Farms on the Asteroids: Hotels on the Moon - Rolling Stone
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Farms on the Asteroids: Hotels on the Moon

The industrialization of space and the search for profit on the last frontier

space shuttle, Enterprise, NASA, Redstone Arsenal Airfield, Marshall Space Flight Centerspace shuttle, Enterprise, NASA, Redstone Arsenal Airfield, Marshall Space Flight Center

The space shuttle 'Enterprise' (NASA Orbiter Vehicle 101) is offloaded at Redstone Arsenal Airfield near Huntsville, Alabama, for Mated Vertical Ground Vibration tests (MVGVT) at the Marshall Space Flight Center, 14th March 1978.

Space Frontiers/Getty

Hey Kids! The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has a special offer for you! NASA wants to send your package into orbit.

Never thought you could afford to own your own space program? Well now you can! Just make out a check for $500 and mail it to the Director of Financial Management, Code BF, NASA Headquarters, Washington D.C., and NASA will reserve for you a one-and-a-half-cubic-foot package on a space shuttle flight in the early 1980s. “You will receive an acknowledgment in approximately 10 days,” says the NASA bulletin that makes this offer. “Then we will be working together to make your Space Experiment a reality!”

There’s a little more to it, but not much. You can put anything you want in your package as long as it’s “related to a scientific or technological objective,” weighs less than 60 pounds and isn’t likely to blow up or emit deadly gas or be otherwise obnoxious. And that $500 is only a down payment, with the balance ($2,500) due one year before your package – called, in NASA parlance, a “Getaway Special” – is scheduled to fly to orbit and back.

But don’t delay. More than 252 Specials have already been reserved. San Diego Community College has one, to be used for student experiments. An aerospace scientist in Utah has one; his teenaged son is planning to rip off a lizard’s tail and then launch the lizard to see what a new tail grown in zero gravity looks like. Film director Steven Close Encounters of the Third Kind Spielberg has one, but he says he hasn’t decided what he’ll do with it.

All this may seem like an intriguingly populist endeavor – space science for the masses . . . rocket power to the people. But a longer look at the Getaway Special reservation list reveals the real targets of NASA’s proposition. Johnson & Johnson has booked a Special. So has McDonnell-Douglas. Dow Chemical and General Electric have booked three apiece.

“The intent of the small package payload program [a.k.a. Getaway Special],” one NASA official explained, “is to permit private organizations and individuals to carry out experiments in orbit and have access to proprietary rights. We want to encourage research in new materials and new processes that will lead to factories in space.”

That’s space factories, note, not student laboratories. In a time of diminished public enthusiasm – and congressional appropriations – for space science, NASA is looking more and more for alliances with American business, and business, given incentives like the Getaway Special, is beginning to respond. If the trend develops to its fullest potential, you can forget about Luke Skywalker. The next Star Wars you see may be between IBM and ITT.

Back in 1976, when the first space shuttle was rolled out at a California air base, there was some discussion of the fact that it was named for the spaceship on Star Trek, but there was little discussion of the name itself. As it happens, that name – “Enterprise” – could not be more appropriate. It is only remarkable that enterprise has had such a low profile in the space program until now. It’s swell to know what the weather is like on Mars, and Ronald Reagan’s heart surely thrilled when we beat the Russians to the moon, but it must have been clear to NASA planners even in the agency’s high-budget days that NASA could not thrive forever on the love of knowledge and the hatred of communism: NASA would have to demonstrate that space was a place where a person could make a buck.

The great tradition of American exploration, after all, is a marriage of convenience between adventure and profit. When Thomas Jefferson asked Congress for the money to send Lewis and Clark on their continental trek, he made his priorities clear: “The interests of commerce place the principal object within the constitutional powers and care of Congress, and that it should incidentally advance the geographic knowledge of our own continent cannot but be an additional gratification.”

With the arrival of the reusable space shuttle, which will make its first operational flight in 1980, space now begins to offer plenty of potential for profit. In low Earth orbit, the absence of gravity makes possible a variety of manufacturing processes that are difficult or impossible on earth. Metals of differing weights that would separate on earth can be blended in alloys. Crystals whose growth is distorted by gravity can form perfect specimens. These processes and others have already been studied intensively by corporate scientists (most of them working with NASA research money) with frequently positive results.

Last year, for example, on a rocket flight designed to produce several minutes of weightlessness, a General Electric experiment produced cast beryllium stronger than any beryllium that could be made on Earth. “If beryllium could be routinely strengthened,” the company announced, “it would find a number of new applications – most notably in the nuclear industry, where the use of beryllium reactor reflectors could lead to significant savings.” In an earlier report, another GE scientist concluded. “While the ideas expressed for processing high-value products in space are still speculative, they nevertheless hold much promise for being both technologically and economically valid.”

The Russians evidently agree. Soviet scientists reported in February that cosmonauts orbiting in the Salyut 6 space laboratory had just installed the first electric blast furnace in space.

Meanwhile, in higher geosynchronous orbit (in which a satellite hovers constantly over the same spot on Earth), privately owned communications satellites have already become big business, and now Satellite Business Systems, a new company owned by IBM, Aetna Life and Casualty and Comsat General, has booked space on the shuttle for its first three satellites. Other satellites are presently monitoring crops and searching for signs of oil, and studies are under way ($5 million last year alone) for eight-mile-long solar-power satellites that would convert sunlight to electricity and beam it to earth via microwaves.

