By Eric Drexler
From L5 News, October 1983
As the Society’s membership grows, the News must occasionally describe what the L-5 Society is, and what it stands for. Since its founding in 1975, the Society has changed, yet held to basic goals. Though this account is unofficial — representing my views as someone involved since the start, not to he blamed on the Society, the Board, or anyone else — I nevertheless feel that it gives a fairly good picture of the Society and its purposes.
Some people think that the L-5 Society consists of rabid space-settlement enthusiasts; others ask “why doesn’t L-5 talk about space settlements any more?” We need to project a clearer image of our stand on this matter. On our letterhead, immediately below the words “L-5 Society,” the words “Promoting Space Development” appear; space development has indeed become our chief goal. Its prominence reflects a shift of emphasis, not of strategy.
Why focus on space development? In part for profit, obviously — to survive changing political moods, work toward opening space must bring a return to investors; it must compensate them both for the use of their money and for the risk that comes with any new enterprise. This holds true whether investment is public or private.
Space development also makes sense for the sake of the environment; however, it provides an area where industrialists and environmentalists need have no conflict. Building industry in space can eventually reduce the burden of industry on Earth. As industry spreads, it will help spread life into lifelessness, continuing a tradition set by the first plants to spread green across Earth’s barren continents.
Further, space development can help promote peace by reducing tension over resources. The limits-to-growth idea implied that the poor must be kept poor, if the less-poor are to delay their own doom. By making life seem a zero-sum game, it set people in conflict. The vision of a future with Earth open to the vaster world of space directly destroys this myth. By giving hope, lifting an apparent death-sentence on civilization, it helps encourage people to tackle the real problems posed by our exploding technology.
Finally, space development will advance space science and exploration as a matter of course. Some support such exploration for its own sake, as a human adventure; some want to open space to ensure the long-term survival of our species; some want to live in space themselves.
Despite the appeal of such goals, practical projects must pave the way. The scope of space lends itself to grand visions, but grand visions need firm foundations. Space development makes possible many long-term goals; though such goals can help motivate people, specific steps toward space development must ultimately pay for themselves. Fortunately, the environment and resources of space appear attractive, and advancing technology promises to make space steadily more accessible.
And what of space settlements? The L-5 Society was founded in response to G. K. O’Neill’s vision of building Earth-like lands in free space, at the L-5 point of the Earth-Moon system. This idea involved mining nonterrestrial materials: it gained support as researchers advanced proposals to use these resources to build valuable products in space, such as solar power satellites to supply energy to Earth. Thus, development and settlement have been linked from the beginning.
The Society’s basic interests have remained consistent over the years. As studies showed the feasibility of settlements, and as concepts of space development broadened to include more approaches and more potential industries, the basic promise of space development and settlement became clear. Interest has naturally focused on near-term benefits, on the first steps along the path, but settlement remains a natural outgrowth of space development. Indeed, goals such as mining non-terrestrial resources and eventually settling space — once regarded as somehow too ambitious to consider — have been examined and become accepted goals of the more traditional space organizations, due in no small part to our efforts in breaking trail.
This work sprung from a basic strategic insight regarding space development: that efforts should focus on free space, not on planets. The historic roots of this perspective are shown in the “L-5” of the “L-5 Society,” though early scenarios for space development soon shifted from proposing construction at L-5 to advocacy of a 2:1 reasonant orbit. Regardless of specific orbits or locations, however, the importance of focusing on free space remains; thoughts of mining and settling other planets — though old and obvious remain impractical.
The reasons bear repeating, since using planets seems so natural to people born and raised on Earth. Consider gravity: in space, rotating structures can generate accelerations equaling any desired level of gravity; nothing can reduce gravity on a planet, however, and even increasing the effective gravity requires a centrifuge supported on bearings. Landing on a planet thus sacrifices a major benefit of space: access to zero gravity. Further, sunlight in space constantly floods collectors with power, and the collectors themselves (safe from weather and weight) can be both flimsy and durable. A planet blocks sunlight half the time, clouds may block it still more, wind and weight add cost to construction, and dust dulls reflectors. Likewise, unbreathable (and sometimes corrosive) planetary atmospheres are no prize, compared to the useful vacuum of space.
