it, McLane's rhetoric draws liberally from an old and heady mix: (1) mission of civilization; (2) cutting edge technology; (3) popular inspiration (a dream); (4) and commerce.  It is this alchemy of all four elements that have indeed in the past enabled 'going in blind' to explore new frontiers.

If history teaches us anything, it is that, for good and ill, such projects are constantly recurring in human experience.  And to get such a endeavours off the ground, there must be a critical mass of fanatics; big-picture idealists; scientists, daredevils, architects, engineers and technicians; and equal measures of commercial enterpreneurs (like Elon Musk or Richard Branson) and bean counters.  A quick glance at historical precedents confirms that colonial projects have disastrous, fatal pitfalls, blind spots and the capacity to achieve larger goals, which typically unfold over centuries.  In that sense, McLane's ten- or twenty-year plans shows his lack of awareness of the magnitude of such undertakings.  The initial colonization attempts of Mars will arguably set the tone for all that follows.  Hence, conceiving of this effort, even implicitly, as a suicide mission justified in the name of speed, building spirit, backing up a faltering American civilization, and return on investment is remarkably Geo-centric.  The moment a human being sets foot on Mars, just as with the lunar missions, our whole historical conception of ourselves will change. A successful Mars mission would be that momentous.  And the moment there is a viable extra-Terran colony in existence, even a colony of one, there will be two paradigms of reality to consider.  These are not light questions that can be easily discounted.  However, it is almost certain they won't be dealt with until after the fact.

East India Company. Bendib Cartoons, © 2006. Reproduced with kind permission.

Colonization is now a dirty word in our lexicon.  Our view of chartered merchant joint-stock companies such as the famous East India Company has dimmed considerably since the nineteenth and early twentieth century, when many contemporaries looked back on these companies as the commercial bedrock upon which imperial civilizations were built.  After the technology to explore came the commercial will to expand, followed by a seeming dream of greatness.

"The East offering its riches to Britannia," The British Library: Foster 245, Roma Spiridione.  Painting from East India Company Office, 1778.  National Archives Website.

For some, the ugly sides to colonization can still be justified by gilded visions of full-blown imperialism.  In fact, both negative and positive versions convey genuine aspects of historical experience.  There is no denying that the technological and commercial expansions upon which colonization and imperialism were founded were real.
Thomas Mun, A discourse of trade, from England unto the East-Indies: Answering to diuerse objections which are usually made against the game, 1621. Kobe University Library.

A massive jump in technology creates economic opportunity, which in turn invites reconceptualizations of how we view the world.   This outcome is usually quickly explained by a flurry of economic, philosophical, historical and religious theories.  The change in mindset is fraught with tension and charged with the potential for radically hierarchical social reorganization during the creation of new power hierarchies.  The change breeds oppression and violence, and in the same moment, regulations, laws, constitutions and industry.  Nor is there any silver bullet here for the critical awareness of hindsight.  What makes sense now will shock and offend later sensibilities.  We are virtually guaranteed that any terms we use to justify our next phase of colonization in space, no matter how carefully or well-conceived, will not only shape future worlds, but will be as jarring to our successors as our current perspective of British and European imperialism at its height.

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