Still farther our (from Earth), plans have been put forward for mining the moon, (Krafft Enricke, who worked with Wernher von Braun on Hitler’s missile program and now consults for Rockwell International, has gone farther than most scientists in proposing the use of atomic bombs to blast the lunar rock). And two MIT scientists, among others, have proposed mining the asteroids. They acknowledge that the huge technological problem of towing the asteroids millions of miles to earth would be “knotty.” But they blithely point out that one small, iron-nickel asteroid would fetch $5 trillion at today’s prices.

Among those casting a glad eye over all these prospects is Jesco von Puttkamer, who writes studies of the future for NASA, frequently lectures on campuses and was responsible for inviting Star Trek cast members to the shuttle rollout. “We are entering a new era of space operations oriented toward applications and utilization…” von Puttkamer recently wrote. “Space Industrialization is the overarching concept of using the characteristics of space for commercial or utilitarian purposes, in contrast to scientific research and exploration. It is the utilization of space to produce salable/profitable products and goods or a service which companies, as a business expense, or citizens – through their taxes – are willing to pay for. The prospects are bright enough to say that Space Industrialization may form the nucleus for a third industrial revolution.”

Business Week, hedging only a bit, struck the same tone (and phrase) last summer: “As far as industry is concerned, the airliner-size space shuttle is by far the most important development in the 20-year-old U.S. space program. In fact, some experts are calling it the key to opening up the next industrial revolution.” The advent of that revolution was taken for granted at the annual conference of the American Astronautical Society in San Francisco last year. The conference theme was blunt: “The Industrialization of Space: Planning for Profit at the High Frontier.” And the keynote speaker was blunter: “For the next 20 years we should be looking at the roles private industry can play in space development.” The air was thick with talk of investment/profit ratios and mind-boggling assumptions about the extraterrestrial factories that are just around the corner. My feeling of dislocation was enhanced by the conference’s location – the San Francisco Airport Hilton, bounded on one side by a freeway and on the other by a parking lot for 747s. On a table outside the conference rooms, one could find the proceedings of past AAS meetings. The volume from 1967 contained a paper by Barron Hilton on “Hotels in Space,” in which the Hilton tycoon promised, “In almost every respect, the Lunar Hilton will be physically like an earth Hilton.” It will, I’m sure, be exactly like the San Francisco Airport Hilton, which features, in addition to total isolation, automated morning calls (“This is a recorded wake-up call. Have a nice day!”), 75-cent Cokes in the coffee shop and pictures of trees painted on the walls in the hallways.

But most of the conference guests seemed right at home. Meet, for example, Dr. Philomena Grodzka, a staff scientist for Lockheed. A determined-looking woman, Dr. Grodzka delivered before one conference audience an extensive critique of what she called the “small is beautiful crowd.” The faults that crowd finds in “our present ‘high technology’ economy,” she said, “stem not from technology per se but from social and political institutions that are ill-designed to cope with change.” And resistance to necessary change has led to a dangerous “creeping feudalism.” It is important, she said, that we engage in “activities that will make us productive, expand our capabilities and knowledge, arouse our curiosity, stretch our imaginations and allow us at the same time to be kind to each other and our beautiful planet.” But the creeping feudalists are misled about how to accomplish these ends. “From all the conceivable types of activities which could fulfill all of these demands,” said Dr. Grodzka, “we see none more promising than that of space development and utilization.”

Not all the aerospace-industry representatives at the conference took such a broad view of things. A Grumman scientist, for example, devoted much of his presentation to a detailed analysis of the market potential of high-strength magnets manufactured in orbit. If NASA, he concluded, underwrites the cost of research and development (as it had underwritten his research) and if NASA pays for the space-factory module, then a space-magnet magnate might earn a healthy 13 percent return on his investment.

Early the next morning, during a dull technical session, I was startled to alertness by another speaker’s assertion that we could soon be running truck farms on the asteroids. The speaker, Peter M. Molton, of Battelle Laboratories, cheerfully announced, “I would like to emphasize that what I describe, although it’s somewhat far-out, is within the limits of current technology.”

But why farm the asteroids?

To feed the people in our lunar colony, of course. “The moon,” Molton said, “is unsuitable for agriculture, and it will be prohibitively expensive to ship sandwiches up from earth.” But the asteroids, for farfetched reasons he carefully explained, are perfect for farming, as long as the farms are intensive and compact. And, said Molton, Battelle just happens to be working on a new system of intensive, vertical agriculture that would be perfect for the asteroids. He even had a photograph.

Now this was news. A company so sure of the prospects of asteroid agriculture that it was developing a system for it. I asked Molton about it after his talk.

“Actually,” he said, “we’re developing the vertical agriculture system for the government of Taiwan. We’ve sold them the concept for use in Taiwan only and retained the rights for its use everywhere else. The space application was my idea.” He said he hadn’t sold it yet.

Molton was a little more obvious than most, but a lot of the people at the conference had something to sell. The speakers from aerospace companies, with their glowing predictions of space’s potential, were all selling, indirectly, their own technology. As long as anyone does anything in space – grow carrots on the asteroids or make jellybeans on Mars – it’s going to be good for the companies that make spaceships, just as it will be good for NASA.

