Toward Distant Suns: Chapter 9 – The Orbiting Bureaucracy

Toward Distant Suns

by T. A. Heppenheimer

Copyright 1979, 2007 by T. A. Heppenheimer, reproduced with permission
Table of Contents

Chapter 9: The Orbiting Bureaucracy

There is a popular game among the people who are familiar with space colonization. It is a game that is a lot of fun to play, for there are no rules. What’s more, any number can participate. The game is to design a structure for a space colony society. The goal is to decide how the space colonists should live.

This game is actually a kind of intellectual Rorschach test. That is, the topic is one on which there is little available information or knowledge, yet one which tends to bring out a lot of intense emotional reaction. Often the reactions tell us very little about the subject of space colonies, but they tell us quite a lot about the people who make the social proposals. The range of possibilities that have been suggested is really quite vast.

One proposal often heard is that space communities should be under a quasi-military rule. This idea can be made superficially plausible by appeal to the presumed dangers lurking about, the delicate balances which allegedly must be maintained, and the supposedly ever-present threat from the deviant, the social nonconformist. What’s more, there is the appeal of what purports to be a historical justification: Were not all the astronauts military men?

The answer is: No, they were not. True, many of them had military backgrounds, but none wore their uniforms into space. As astronauts, they were not under military discipline or subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. They were disciplined, true, but theirs was the self-discipline of highly motivated individuals. In any case, we cannot say that because the early space explorations relied upon close adherence to a code of regulations such regulations should be part and parcel of the human future in space. One may as well say because Captain James Cook enforced British naval discipline aboard the Endeavour, that therefore in the lands he discovered—Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii—only a military dictatorship will do.

On the leftward side of the political fence, some writers have let their imaginations run free in envisioning some form of Marxism or social utopianism. They have raised the argument: Space communities will offer opportunities for new social forms, so why not start right off with these forms?

Certainly it is true that in the long run space communities may offer important new concepts to the world at large—new political organizations, new social forms, new and more satisfying types of community organization. In just this fashion did America develop the concept of democracy as a new form of government in the world. But it will be quite important that such new forms arise out of the felt experiences and needs of the space-dwellers themselves. They should not be imported, for if new social forms have not taken root on Earth, why should we think they would do so in space?

Nevertheless, let us think about the opposite viewpoint. Suppose that through a good deal of intelligent foresight and planning, a new social form (nature specified) is introduced into a space colony and is accepted there. Would it then follow that humanity had made an advance, that mankind had by this experience learned something new and useful? It would not.

For one thing, the selection system would favor those people predisposed to the system. Opponents of the new social form would avoid emigrating or else would raise objections in their pre-selection interviews, so that they would tend not to be chosen. On the other hand, advocates of the new forms would be all the more attracted (and attractive) to the space communities. Therefore the problems of making the system work with a group that had some people opposed to it would be avoided.

In addition, there is the “Hawthorne effect.” It is a social effect that involves groups of people who are made to feel they have been selected for special attention. It takes its name from an attempt to improve the output of workers in a telephone factory in Hawthorne, Illinois, beginning in 1927.

In that factory the management was concerned with arranging the working conditions so that it would be easier for the people there to turn out a lot of telephones. The managers hoped to find how to change the lighting, the arrangement of the work stations, even to a degree the nature of the employees’ responsibilities. They expected that some of the changes would make things easier while some would make things harder for the people; but that’s not what they found. Regardless of what they did, the workers’ output went up.

It turned out that what mattered was not so much the levels of lighting or the other arrangements. What mattered was that the people felt they had been singled out by management to receive special attention. They were quite flattered, so they did better work. The stroking of their egos led to the increases in their output.

A space community would be a Hawthorne experiment par excellence. The space residents would from the start be well aware of their special roles. They would gladly put up with, even learn to enjoy, a wide range of situations that ordinarily they would avoid or come to dislike. So it is hard to see how a space community indeed would be a valid laboratory where new social forms could be tried.

There is one other type of social structure frequently proposed that actually takes in not only the social structure but also the overall organization of the project. Proposed is that the space community be international, that it be settled by a variety of people from different countries rather than being restricted to the U.S.

In thinking about this, it is important to understand the nature of the interest foreign nations would have in a space community and its products. There are several international treaties in force that would govern such a project as building power satellites. These treaties do not require that even the largest space projects be international. They simply require nations to refrain from laying claim to regions of space or of celestial bodies, after the fashion of the conquistadores. This restriction should not be a problem.

