Recently I read a post on Chris Messina’s blog about the Yuri’s Night event at NASA Ames Research Center. It sounds like it was an interesting event ("Burning Man Meets NASA,” as Daniel Terdiman of CNET referred to it), and this is one of those times I regret not being a twenty-something living in Silicon Valley. (I could have watched the webcast, but got distracted by other stuff.) Although I can’t comment on the event itself (I’ll leave that to others), I can provide a little historical perspective.

As I understand it, one of the reasons that NASA cooperated in putting on an event like this is that it has a strategic interest in getting younger people interested in space exploration, both as a way to revitalize an aging work force and more generally because it’s that generation that’s going to be asked to fund NASA’s programs over the next 20–30 years. For example, see the slide presentation and final report from a recent workshop on “Building and Maintaining the Constituency for Long Term Space Exploration,” as well as the Dittmar Associates white paper “Engaging the 18-25 Generation.” As noted in the workshop presentation, the goal is to make space exploration and NASA “cool, sexy, and hip.”

When space was cool

Believe it or not, there was another time many years ago when space exploration was indeed “cool, sexy, and hip,” when in the aftermath of the Apollo 11 moon landing a number of people mashed up Sixties culture and post-Apollo technological futurism to create a radical vision of space colonization as a driver for expanding human potential. From the cultural side came Timothy Leary with his SMI2 LE mantra (“Space Migration + Increased Intelligence + Life Extension”) along with such artifacts as Paul Kantner’s concept album “Blows Against the Empire,” in which hippies “hijack the starship” (as one song’s title puts it) and flee the solar system. From the scientific and engineering side came Gerard O’Neill promoting space colonies, solar power satellites, “mass drivers” to supply them with building materials from the moon and asteroids, and other speculative technologies, as well as others like Jesco von Puttkamer who tried to shape NASA’s long-term plans to reflect these visions.

This all came together in the form of the L5 Society, which was established in 1975 and quickly became a grassroots phenomenon among the then-technorati, with local chapters across the United States and around the world. As Ed Regis put it in his book Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition, “after a while it was as if you couldn’t meet a forward-looking thinker who wasn’t a card-carrying fan of the L5 Society.” (I myself joined the L5 Society in the early 1980s, and later became president of DC-L5, the local Washington DC area chapter.)

End of the party

The party lasted a few years and eventually fizzled out, done in by the realities of how difficult large-scale exploitation of space was going to be (a theme to which I’ll return below) and a drop in public interest in space exploration as NASA entered the shuttle era. In an odd marriage of opposites the wild-and-woolly grassroots-oriented L5 Society merged with Wernher von Braun’s relatively staid and DC-focused National Space Institute in 1987 to form the National Space Society, with the NSI influence dominating as NSS morphed into a more conventional space lobbying group allied with the major aerospace companies.

In the meantime the attention of the original L5 crowd turned to other things: Keith Henson (co-founder of the L5 Society, along with his wife Carolyn) went on to get involved in (among other things) cryonics and a legal dispute with the Church of Scientology, Eric Drexler (an associate of O’Neill’s) popularized nanotechnology, and many in the techno-libertarian contingent of the L5 Society moved on to the Extropian movement. (My own attention turned to the Internet and then later open source, where it’s remained ever since.)

Meanwhile back at the ranch

However a number of people kept the flame alive and continued working in the aerospace industry and/or with space advocacy organizations such as NSS, the Planetary Society, the Space Frontier Foundation, and others. To take but two examples, Peter Diamandis, who founded the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space in 1980 while a college student, later spearheaded the Ansari X Prize initiative that resulted in the Spaceship One flight. Assisting Diamandis in this effort was another long-time activist, Gregg Maryniak, who helped found the Chicago Society for Space Studies in the 1970s and later worked with O’Neill at the Space Studies Institute. There are many other stories like theirs.

Coming back to the present-day, Yuri’s Night was first conceived and organized several years ago by a number of young space activists. One of those activists, George Whitesides, later became executive director of NSS, and Yuri’s Night how has sponsorship from several corporations and organizations both within the aerospace industry and without. The phrase “Burning Man meets NASA” is thus appropriate: Yuri’s Night is a hybrid that has grown beyond its volunteer roots and DIY ethic but at the same time still leverages a worldwide network of grass roots activists that transcends organizational boundaries and corporate agendas. (In this respect Yuri’s Night bears more than a passing resemblance to many open source projects.)

Where to now?

Will events like Yuri’s Night really help spur this generation’s interest in space? Do having a NASA presence in Second Life and increased NASA engagement with open source developers really represent concrete steps towards a more innovative and transparent “NASA 2.0” (as Chris Messina terms it), or are these just gimmicks that won’t change the fundamentally bureaucratic nature of the organization? Do Virgin Galatic and other space-related entrepreneurial activities really represent the first steps in a revolution in space transportation, or are they more akin to yacht racing in the 19th century—a sideshow to occupy the attention of bored billionaires?

Overall I’m cautiously optimistic. My optimism has its genesis in an idea I first encountered in a 1980s-era report about public attitudes towards space: that space exploration in the 1960s was before its time, like a flower that blooms during a brief thaw in winter only to be frozen again before spring. If superpower rivalry hadn’t driven the “space race” (of which Yuri Gagarin’s flight was a signal event) then space exploration would have taken a slower and possibly less bumpy course. If I recall correctly the report predicted that it would take 25–50 years to revive serious public interest in space, which would mean we’re now back on a more natural schedule and can anticipate a steady growth in both public and private investments, innovations, and capabilities.

My cautiousness comes from our having been down this road before without success, as noted above, and from the immense difficulty of the task of opening space to a greater human presence. In the private sector it’s not clear whether attempts to make sub-orbital flight cheaper and easier will lead to breakthroughs in taking people into Earth orbit and beyond. In the public sector there may not be the political will to “let NASA be NASA” and concentrate on leading the world in space exploration and science, especially given all the other problems that will likely occupy the US government during the 21st century.

However in the end I’m still a bit optimistic. Unlike the 1970s advances in space exploration no longer depend totally on government initiatives; it’s a great thing to see entrepreneurs compete to do for space travel what Howard Hughes did for aviation, serving up a mix of independent engineering innovations and leading-edge commercial ventures, all topped off with a touch of glamor and adventure. Between their efforts and those of a continuing cadre of activists promoting space exploration within government and to the general public, I’m hopeful that as far as space is concerned the beginning of the 21st century won’t prove a rerun of the end of the 20th.