Smaller entrepreneurs have picked up the scent. George Koopman, for one, was at the Airport Hilton. He is a young Los Angeles businessman who was quoted in Business Week last summer as saying, “There are going to be some billionaires coming out of this.” He is occupied at present, he said, with producing audio-visual programs and running a future-oriented radio program and speakers bureau. He’d like to make use of the space shuttle, but he can’t. “The only kind of payload I want to send up,” he said, “NASA won’t take.” (NASA is declining to carry Getaway Specials full of souvenir medallions and other commercial items.) “They want to pass on every nut and bolt that goes into space,” complained Koopman. “It’s stupid and fascistic.”

Koopman’s voice was part of a sizable anti-NASA chorus at the conference. Most of its members were libertarian free enterprisers who think the government should get out of the space business entirely before it balls it up like it did the post office. A representative member of this group was one Gary Hudson, a casually dressed young man who looked like a college student and was identified by his business card as the Chancellor of the Foundation Institute in St. Paul, Minnesota. Hudson considers himself a competitor to NASA. He claims to have already spent more than $100,000 developing his own rocket. By avoiding government red tape and overcautiousness, he said, he expects to be able to develop a launch system for a fraction of the cost of the space shuttle. And then he will bid against NASA for the business of launching communication satellites and other space-business payloads.

Hudson and others like him-there are others like him – have recently taken heart from the progress of OTRAG, a privately owned West German company that has spent $30 million developing a low-cost shuttle competitor.

But Hudson complained that profits may be hard to come by. “I can’t make any money charging fifty dollars a pound [the Getaway Special rate],” he said. “The subsidized shuttle is wiping us out.” He shook his head. “It’s a tough head. “It’s a tough field for a small businessman.

But the stars of the conference were not salesmen. They came instead from the ranks of the visionary/enthusiasts who, with the entrepreneurs and the technocrats, complete the odd trinity of the space-industrialization movement. “The bedfellows are getting stranger, and that’s a good thing,” said Stewart Brand one afternoon as he looked around the conference hall. I thought that Brand was a pretty strange bedfellow himself. The creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, he is now a consultant to California Governor Jerry Brown and publisher of a magazine called CoEvolution Quarterly, a special space issue of which was on sale throughout the conference. I asked Brand if his space boosterism didn’t contradict the homier, hippier concerns of his younger days. “There’s a difference.” he replied coolly, “between a contradiction and a paradox. A contradiction stops things. A paradox makes them grow.”

Among those snapping up Brand’s special space issue were members of the L-5 Society, a rapidly growing organization of people who are interested in space because they want to live there, because they think it would be fun. “It’s neat, damnit!” one L-5 member who is a NASA consultant told me. “And I’m looking for a way to pay my way.” An economic justification for space travel – any economic justification for space travel – did in fact seem to motivate some of the dollars-in-space schemes being hawked about the conference. (Even L-5ers are not totally oblivious to profit. The society’s co-founder, Keith Henson, an electrical engineer from Tucson, has patented a process for constructing large structures in space. “It’s raining gold,” he said of the potential for business in space, “and we’re trying to figure out how to get a bucket.”)

Stewart Brand is not the only veteran of other movements and other decades to have signed up for space. Timothy Leary, who is now as enthusiastic about space as he once was about LSD, attracted a full house to one conference meeting room to hear him address the subject of “The Psychological Effects of High-Orbital Migration.” Relaxed and healthy looking in a gray suit and open pink shirt, Leary was introduced as an “ethologist” and “the unofficial advertising arm of North American Rockwell.” He warmed to the applause and began, “It is always my pleasure to be at a place like this surrounded by people who share my visions of high altitudes and fast movement and precise linkups.” A few of the corporate scientists at the back of the room, not exactly sure they shared Leary’s visions, exchanged odd grins.

Leary proceeded to pay tribute to space pioneers Daedalus, Icarus, Leonardo da Vinci, “Wernher von Braun and his brilliant crew from Peenemunde,” Goddard, Homer, Gilgamesh, George Lucas and Pink Floyd, among others, and to lash out at “members of the so-called turned-on generation of the Sixties” who want to limit technology. “When Ralph Nader tells me that he wants my car to be slow, cheap, ugly and slow, he’s imposing a way of life on me that I’m going to resist to the bitter end.” Applause.

“I’m talking now to the hardware people,” Leary resumed, “and the aerospace tycoons in this audience, and I’m saying. ‘You guys are the evolutionary visionaries. . . . We’re reviewing in these rooms right now the most exciting ideas since sex.”‘ (In fact, the prospect of zero-gravity sex was a common topic of conversation among L-5 members in the hallways.)

The only problem with the space movement, Leary said, is that it hasn’t been properly sold to the public. But, he assured his audience, he was working on that. “I’ve been very busy in Hollywood. In the last six months I have – dare I use the word? – ‘turned on’ three Academy Award-winning scriptwriters to the inevitability, to the romance, to the challenge and to the excitement of space migration. So be of good cheer.”

Midway to his conclusion (“Why are we going to space? . . . It’s the best place to be free”), Leary paused to praise “the greatest American since Christopher Columbus.” He was referring, as most people in his audience immediately knew, to Gerard O’Neill.