But if a space community is to build powersats for the world, then the world’s nations will want to see an international authority exercising control over the powersats. It would prevent arbitrary changes in the rates or political decisions favoring one nation over another. Such arrangements will not be hard to set up, and in fact will likely follow existing practice in satellite communications and international aviation.

The Intelsat consortium operates the world’s satellite communications system. It was first set up in 1964; by 1975 it had grown to eighty-nine member nations. Every thirty days it sends out its bills to each of these nations. It controls rates, standards of service, access to channels on the satellites. Significantly, the U.S. does not manage or control Intelsat, but furnishes technical advice under contract.

On the other hand, Intelsat does not build the communications satellites. Instead, it contracts with space companies like Hughes or Lockheed for them. The satellites themselves then are built by Americans, but are paid for by Intelsat. They are launched using NASA’s rockets, but Intelsat then reimburses NASA for the launch costs.

In aviation it is quite similar. Outside the Soviet bloc, most commercial airliners are built by Boeing, Lockheed, or McDonnell Douglas, which are American firms. Yet nobody demands that the work forces there be international or that these companies be internationally owned. But international aviation, per se, is under the control of IATA, the International Air Transport Association. As the rate-making body, it determines the fares and the conditions for international airline service, and this body is international.

So it is hardly necessary that space communities be under United Nations control, or that their populations be drawn from many different countries. Nor is it necessary that the crews of the lunar base resemble those of a Liberian-registry freighter. It is quite reasonable to think of a power satellite project as a purely U.S. effort, with some sort of international jurisdiction over the export market for the powersats and their energy.

In any case, there would be need for central management and responsibility in so difficult a project, or else there would be an endless round of buck-passing. Centralization of this kind is much easier if only one nation takes on the whole project. There have been several large international technical undertakings, but many of them have come to grief. A good case in point is Europa, a multi-nation rocket program. Europa was designed in the late 1960s using technology mostly from the fifties. Britain was to build the first stage, France the second, Germany the third. These nations so disagreed with each other that the rocket never got built.

So a space community will not be a place for avant-garde or experimental approaches; instead, it will likely be set up along familiar lines accepted by all. In its technical development, it will rest on well-proven rockets and established techniques in metallurgy. Similarly, its society may well be founded upon such well-known ideas as the nuclear family, the privately owned home, and the use of money as a medium of exchange. There is much to argue that it will be a
bastion of American middle-class values, excepting such changes as grow out of the colonists’
own experiences. This conclusion might not be romantic; but in this prosaic world, few things really are.

Can we speculate even further? Can we point to some Earthside community that is enough like a space colony to give us some idea of what may come? To answer this, we need only recall that early in this century, the U.S. embarked on a venture that in many ways will bear comparison to a powersat program. Here too there was need for the most advanced techniques, the best organization for the energies and vigorous determination of the whole nation. Here too our skills were transported to a remote and hostile land, pitted against severe difficulties of nature, focused within a tiny geographical area. The project was the Panama Canal, and the society that grew out of it was the Canal Zone.

The legend of Panama has long been part of our national lore: For centuries men had dreamed of a passage between the oceans. The French had tried, but were defeated by the immensity of the task and by the diseases of the jungle. Then the Americans came in. They cleaned out the yellow fever and malaria, brought in better machines, and proceeded to make the dirt fly. Where the French had failed, the Yankees succeeded.

And when the great effort had reached its successful completion, when the tide of activity and resolution had receded, there was the canal—and the Canal Zone. After the canal opened in 1914, there was little scope for ingenuity, few positions calling for exceptional talent and genius. The Canal Zone soon settled into a routine, almost somnolent existence marked by an awed reverence for the great accomplishments of the past together with an ongoing present embodying all the inspirational qualities of a center for government bureaucracy.

The Canal Zone was not long in acquiring all the amenities that advocates of space colonization would wish for their orbiting communities: spacious private dwellings, neatly laid-out towns and villages, schools, churches, TV and radio, restaurants, and shopping. As a counterpart to the Personnel Orbit Transfer Vehicles, there was a steamship line to the States; and like a space colony, the Canal Zone came to rely on this government-owned transportation for most of the amenities of life. Though milk and beer were produced and bottled locally and native fruits were eaten, much of the food and virtually all the clothing and household goods were imported. There were beaches, golf courses, even a community college—amenities that any space colonist might envy. The Canal Zone was not long in achieving the goal of the last chapter, a stable work force. Indeed, many Zonians came to live their entire lives there, and their children and their childrens’ children as well.

