Dr Geek: And Geeks Shall Inherit Space
Once upon a time, a call went out across the United States for men who had “the right stuff.” Men who were fearless. Men who were smart. Men who were brave. Men who could take commands. Men who could handle cramped spaces, the rollercoaster ride from Hell, and the possibility of a hot, cold, or very wet death. And men answered the call from all the various military walks of life. All tried and true warriors of some or another fight. The cream of the crop. Men who, if you gave them capes, tights, and superpowers, could just have easily become superheroes. Instead we gave them space suits, space ships, and dehydrated ice cream and called them astronauts.
From the 1960s through the 1970s, thus did it go in the United States: men who were the military’s brightest were the ones the government choose to go into space. This pattern changed somewhat in the 1980s with the birth of the space shuttle program. Then we had the first woman in space (aside from the Russians again winning that race). The first civilian (but, again, those Russians…). The first rich tourist in space. But they were still the brightest, the best, the wealthiest, those with “the right stuff.” And so it went for another 30 years.
But something happened during those 30 years: going into space became too routine. It lost some of the mystic that shrouded those earlier astronauts who were the first to go up and come down, the first to go around and around the moon, and the first to set foot on the Moon. Those were monumental events in human history, and their resounding impact inspired the children of the times to go into aerospace engineering, or astrophysics, or to spawn new fields like exobiology, or to create new technologies like the smartphone.
Some of that mystic faded away during the space shuttle years, as it became routine for people to go up and come back, even if it was to our first ever well-functioning space station. What lingered in people’s minds more were horrible disasters, during the birthing years of the shuttle program, and during the dying years as well. Yes, there was still the faithful who went to Kennedy Space Center to watch launches, and there were still kids attending Space Camp. But real space didn’t fuel the imagination as much as cyberspace. And now, the shuttles have taken their last flights, to their final resting places, as museum pieces.
So what now for space? What is our future out there?
Pop culture has given us a number of possibilities, but they largely fall into one of two categories: either the Star Trek route of space exploration controlled by the government intent on exploring what’s out there, or the Alien route of space colonization controlled by corporations intent on capitalizing on what’s out there.
With the end of the space shuttle program, the US government’s approach via NASA has withdrawn from investing heavily in space travel. The government’s argument is that NASA will focus more on longer goal space exploration, such as setting humans down on Mars, and leaving the near-space travel to private corporations. With the successful launch and return of the Space X supply capsule to the International Space Station, this model may actually take hold. Private corporations — most likely multinational ones in order to offset the cost to revenue ratio discrepancy — are poised to start orbital travel for human pilots and passengers within the next five to ten years. There is talk of creating such corporations to mine the Moon and nearby asteroids for precious metals and fuels not found on Earth, and without the environmental regulations we put on them in order to keep living on Earth. As previous pushes of exploration were fueled with promises of riches, whether they be spices or gold, there is little doubt that this human attribute of greed will fuel space exploration and colonization.
But what if there was another way? What if it wasn’t about a government or a corporation pushing to control space? What if it was a community of like-minded individuals who do not have a desire to control space — only to experience it?
Enter Build the Enterprise. No, it’s not a website for instructions on how to build model U.S.S. Enterprises that are as good or better than those used in the original Star Trek series. Instead it is an organization, started by a man named Dan, intent on demonstrating that a fully functional — sans warp drive — Enterprise could be built with existing, or nearly there, technologies — and they want to spread the word to encourage us to build it.
According to his bio, Dan is one of those kids who watched Star Trek and was so influenced by it that he grew up to be an engineer. He’s not the only of his kind. Star Trek, the entire franchise, has had a profound impact on those who develop our science and technology. The development of the cell phone, of tablet computers, of voice controlled computers, and the current interest in developing hydrosprays and tricorders as handheld non-invasive medicine devices can all be seen stemming from the impact the series had on the minds of today’s scientists and engineers. Heck, we’ve even got people working on teleportation, androids, and holodecks! Now, of course, many shows, films, and books in our pop culture have touched on these technologies; but Star Trek is one of the few that has featured all of them and is a long-lasting cultural zeitgeist.