Gerard O’Neill is a professor of physics at Princeton. In 1974, he published an article in Physics Today in which he proposed the construction of huge human colonies in space, hollow man-made planetoids that would float in orbit between the Earth and the moon. O’Neill is now 51 years old, although he looks younger, and he wears his dark hair in bangs. His bangs are cut by his wife Tasha, 30. I know that because I read it in People magazine.

En route from Physics Today to People, O’Neill has become one of America’s new breed of scientist/celebrity, as well as the undisputed hero of the grass-roots space-industrialization movement. He was drawn to study space colonies, O’Neill wrote in his book The High Fromtier, because “the steady-state society, ridden with rules and laws, proposed by the early workers on the limits of growth was, to me, abhorrent.” So he set out to see if there was any way “in which all of humanity can share in the benefits that have come from the rapid expansion of human knowledge, and yet prevent the material aspects of that expansion from fouling the worldwide nest in which we live.” There is a way, he concluded, and it is up.

Speaking at the AAS conference before the meeting’s largest audience, O’Neill recapitulated his latest space scenario, which he characterized as “a minimum-investment approach to space manufacturing.” First, he said, the shuttle should be used to construct a workshop in low Earth orbit, which could be serviced by a small resident crew living in discarded shuttle fuel tanks. Construction materials would then be transported from Earth orbit to the moon and mining operations would begin there. Lunar ore would be flung out into space by a “mass driver,” a sort of electromagnetic slingshot designed by O’Neill and recently constructed on a small scale at MIT. The material would be caught high above the Earth and used to construct full-fledged space colonies, which would become financially self-sufficient, O’Neill said, probably through the construction of solar power satellites that would beam electricity back to earth.

O’Neill’s presentation was amply illustrated, as his talks and papers usually are, by elaborate drawings of his projected space habitats. These are no tinny Levittowns in the sky. The colony O’Neill calls Island One, which he says could be built by the mid-1990s, would house 10,000 people in a long structure resembling a giant spark plug. It would consist of factory and agricultural areas and a residential section located in a central rotating sphere one mile in circumference. Each family would share a private apartment “as large as a spacious house . . . with a private sunlit garden.” They and their neighbors would share the use of “parks, shops, small groves of trees, streams” and a “wandering, shallow river” with deep pools for swimming and beaches of lunar mud. They would also, O’Neill notes, have “superb” TV reception because of the central location of their community antenna.

Beyond Island One, O’Neill foresees Island Three, a 23-long cylinder with a four-mile diameter that could house up to 10 million people in interior valleys separated by mountains 10,000 feet high.

“The normal first reaction to such a statement is disbelief,” O’Neill has written. “Isn’t such a development beyond us? Not at all: the settlement of space by humans could be carried out without ever exceeding the limits of the technology of this decade.” (Any problems that arise, he asserts, can be solved in the years remaining before we blast off. As for the potential of developing adequate solar power on Earth – which would make his solar power satellite unnecessary – O’Neill conveniently sees less hope: “It seems to me worthy of research, but so far I have not found it promising.”)

This is the only real hurdle,” he told his audience at the AAS conference, pointing to a graph that noted a required initial investment of $30 to $60 billion before a space colony could begin to show a profit. “This is kind of a dam,” O’Neill said, “that water has to make its way over, and it’s a heavily political problem.”

(In 1976, O’Neill told a Senate committee that the investment required for the space colony/power satellite concept would be in “the range of $40 to $200 billion.” “That’s a pretty good range,” noted Senator Wendell Ford of Kentucky. “Physicists like to give themselves lots of room,” replied O’Neill.)

The political chances of getting that money did not look good, O’Neill admitted to the AAS. He described a recent disappointing meeting with Energy Secretary James Schlesinger: “Schlesinger apparently already had his mind made up that this was a bunch of nonsense. We have a very big uphill fight for any kind of power other than nuclear.”

But, he resolved, “we’re not giving up by any means.”

O’Neill has in fact already selected where he’d like to live on Island Three – “a house in a small village,” he wrote in The High Frontier, “where life could be relaxed and children could be raised with room to play; and just five or 10 miles away, a small city, with a population somewhat smaller than San Francisco’s, to which one could go for theaters, museums and concerts.”

Meanwhile, back on Earth, NASA and business are getting together on more modest projects. O’Neill is going to have to content himself with listening to his concerts in Princeton for a good long while yet (although NASA has been sufficiently impressed with him to fund several detailed studies of his proposals), but industry has already begun to step out into space.

The biggest space business under way today is satellite communication. RCA, Western Union and Comsat General (with ATT and GTE for partners), each own their own satellite systems (launched by NASA for a fee), and their customers include such companies as Home Box Office, which uses satellites to beam programs to pay-TV customers.

Space manufacturing hasn’t paid off yet, but it has been under study since the latter stages of the Apollo program. Astronauts on the Skylab space station in 1973 turned their attention away from pure science long enough to spend some time trying to make ball bearings. No ball bearing made on Earth is perfect, because gravity distorts the molten metal before it hardens. In the zero-gravity environment of space, a perfect ball bearing is theoretically possible. The astronauts failed, for technical reasons, to make one, but they did succeed in producing alloys that could not be blended on earth and large crystals, undeformed by gravity, that could be used to build superminiature computers.