For all that, since its inception the Canal Zone has been run as a company town. Few Pennsylvania coal barons could exert greater control over the lives of their employees. While this control has rarely been exercised capriciously, neither has it been particularly subtle or discreet. As Canal Zone Governor John Seybold said in 1956, “If you don’t like it here, there’s a boat leaving every Tuesday.”

Salaries are high; that is one of the principal attractions. Canal employees receive 15 percent more than they would be paid in equivalent jobs within the federal government. At the same time, rents are low: $169 for a three-bedroom house. But no canal employee may buy land or own his own home. If fired, he and his family will have to move out and leave the Zone entirely within thirty days. Even while living in his home, he will find restrictions many people would regard as unacceptable. If he wishes to paint the walls in a color of his choosing, he will
need government permission. If he invites friends to stay as house guests, he will need permission to have them stay overnight.

Every company town must have a company store, and the Canal Zone is no exception. Government commissaries sell food, clothing, shoes, furniture, and appliances at U.S. prices. The right to shop there is a privilege reserved for canal employees and their families and is jealously guarded. But these stores have a monopoly in the Zone, and it is government bureaucrats who pick the brands and the fashions. If the result is not nearly as dreary as a Moscow department store, neither is a commissary quite like a suburban shopping mall. The dissatisfied customer can shop in Panama proper, but the selections are usually even less varied and the prices much higher.

The company-town analogy is apt, for by law no Canal Zone resident can go into business for himself. Even the doctors and attorneys are civil service employees, and only the U.S. government can offer employment. This monopoly aids greatly in maintaining political control. Freedom of the press is not prohibited; the Zonians, after all, are U.S. citizens with constitutional rights. But free enterprise is, so there is the same result. The only sources of information are the government-run newspapers and other media. To be sure, there is a form of free press there, and it is legal: a local newsletter. The only problem is its blatant unprofessionalism, because none of the people involved with it are professional journalists. There simply aren’t that many around and those that are, are hired by the government for its own publications. Is there freedom of the press? Technically, yes. Access to local, independent, professionally reported news? No.

In a political sense, the Canal Zone is unique because thousands of U.S. citizens live there without the ability to exercise their constitutional rights. This is not to say that they live under martial law. It is just that the U.S. has seen no crying need to let the Zonians vote for anyone locally. They have the right to vote, just no one to vote for.

They can register to vote, but only by absentee ballot and only in the stateside locale from which they came. A population of their size would have considerable clout in a single congressional district, but what the Zonians have instead is a gerrymander in reverse. Instead of living within district boundaries drawn to consolidate a political stronghold, they vote separately in hundreds of congressional districts throughout the U.S.

Real power lies wholly in the hands of the governor, who is appointed from Washington, and in his advisers. The Canal Zone residents do elect local councils, whose leaders can meet with the governor and offer advice. But these civic councils are not agencies of decision, for they have no authority. They cannot levy local taxes for needed civic improvements, for as with everything else, all spending power lies with the governor.

One well may wonder how such a system could exist today in the late 1970s. The answer is peculiarly relevant to the future of any powersat program, for the reason is: It was set up that way from the beginning. Indeed, at the start there even were features that are absent today, such as free housing and medical care. When the U.S. government determined that it would build the canal and would bring in the work force that would accomplish the task, it was but a short step to deciding that it would take on full responsibility for providing for their needs and even for their creature comforts.

The resulting system was deliberately set up to avoid having the character of a string of transient work camps. Instead, the emphasis was on providing stability for the skilled employees. Early on, the
government determined that the best way to do this was to set up communities to which married men might bring their wives and which would encourage bachelors to get married. If the resulting society was to be structured and paternalistic, this would be not a bad thing but a good thing. For a family to live in Panama would be adventure enough, let alone that they should suffer hardships or even inconveniences. The emphasis was on encouraging normal family life. If this meant that the atmosphere would be aggressively wholesome, that the main diversions were to be found at the YMCA, that the saloons and whorehouses were carefully tucked away outside Canal Zone boundaries—then so it would be. Stability and family life were the things to be sought, and these policies worked. To describe these employees, in the words of David McCullough (The Path between the Seas),

Panama seems to have been the experience of a lifetime, almost without exception. The work, the way of life, the sense of being part of a creative undertaking so much larger than oneself, were like nothing they had known, as they openly and cheerfully expressed then and for the rest of their lives…. The
work was everything. Pride and joy in the work constituted the magic bond which held the canal colony together. There was no one who was not associated with the work. No one could live within the Zone unless he or she was a worker on the canal or a member of a worker’s family. The entire social order existed solely for the work and it rewarded its members according to their importance to the work.

