Out There

by rthieme on May 16, 1998

1951riverside-ufoThe economy of the next century will in all likelihood be driven from the outside in, that is, from near-earth space, the moon, Mars, the asteroid belt, and a little later, bodies like Europa, Titan, or Triton. Triton is a distant moon of Neptune, but distant ceases to matter when wherever we are is the center of the network or web. The edge is indeed the new center, and the edge belongs to those intending to exploit niches currently out-of-bounds to our happened-to-be-born human bodies, these frail earthen vessels. Our bodies might belong to the last human generation to be merely and beastly born. When we can engineer descendents to live in the dark cold, perhaps they’ll have circulatory systems more akin to those of fish swimming in arctic seas.

The current economy of the earth is like England’s when she viewed her colonies as a distant edge instead of a new center.

The proposed merger of Chrysler and Daimler-Benz is a negative for some who came of age during World War II, but for those who belong to the future, it’s one more reminder that the borders of nation states evolved as semi-permeable membranes appropriate to economic and political realities that have passed. Now we can see how tied to former technologies those realities were. The global marketplace of the earth may still have different neighborhoods, but narrow nationalism does not determine any country’s real policy. Micron objected to a proposed bail-out of the Korean economy because their competitor Samsung would benefit from Micron’s tax dollars. Yes? said the US government. And what’s the question?

We need a better name than “space” for the orbital slots in which the “extrastructure” of our planet is being built. Merchants are jamming those slots with satellites and spacecraft that watch and regulate our economies, manage communications, serve as primitive platforms for scientific laboratories. Soon we will work in “collaboratories,” immersive real-time 3D virtual environments which scientists will cohabit regardless of where their feet happen to be planted. Now developing the smarter hardware and protocols of Internet 2 to make that happen, governments, universities, and corporations are more difficult to distinguish than ever.

Internet 2 will eliminate distance in collaborative work. When doctors in Chicago, London, and Singapore simultaneously monitor the hearts of astronauts or operate together on a patient in Kiev, when chemists work together in digital CAVES to manipulate molecules, what we call the “Internet” will look like Bell’s first telephone. The next Net, jerking the drawstrings of space-time, will contract the field of consciousness into a single diaphanous fabric.

An entrepreneurial environment in space is hosting an explosion of exploratory projects. SpaceDev LLC, for example, in San Diego, California, is building a Near Earth Asteroid Prospector to mine the asteroid belt, just a small part of a new wave of space commercialization. The Pentagon is exploring ways to replace attacked satellites quickly or teach them to defend themselves. “As space becomes more commercial, there will be mischief,” said Vice Admiral (ret.) Jerry Tuttle, former director of space and electronic warfare for the U. S. Navy. “We’ll need to protect ourselves just like the sea lanes of old.”

Mischief. Mischief. As we scamper from planet to planet, we had better anticipate … mischief.

When I was investigating the integration of the Mars Rover and the Internet for an article, I explored NASA’s labyrinth of web sites, well designed to capture our imaginations. But the maze of digital images felt more like Disneyland than history. No mention of danger, “bad guys,” or – to use the Admiral’s word – mischief clouded the purity of their vision.

Interviewing a spokesperson at Kennedy Space Center, I couldn’t resist a little mischief myself.

“Your web sites are great,” I said, “but when Europeans conquered America, there was some resistance. You never mention that possibility, that others might be out there. Yet several astronauts have suggested we have already encountered them. Deke Slayton spoke of encounters while a test pilot in Minnesota. Gordon Cooper asked the UN to investigate. So did Edgar Mitchell. What does NASA do with testimony like that from its own astronauts?”

He explained patiently that NASA is funded by taxpayers to carry out specific missions. Scientific and educational objectives are defined by the charter. Regardless of what credible individuals might say, NASA can not respond to their reports in any official capacity.

He paused.

Besides, he said. They don’t ask our permission to show up.

Anomalous details unable to fit into our current thinking percolate ever so slowly into our consciousness. I think of an oasis in Zion National Park in Utah. The water that makes it green and blossoming begins its journey many years before on a high plateau, filtering down through limestone over decades until it seeps out in the walls of caves festooned with desert flowers.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Horace Greeley told a generation to go west. What should we say? Go up, young man? Go out there, young woman? The off-world colonies are waiting?

The only way to predict the future is to invent it. But some is already invented and must merely manifest itself like those beautiful and improbable lilies in the middle of the desert.

Indeed, “they” do not ask our permission to show up, nor do we ask theirs when we bounce our little rover like a ball onto the Martian desert.

Scientific, military and commercial interests are already out there. Earth orbit is high ground that must be defended. The moon is the next great real estate boom. There’s a “hot spot” on Mars where the temperature nears seventy in summer that sounds perfect for a resort. But we will need diplomats too, born or bred, who can empathize with minds that have evolved or been engineered according to a different blueprint. Poets that can imagine multiple suns setting over alien cities. Priests whose God-blasted souls see deeply into the alien presence, simultaneously seized by and recoiling from the incomprehensible nexus.

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