During the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission, one experiment designed by Abbott Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company, successfully separated urokinase, a valuable enzyme used in treating blood clots, from other kidney cells. The separation process, electrophoresis, is hindered by gravity on Earth. McDonnell-Douglas has now produced a prototype space electrophoresis device and has approached several drug companies with it. “We’ve struck up a working relationship with two or three of them,” reports a McDonnell-Douglas researcher. And General Electric has looked at a wide range of potential space products in an ongoing space research program. “I’m a believer,” says Dr. Charles Cheeseman, the company’s manager of shuttle payloads. “I think we’re looking at billions of dollars in sales by the year 2000, most of which will come from products that people who are thinking about it now aren’t clever enough to have identified yet.”

The advent of the space shuttle will speed up their thinking. By the early 1980s, there will be four shuttle orbiters, which are projected to fly to space and back 560 times by the end of 1992. Because they are reusable, they’ll make the trip a relatively inexpensive proposition. Satellites will no longer be launched on one-shot rockets; they’ll be carried to orbit in the shuttle cargo bay, the door will open, and they’ll be tossed out.

As for space manufacturing, NASA is now at the beginning of a four-year, $34 million program in which they will buy prototype “space processing” equipment and fly it on the Spacelab, a manned research module that will be carried inside the shuttle cargo bay on some flights. One experiment will involve the actual production of tiny plastic spheres that are used in electron microscopy and the diagnosis of glaucoma. Back on earth, NASA will test market the spheres to see if there is demand for such space products. Dow Chemical and Polysciences Inc. have already expressed interest in distributing the first batch.

“We work as closely as can be with industry,” said Dr. John Carruthers, director of NASA’s materials processing program. “My job is making them see that space offers things of interest to them and then helping them take part.” One key to holding industry’s interest is allowing companies to own the patent rights to any space processes they develop. In the past, inventions made on government-funded programs became public property, but now NASA is adapting its rules so that business can maintain ownership of products developed on shuttle flights, as long as the business pays for its share of the flight. A company can, if it wants, purchase an entire shuttle flight for $21 million in 1975 dollars. (The price includes the services of a three-person flight crew and the placement of an object in orbit; retrieval is extra.) Or it can buy a fraction of a flight (and get a 20 percent discount if it is willing to go standby).

So far, there have been no takers for an entire flight, but, Carruthers reports, “We have had a first industrial inquiry for a facility on Spacelab. It’s in the millions of dollars class.” The company wants NASA to subsidize part of the operation’s cost, to be reimbursed later if the product makes a profit, Carruthers said. “We’re pursuing this quite seriously.”

To entice companies not yet prepared to think that big, the Getaway Special was introduced, after someone at NASA noticed that there will be lots of nooks and crannies in the cargo bay left unfilled by some of the odd-shaped satellites the shuttle will carry. “The Getaway Special is a self-marketing technique,” explained one NASA official. “We can take it to industry and say, ‘It’s so cheap to get on board – you can buy it now for $500 down and figure out what to do with it later.’ “

And NASA will even help industry figure out what to do with it. To that end, it has gone out and hired the man who invented the chocolate chip cookie.

The man who hired the man who invented the chocolate chip cookie is Mike Smith, NASA’s director of pricing, launch agreements and customer-service engineering for the shuttle program. It is a major part of his job to find customers for the cargo space on those 560 flights. But he seems not to worry. When I found him in his Washington office, he was relaxing with his feet on his desk.

“I’ve got one chance,” he said. “I lucked out and got this job.” (He is on leave of absence from McDonnell-Douglas.) “I have a chance to say, ‘What is it that will alleviate human suffering? What is it that will create more jobs? What is it that will bring men together?’ . . . We’re coming up with some answers. We’re getting men of means together with men of science and making it happen.” He put down his feet and leaned forward. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! It’s a one-of-a-kinder!”

Smith had just returned from a briefing for people who have made down payments on Getaway Specials. He had, he said, reserved a Special himself. “I’m going after patents in solar-energy cells.” He thinks they might have applications in orbiting power stations. “I could see where if you could make the right kind of nuclear reactor exo-atmospheric, you could get a solar power station and nuclear power station working together. . . . The question is, what can we do about this energy problem? The possibility of orbiting nuclear power plants is a good one. Of course you run into problems. People ask, ‘Is it a floating bomb?’ And all that nonsense.” (This was a couple of months before the radioactive Russian spy satellite crashed in Canada, and all that nonsense.)

But Smith is interested in promoting less exotic space ideas as well, and so, he said happily, “We’re bringing Professor George Abrams on board. He literally discovered the chocolate chip cookie. He’s done Dristan. He named Nytol. He knows how to implement ideas and get a product on the market.” Abrams offered to work, Smith said, on a one dollar contract “in the interest of patriotism,” but he ended up with a $7,000 contract instead. “We want George to look for potential consumer products that we can sell in America. From there we go to corporate presidents and say, ‘We have a product that is salable and has a street value of $2,000 to $5,000 a pound.’ “

$5,000 a pound?

Smith explained. It will cost at least $21 million to buy a shuttle flight, and the maximum cargo weight (of the shuttle) on landing is 32,000 pounds. Even if every bit of that weight consisted of marketable products that were made in space, you’ve still got transportation costs of $656 a pound, which puts a heavy load on a new product’s overhead.

“Cookies are out,” Smith concluded. “Deodorants are probably out. Medicines and lubricants are about the only ones. For example, you can’t make buffered aspirin with time-release capsules on Earth. Can you make time-release capsules of buffered aspirin in orbit? That’s a serious question.”