Even in those days, while the canal was under construction, there were some who were disturbed at what they saw. To the American diplomat William Sands, this new civilization was “a drearily efficient state, a mechanization of human society. . . . From a railway car one could tell by the type of furniture and the color of the hammock swings the salaries and social standings of the occupants of all the houses.” Others expressed concern over what looked to be a successful experiment in socialism. After all, it was the government that owned the railroad and telephone lines, the housing and the commissaries, even a hotel.

This view was challenged by a Socialist Party member, a mechanic who had been with the canal project almost from the start: “First of all, there ain’t any democracy down here. It’s a bureaucracy that’s got Russia backed off the map…. Government ownership don’t mean anything to us working men unless we own the Government. We don’t here.”

I have dwelled at length on the Canal Zone because it may well indeed be the model for a space community. With the requirements of the power satellite and of lunar resources being no less demanding than those of Panama in an earlier day, the evolving space community could well develop in a very similar direction. It would be run by an all-encompassing government bureaucracy, which concentrates all power into its central administration, while conferring benefits on its employees. The tasks of powersat construction could become as standardized and routine as those of maintaining and operating the Panama Canal. In such a space society there would be no unemployment, no poverty or economic hardship. But neither would there be challenge or change. Like the Zonians, the space colonists would cherish the memories of the great feats of the past, while living in a present that would be, ironically, mundane.

The very success of the Canal Zone’s government shows how well such a system can work. Moreover, the Canal Zone government would be well suited to the size of a space community. At the peak of canal construction, in 1913, there were 5,362 skilled employees, whose latter-day counterparts might live in space. Today the number of canal employees stands at around 3,500. Such a work force would suffice to build two to three powersats per year from lunar materials, an eminently reasonable rate.

Withal, the true situation will doubtless prove nowhere near so bleak. As activity in space expands, as more and more people go there to live, it will become increasingly possible for entrepreneurs to set up small companies, which will serve the needs of the colonists. The growth of space settlements may make it increasingly difficult for the government to maintain a Canal Zone-type control there.

The reason will be the colonists’ continuing need for the comforts and amenities of life, ranging from toothpaste to appliances. In the Canal Zone, this need merely furnishes cargo for the government’s shipping line. In space, such imports will call for rocket transport, which likely will always be several times more costly than air freight. With a growing space population, in time it will become possible for local entrepreneurs to compete with these imports by producing them locally.

It might be that the government would challenge such activities and seek to limit them. However, there would be no shortage of Earthside individuals and groups willing to challenge the government on this issue in court. Again, the government might try to pre-empt these opportunities by setting up its own subsidized production centers in space. But that would not only involve the government in a myriad of small businesses of a type it would be ill-equipped to run, it also would fly in the face of long-standing NASA policies, which seek to encourage private investments in space activities.

In a static space society performing well-defined tasks, the Canal Zone analogy would be obvious, but this is not necessarily true for a continually growing human presence in space. With the increasing needs of such a community, the government might welcome the opportunity to turn matters over to private enterprise, rather than absorb the high subsidies for rocket transport. There thus could come to be new meaning in our association of liberty with “the rockets’ red glare.”

Even with lunar resources, the power satellite alone may indeed need no more than an orbiting Canal Zone, with ten thousand people living in space. After the initial buildup, the task would be quite stereotyped—to build so many powersats per year. But the powersat is not the only large-scale activity that can draw numbers of people to space, merely the one that is perhaps most near-term. There are others as well, and in their eventual growth may lie the hope for human diversity in space.

The advent of powersats should thus indeed bring space colonies. But they will not be the colonies of which space advocates dream, for they will be strongly molded by their character as centers for the powersats’ people. To fulfill these dreams, space colonies must attract large numbers of Earth people, not because a project needs workers, but simply because space colonies have become enticing places to live. The orbiting powersat colony can serve as the architectural model for these later, larger colonies. There are activities which will lead to millions of colonists—not a mere ten thousand—and the most important of these could well be space industries and space tourism.


Toward Distant Suns     Chapter 10     Table of Contents


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