But to build a functional Enterprise within our lifetime — without WWIII, as the series predicted — seems like a longshot. Definitely too much of a financial gamble for any corporation or government to give it any serious attention.
That is where fans come in. Fans have been often maligned for being outcasts; obsessive weirdos who spend way too much time, money and passion on some hobby. And, interestingly, this perception fans comes largely from those loyal to Star Trek, the Trekkies.
But that perception was before the Internet. Before fans could communicate more easily around the globe, 24/7, and organize in a way they could not before. With the rise of the Internet, fans have been building up the power of their communities. Back in the 1960s, fans of Star Trek could not rally enough to save their favorite show from cancellation. With the Internet, such power has become more easily wielded, as the fans of Jericho will attest to. With the rise of social networking, fans can get the word out, get interest up, and motivate people into action.
And it is in this cyberspace that people like Dan of Build the Enterprise comes in. On his website, he presents numerous arguments for how the Enterprise could be built with today’s technologies, and even makes an attempt at breaking down the cost. But it is also a fan site, similar, albeit more advanced, to others I have seen over the years of the Internet, where Trekkies lay out how this or that could be done. Even I played this game as a kid, designing a Gizmoduck suit from DuckTales and the flying Delorean from Back to the Future II. It is a common pastime among the more science and technology oriented of the fans: designing schematics, pondering on technicalities, discussing how something really works. And then there are those who take it that next step; who go into a lab and start tinkering with modern science and technology to push it that next step, to make it something more akin to what they’ve only seen or read. Dan is among those working to push it to that next step.
Is it possible he could succeed? Well, frankly, I think anything is possible. When I first heard NASA was developing ion propulsion drives, my mind immediately thought about “Ensign, full impulse”. When I first heard about quantum teleportation, my mind immediately went to the never said but oft repeated line “Beam me up, Scotty”. When I first heard about virtual reality and virtual worlds, my mind immediately thought about the dangers of telling the computer to make a Moriarty capable of defeating Data. So the technology, I believe, is definitely possible.
But do we have the drive to do it?
Corporations will not invest if they do not see a good return on that investment. Right now, private space enterprises are about being paid to be taxis and cargo ships to the space station. Perhaps in another generation it will also be about mining the Moon and our nearest asteroids. It will not be about further exploration until NASA confirms there is stuff out there worth capitalizing on.
Governments will not invest if they do not think the voters will be behind it. The US government has seemingly lost the will to tell the voters that federally funded space exploration is a necessity. Now, most likely, without a Cold War spurring them on, the government of the ’60s probably would not have had that will either. Maybe it will take China investing more in space exploration, but I hate to think that people are only interested in space if they feel threatened that another country, another family in our great human dynasty, will get there first. That seems petty, and not in keeping with the ideals of Star Trek. And I would hate the series to be correct in postulating that it would take a global disaster akin to WWIII to finally unite us.
So who does that leave? Well, us. The fans. The nerds. The geeks. The ones passionate enough to keep looking to the stars as our future, and not being dissuaded from it because of money or politics.
Will it be easy? Most certainly not.
Will it happen any time soon? Well, perhaps.
I like the idea from Star Trek: First Contact. It’s after WWIII, and the world is still reeling. But out in the forest of northern California, a man is toiling on a dream. A spaceship, the first of its kind, because it had warp drive. He wasn’t funded by any government or corporation. And, true, he did kinda say he was doing it to make money by selling the technology if it worked. But the point is, he did it. It was his passion. His hobby. And it was because of him that humanity finally moved off the planet, met their galactic neighbors, and moved into space exploration peacefully and united as one species.
Idealistic, yes. But it’s that type of idealism that is fueling some of our brightest scientists and engineers. It’s that type of idealism that is fueling Dan of Build the Enterprise. He hopes it is that type of idealism that could get others behind him. Heck, if it wasn’t for that idealism, then I wouldn’t be writing this article.
One person can make a huge difference. Ask Henry Ford. Ask Steve Jobs. Ask Mark Zuckerberg.
Here’s hoping that the next to make a huge difference in space exploration is a geek as well.