George Abrams died recently, but until his death he was exploring these questions and others. In a telephone interview early this year, I asked him about his background and the chocolate chip cookie. “I didn’t invent the chocolate-chip cookie,” he said. “I named it for National Biscuit in 1940 and suggested they bring it out. They gave me a $5-a-week raise and now it’s a $200 million business.”

And Nytol?

“I created it totally. I came up with the formula – it was originally a liquid baby sedative – and I did the advertising. I also did Poli-Grip.”

His work for NASA, he said, was going well. “I’ve signed up some new customers for Getaway Specials.” (One of them is an ad agency representing a group of Ford dealers who may use the Special in a contest for schoolchildren. “We’d have them design experiments,” adman Robert Hartje explained. “It would be like Punt, Pass and Kick for kids who wear glasses . . . . Just to be associated with it [the shuttle] is the public-relations payback to Ford. It’s a good taste thing to be involved with.”)

“As a new-product developer,” Abrams continued, “I presented my first two ideas at a meeting in Washington last fall. Aerospace engineers from Rockwell, GE, Ford, McDonnell-Douglas, RCA, Western Union, TRW and other companies were there. My first suggestion was a new type of razor blade, made of antimony and lead, which have already been mixed in space but can’t be mixed on Earth. The second was a new, long-lasting filament for a light bulb. I call it the ‘Space Bulb.’ “

And how was the reaction?

“Very good. Excellent. At least four of them came up afterward and asked for more information. The man from GE was particularly interested in the Space Bulb.”

If the Space Bulb ever hits the market, there will be joy in Downey, California, a smog-bound Los Angeles suburb that is the home of the space division of Rockwell International. Rockwell is the prime contractor for the space-shuttle system. The more space products, the more space shuttles; the more space shuttles, the more smiles at Rockwell. At a Rockwell exhibit next to a moon-rock display at the AAS conference, I picked up a copy of an ad the company has been running in aerospace journals. “If you have business in space,” the copy reads. “you should be doing business with Rockwell.” And then the words, neatly centered in an empty shuttle cargo bay: “Rockwell can fit you in.”

A few days later, I arrived at Rockwell’s Downey plant, clipped on a security badge and was greeted by a public-relations man who handed me a booklet called “Industries in Space to Benefit Mankind.” Flipping past familiar descriptions of solar-power satellites, urokinase production and orbiting nuclear power plants, I paused to take in a sketch of a woman being pursued by a knife-wielding hooligan. She was calling for help on her satellite-linked wrist radio. I was still absorbed in another sketch – this one of a cop making an arrest with the aid of sunlight reflected by a “lunetta,” an artificial moon placed in earth orbit by the shuttle – when I was ushered in to see a pair of Rockwell executives.

“We’re intrigued to have a chance to reach the ROLLING STONE audience,” said William Dean, a company vice-president, as we all shook hands. “We generally sit around here and preach to the choir. I think we ought to aim more advertising at the 18-to-26 marker. They aren’t influencing Congress now on appropriations, but they will be very soon.”

He sat back on a couch and, picking his words carefully, began to speak of the subject at hand. “The shuttle is really intended to allow the country to exploit space, if you will. We’ve gone through the exploration phase, and now it’s time to exploit space, to improve our day-to-day life on Earth. . . . We’ve been interfacing with pharmaceutical companies that are interested in understanding space and what that environment might enable them to do, and various medical research outfits, and people who manufacture optical glass, and people in the metals business. . . .”

I asked how the ad campaign was going.

“We’ve had something on the order of 150 responses, varying from a fellow who’s in the sixth grade and his school is having a science day, to the U.S.S.R., India and other governments.”

What did the U.S.S.R. want? I thought they had their own space program.

“The U.S.S.R. never indicates why they want anything,” replied Hal Emigh, the second executive. “They just wrote for all the information they could have.”

“In some people’s minds,” Dean resumed, “space industrialization means building large structures in space in 1990. That’s not what we’re talking about. Yesterday we had some medical people in who were very interested in doing experiments on the inner ear. They think a better understanding may help cure some kinds of deafness.”

Besides, he said, “We don’t have the pharmaceutical firms, the glass and metal firms, in yet. The door’s not open all the way yet. . . . But just as soon as the old truck starts rolling, people are going to come from places we haven’t thought of.”

“The guy who first built a steamboat,” says Emigh, “people said, ‘Why did that nut do that?’ Soon they didn’t have enough steamboats.” He concluded on a note of confidence: “When the American capitalist sees a way to make some money, he’ll use it.”

Emigh’s steamboat story was part of a familiar theme: the space industrialist as bold innovator, the space capitalist as the new frontiersman. Space is, as we were told on Star Trek, the “final frontier.” O’Neill’s book on space colonies is called The High Frontier. And the pamphlet I got from the Rockwell PR man concluded, “The pioneering spirit . . . underlies our country’s greatness. We must continue in that spirit, looking not toward the West but toward the sky.”

One of the basic arguments of the space-industrialization movement is that there is no open West anymore, and that certain problems follow. “As long as there is a safety valve of unexplored frontiers,” said California Governor Jerry Brown, who has recently embraced the space rush, “then the creative, the aggressive, the exploitative urges of human beings can be channeled into long-term possibilities and benefits. But if those frontiers close down and people begin to turn in upon themselves, that jeopardizes the democratic fabric.”