Worst of all, planets are hard to reach and hard to return valuable products from — so why invest resources building on them? Planets may be romantic and vaguely Earth-like, but they seem of little practical value compared to free space. People will go to the planets eventually, however — industry in free space will make it cheap.
In the short term, many paths lead toward our goals; the Society favors pursuing several. These include non-profit efforts, such as the Spacewatch camera system for locating near-Earth asteroids; entrepreneurial ventures, such as the work of Space Services Inc. in developing private launch services; and various national and international projects sponsored by governments, such as the Shuttle and Spacelab.
Encouraging governments to invest in space development technologies sometimes places us (at least apparently) in competition with space science for a share of the “space budget.” This situation is peculiar: does shipping compete with oceanography, or mining with geology? If not, then why should space development compete with space science? To some extent, this competition is illusory, since funding cuts from one would not permanently add funding to the other. Nevertheless, this lumping of different activities together in “the space program” (let us give thanks that there is no similar “land program” or “sea program”) does generate conflict over annual budgets. The goals of both space science and space development would be better served if their common interests were recognized; success in the Society’s goals would advance all space activities.
The Society, though growing, is already surprisingly well suited to pursue its goals. It is an international organization, adapted to pursuing a transnational goal. Neither a narrow professional society nor a simple enthusiast’s club, the Society contains a reactive mixture of professionals, students, space enthusiasts, and active space advocates, organized with a focus on shaping the future. L-5 is indeed the active space organization; our year-round chapter activites inform the public of the promise of space, building an ever-broader base of support for space development — those who know the facts tend to support our goals. Chapters also enable members to mix the satisfaction of pursuing long-range goals with the pleasure of shared effort and immediate results.
Beyond the local level, our annual conferences give people a chance to meet the full spectrum of active members; they bring together businessmen, engineers, government representatives, and grassroots organizers. The L-5 News covers news related to our goals (limited chiefly by our grassroots reporting network), and provides a forum for airing ideas and controversies to which the media often remain blind — issues such as strategies for space development, and how best to use humans and machines in opening the Solar System. L-5 members began discussing the promise and perils of orbital ballistic missile defenses years before Reagan entered office.
On topics where space advocates have a firmer consensus on action, another organization — the Spacepac — provides a channel for political activities not permitted to the Society proper. When the political roulette wheel spins, the L-5 telephone tree, run by the Society itself, provides a channel for alerting members fast. Washington observers agree that we noticably tilt the table.
On another level, the Society serves as a crossroads of what Arthur Kantrowitz has called “the progress underground.” Beyond their interest in space, many members share broader concerns about making the future work, often centering around improving the environment, lengthening life, increasing world-wide wealth, and securing and deepening liberty.
Despite this breadth of interests, the Society does not support all space activities simply because they are activities in space. We seek to channel general interest in space toward practical efforts that will help open the space frontier. Many goals — surveying lunar and asteroidal resources, improving launch vehicles, building space stations, and so forth — are parts of this strategy; other goals — sending missions to the outer planets, building better communications satellites, and so forth — mesh well with it. Work on the technologies needed for space development will lower the cost of all space activities, advancing these other goals; they, in turn, provide additional reasons for work on these core technologies. Because of this shared interest, those supporting space science and exploration for their own sakes may find supporting space development the best way to advance their interests. We welcome them to the alliance.
In the end, the basic goal of the Society is not to see people make a bit of money (even many billions) on new space industry, though this will bring our goal closer. Nor is it to see new pictures of the planets or flags planted in more distant craters, though these may be stirring achievements. We aim to open space as a practical frontier, as a new world for life. To achieve this, we must help bring the Copernican revolution to politics, to business, and to the people. We’re making progress.
L-5 Society Director Eric Drexler is a Research Affiliate with the MIT Space Systems Laboratory and has been active in the Society since its earliest days.