Brown’s theme derives from a famous academic essay, Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 paper on “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” The frontier, Turner said, was “the distinguishing feature of American life.” He noted that the 1890 census report had recently concluded that the Western frontier had been settled, that there was no more frontier. But, said Turner, “He would be a rash prophet who should assert that the expansive character of American life has now entirely ceased.”

American life requires expansion, not just to safeguard “the democratic fabric,” but also to safeguard our economic growth. It is, of course, a fundamental observation of all radical critiques of capitalism that “overripe” capitalist countries need to export their capital to find profitable investments. In the absence of an interior frontier, they require an exterior frontier. Later, in 1903, Turner, who was no radical, observed that the closing of the Western frontier had in fact coincided with a rapid expansion of American economic and political claims to Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Hawaii, Cuba, Panama and China. “Having completed the conquest of the wilderness,” he wrote,”we are beginning to consider the relations of democracy and empire.”

Space’s potential in this regard has not gone unnoticed by the new space boosters. O’Neill has written, in urging the adoption of his space colony plan, “Should we not seek a role for this country that can be of benefit to humanity as a whole, and at the same time can benefit directly our own people and our own economy?” An official of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce didn’t bother with the part about “humanity as a whole.” “Imagine that the year is 1492,” he wrote, “and only one country in Europe has an oceangoing ship capable of making round trips to the New World. Consider what such a monopoly would have meant to that country. Now consider this: the year is 1977, and only one country has a . . . Space Shuttle.”

The American empire has already begun its expansion into outer space. It is unlikely to proceed as rapidly as the space boosters hope, but it is proceeding nonetheless. And, as ever the explorers and the traders are venturing out together.

Stuttgart.  The ultimate in space entrepreneurship, of course, is to dispense with governments altogether by building your own rockets, launching them from your own space center and carrying payloads on a strictly commercial basis. That’s exactly what a West German company called Orbital Transport-und Raketen-Aktiengesellschaft (Otrag) is doing. (Or says it’s doing. Darker theories exist. See below.)

For the sake of convenience, and the United Nations space treaty which bars freelance space travel, Otrag rockets fly under the flag of Zaire, where the company has leased a 39,000-square-mile test range (half the size of West Germany) over which it exercises virtually sovereign powers. But Zaire’s sponsorship is only a formality. Otrag does without all the paraphernalia of government bureaucracy, planning and priorities that other space organizations – NASA, for example – are subjected to. Otrag is not in space to expand human knowledge or to beat Angolan astronauts to the moon. It is there to make a profit.

“In 1971,” explains Otrag executive Frank Wukasch, “the German government gave contracts to several companies, including Otrag’s predecessor, to investigate low-cost rockets. All the others said, ‘We can reduce here a little bit, change there a little bit, and make a rocket for 5 to 10 percent less than the usual price.’ We said we could make a rocket for 80 percent less than the usual price. The government said, ‘OK, thank you.’ And that was the end. Everybody was laughing at us.”

Wukasch, who is 32 and the assistant to Otrag president Lutz Kayser, enjoys telling this story. A few minutes later, he sets up a projector in the conference room of the Otrag technical office here in Vaihingen, a Stuttgart suburb, and shows me a movie of a long shiny rocket blasting off from an African plateau. It is Otrag’s first test launch, May 17th, 1977. “This proved that our theories were right!” Wukasch exults as the rocket flies up. He puts on another film. This one shows the second successful Otrag launch on May 20th of this year. Then it shows Zaire president Mobutu Sese Seko arriving at the test site, flanked by guards waving machine guns, to watch the third test on June 5th.

The rebel invasion of Kolwezi, 350 miles from the Otrag site, was still simmering, but Mobutu found time to watch the rocket fly. Only it didn’t fly for long. It lifted off, went into a planned arc, failed to come out of it, and crashed into the Luvua River valley a few kilometers away. “It wasn’t so disappointing,” Wukasch insists as we watch the rocket veer off the screen. “It proves we can steer the vehicle and it proves the vehicle flies in all possible attitudes; even nose down.” He seems genuinely unfazed. “We had the proof that it could be done and done at low cost, and we did it.”

The low cost is crucial to Otrag’s business strategy. The company decided early on that the only way to compete with NASA’s space shuttle and the European Space Agency’s still unproven Ariane rocket for commercial launch business was to have significantly lower costs and thus lower prices. Wukasch likes to tell another story. “NASA wanted to develop a space pen for the astronauts. They wanted a pen that would write upside down, that would write on the moon, that would write in a vacuum. They spent more than half a million dollars to develop a pen that would do those things. And they could have used a normal pencil.” Otrag’s philosophy, he explains, is to use mass-produced, commercially available components whenever possible. Otrag’s rocket fuel tanks are made of standard stainless-steel pipe (although they are specially hardened); the fuel is ordinary diesel fuel (with nitric acid for an oxidizer).

“And here,” said Wukasch, showing me around a display of the rocket components, “is the famous windshield-wiper motor.” He points to a near black cylinder trailing wires and metal attachments. “We buy them from the Bosch company here for one hundred marks. They’re used in every car and truck.” Otrag uses them to open the valves that feed fuel to the engines of its rockets.

As a result of these makeshift elements, Otrag’s rockets are far from elegant in appearance. They look, in fact, like a bundle of pencils with a nose cone. Each pencil is a fuel tank. When Otrag wants a small rocket, it bundles together four fuel tanks linked to four engines. When it wants a big rocket (as yet untested), it will bundle together as many as 600 fuel tanks and engines in a square configuration. The first and second stages won’t drop off the end; they’ll shed the outside like layers of an onion.

Kayser acknowledges that NASA’s manned space shuttle, by contrast, is a model of sophistication. But using it to launch satellites, he says, is like “transporting bags of cement in a Rolls Royce. To carry cement you ought to use a truck, and that’s what we are building – a space truck.” Other commentators have described it as a Volksrocket.

Wukasch says Otrag expects to launch its first commercial package in 1980 and expects most of its business to consist of communications, Earth reconnaissance and television satellites launched on behalf of Third World countries and multinational corporations. Not only will its prices undercut NASA’s, Wukasch says, but “NASA will not carry satellites that are against U.S. foreign policy. Otrag will launch for countries all over the world – following certain limitations. We would not carry something for South Africa. That would be bad management. We would lose 20 customers to get that one.” As for reports that Otrag may launch spy satellites for the People’s Republic of China, Wukasch says, “I don’t want to confirm it. There is interest.”

In any case, he says, Otrag has no ideological objections to such a job. So far, he says, Otrag has sold two launches and optioned four others for 1980-81 to unnamed customers. And the company will be launching, free of charge, a satellite for Zaire. NASA’s attitude toward all of this has been markedly waspish. “NASA has no interest in the Otrag launcher,” was the official statement in May. It did go on to point out, however, that “the viability of the system is not accepted by all engineers.” Having gotten in its dig, the statement resumed its original lofty tone: “Space-shuttle-launch costs are determined objectively, reflecting costs, and are not competitively manipulated.” Sounds like the only department store in town when somebody opens a discount boutique.

And NASA does have business to protect. Of 25 satellite launches planned for 1978, 15 are for paying customers. Many of these are other U.S. government agencies that would be unlikely to take their trade elsewhere, but customers like Japan and Indonesia might be open to window-shopping. Not all of them are satisfied anyway. Last year the European Space Agency paid NASA $47 million for a launch. The launch failed, but the $47 million was nonrefundable. (NASA’s attitude toward Otrag may also be affected by the fact that Kirt Debus, retired head of the Kennedy Space Center, is chairman of Otrag’s board of directors. Before coming to NASA, Debus launched V-2 rockets against London for Hilter.)

Otrag sounds like a classic example of free enterprise boldly stepping where no capitalist has stepped before, and it has been applauded as such by the kind of free-space boosters who turned up at the AAS conference. Otrag “has challenged both the Soviets’ implacable opposition to private enterprise in space, as well as the entrenched government monopolies like NASA and ESA,” says Gary Hudson of the Foundation Institute. “The true capitalist is a threat to both totalitarian regimes and government agencies.”

It has been charged, however, that the threat posed by Otrag is more lethal than ideological. In a recent issue of Penthouse, former New York Times reporter Tad Szulc reported that Otrag, with the aid of the CIA and the West German secret service, is secretly testing the cruise missile and medium-range ballistic missiles for the West German government, which is barred by post-World War II treaties from certain rocket research.

“Unable to help Bonn develop advanced missilery on German territory for political and legal reasons,” Szulc wrote, “the United States has been doing so clandestinely through Africa since the closing days of the Nixon administration.” Similar charges had earlier appeared in the leftist French magazine Afrique-Asie, and Russia has repeatedly denounced Otrag as “the German spear in the heart of Africa.” Protests have also been issued by East Germany and the Marxist government of Angola, which has hostile relations with the pro-Western regime in Zaire. And, in July, the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported that the West German aerospace company Dornier is working on a cruise missile and that one of its subsidiaries is headed by Manfred Kayser, brother of Otrag president Lutz Kayser.

Both West Germany and Otrag have denied all charges of covert military activity in Zaire (although West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt said on a recent visit to Zambia that he found the Otrag situation “embarrassing”). Otrag insists that it is supported not by government funds but by $60 million raised from 1,100 investors, many of whom are seeking a tax shelter. And the Zaire launch site was chosen, Otrag says, because the spin of the earth at the equator gives rockets a free extra “boost” and Zaire was the first equatorial country to respond positively to Otrag inquiries.

Otrag does not deny reports of the extraordinary terms of its contract with Zaire. Over its huge test range, which amounts to one-tenth the territory of Zaire. Otrag has been given “the right to take all measures that it deems necessary for the exercise of full and complete power.” It can evacuate resident Africans at will, and its European staff is immune from Zaire taxation and all legal proceedings. Otrag says such terms are necessary to insure an efficient operation and protect natives from having rockets fall on their heads. In any case, says Wukasch, “It’s ridiculous to think that we’re evacuating an area of 100,000 square kilometers. We only evacuate the launch area and a small impact area when we have tests. We put the Africans on a truck and make a big festival five kilometers away.”

All the controversy, however, has contributed to an Otrag decision to begin work soon on a second test site in another country. “The decision has been made,” Wukasch says, “in the interest of our investors.” And he insists the company’s activities will remain strictly peaceful. “We will not carry bombs or warheads or anything like that. First, we don’t have the technology. And second” – here he delivers his clinching argument – “the market is not interesting.”

In This Article: Coverwall, NASA


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