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2001 is nothing like the movie.

I was twelve years old in a sunlit library, wrapped in a fetal position on a faded blue couch, reading the Golden Age grand masters: Asimov and Bova, Anderson and Silverberg. I began with I, Robot, and I never was the same again. All my armchair voyages concentrated on these things happening in the near future -- colonies, space stations, asteroid mining, humanity spilling out like a broken string of pearls into our galactic neighborhood.

It hasn't happened yet.

From these couch visitations, I was transported to Luna City. There were space stations ringing Earth, and one or two in Lagrange orbit. (Lagrange orbit, or L5, is halfway between Earth and the Moon, a way station for people and materials "upside" from Earth's gravity well.) Tourists visited the Moon. Terraforming began on Mars. Miners bored comets for ice, and even caught a ride on one. I read about miners in the asteroid belt, about powersats beaming solar energy to stations on Earth, about greenhouses in the sky.

2001 isn't there yet. It's not even up to the level of the Arthur C. Clarke novel.

space station
Photo courtesy of NASA

But we're getting there -- not fast enough to suit me, but so close it hurts. There is a real live space station, rotating over our heads, and the first spacecraft landing on an asteroid. Someone asked me yesterday why anyone would want to land there. The answer is simple, really: there is no need to drag metals or water up the gravity well. The asteroids can be mined for nickel and iron, and ice.

And if we want the moon colonies that Heinlein wrote about, we can really use those asteroids. Shipping materials up the gravity well just isn't going to do it, but current evidence says we could get the raw ingredients we need from asteroids fairly cheaply, according to David McKay of the NASA Johnson Space Center.

Or, better still, why not hollow one out and use one as a spaceship?

Such an idea is not entirely new. Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker (1937) described the use of whole worlds, natural and artificial, for interstellar travel, and in Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow (1996) a hollowed-out asteroid is used to travel to the nearby stars. The science fact article "Skylife" by Gregory Benford and George Zebrowski goes into great detail about asteroid colonization. They discuss the origins of ideas about how to populate the solar system in order to relieve the overpopulation, energy, and resource problems present on Earth. The metals and ice needed for future space stations and vehicles are already in space, and the fuel is free -- sunlight.

asteroid
Photo courtesy of NASA

Consider this: A space habitat needs literally tons of shielding to prevent human tissue damage from solar radiation. That is why the crew of the space station is rotated every six months. Such shielding is very expensive. Simply mining an asteroid -- coring it like an apple -- and using the inside as a spaceship would be cost-effective and is an option available with the technology we have now. The cored asteroid could be spun to create artificial gravity. There would already be tons of shielding from radiation in the form of rock. Then the interior, shaped like the inside of a paper towel roll, could be built up in three dimensions. Because it is rotating, buildings can be built on the "ceiling." Thus the space inside would be bigger than most countries. Earth need never be overpopulated again.

Growing up I read about world leaders and world government. I read about skirmishes ruthlessly stomped out, about genocide being a horrifying but soon-to-be-forgotten word.

We did go to Kosovo -- far later than we should have. Endless killings still happen in Africa. Genocide still exists, but we have begun to act like a species that finds this intolerable. As for world government -- it's a siren song, a pipe dream. But some still dream.

I read about powersats beaming energy to Earth, and greenhouses winding about each space station like crystal beads.

I read about private companies joining the space race, with hundreds of experiments being conducted in space. I read about competition between governments and corporations to be the first on Mars, or to build a new space station. I read about maglev and bullet trains. I read about borders becoming obsolete. SSTO's (single-stage-to-orbit rockets) propelled people and trade to anywhere on Earth in less than an hour.

Now, in 2001, private companies are entering the space race. There are scientific experiments on board the space station. There is competition for the first X-class starship, one that can travel from three to six thousand miles in an hour in low Earth orbit.

Monorails and bullet trains are all over Japan and Europe. North America hasn't caught up. We do fly, however, almost everywhere we want to go.

monorail

Incidentally, my very own city is contemplating a monorail plan . . . one that may even have a stop a block from my front door. The driverless Las Vegas Monorail, an update of the ones used in Disney World, is scheduled to be finished in 2004 and carry 19 million passengers the first year. It's not here yet, and even then it's only one city -- but still, it's a start. Japan already has a number of monorails in operation, and perhaps more countries can follow its lead.

SSTO (single-stage-to-orbit) vehicles are the shining dream of the future. Imagine: a vehicle that takes off like a rocket and lands like an airplane, with no boosters for extra fuel, such as the Space Shuttle needs. The Space Shuttle fleet is aging, with tiles that fall off and discarded boosters that have to be recovered. SSTOs will be large enough to carry cargo, not just people, and will be to make "jumps" in low earth orbit, so as to carry cargo and/or people from New York to Paris in an hour. In contrast, the Concorde is expensive, and only holds people.

What would happen if we could get disaster relief teams -- with everything from survivor-sniffing dogs to heavy equipment -- anywhere on Earth in an hour? Where would you go if you could get there in an hour?

Shipping costs would rise, and then plummet. Trade as we know it would become far more frenzied and instantaneous than it is now. People could go anywhere with ease. Furthermore, the cost of the space program would also plummet as it became far easier to get things out of the "gravity well." Combine this with the ability to grab an asteroid and drag the raw materials to where you need them . . . and you have instant colonization of the near solar system (from here to the Asteroid Belt).

I read about hydroponics and sea farming, terracing and irrigation, land reclamation, and the end of hunger. Natural disasters were met by rapid mobilizations of teams, with only an hour between a disaster and help. Both farming methods are in use now, especially the Japanese sea farms. China is struggling to end desert encroachment in a land that needs every grain of rice. We do have disaster mobilization teams, but as the last two disasters have shown us in India and Central America, they are too little, too late.

I read about cancer and the common cold becoming distant memories. I read about vast leaps in medicine, and the potential of cloning and genetic engineering -- no more babies born with birth defects! Organs and limbs grown in tanks! No more waiting for someone to die so their organs may be harvested! I look at the headlines and see a future that is coming soon.

But there is still saber-rattling, stupidity, shortsightedness, secrets, and scandals. In the books I read, technological progress far outpaced maneuvering and conspiracies. There was a free flow of information, with massive scientific projects on a global scale.

DNA
Photo courtesy of DOE Human Genome Program

The free flow of information via the Internet is in full swing. Massive projects do exist . . . such as the Human Genome Project, estimated to be completed in 2003. The project goals are to identify all roughly 30,000 human genes, to determine all three billion chemical base pairs, to put this information into databases, and to make it available for use. And we're moving ahead of schedule. Started in 1990 as a 15-year project, it's estimated we'll finish in 2003, two years ahead of schedule, if not sooner.

The long process of finding which genes, or combinations of genes, cause which disease -- a process that has already begun -- will set genetic engineering in motion in ways we are only beginning to understand, and that future is coming soon.

Kudos. Your work will save many lives in the years to come.

But I want my hovercraft! Where are the cars that drive themselves -- powered by batteries or sunlight? Why can't I catch a flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo that only takes an hour? Why can't I travel from Australia to Russia in the blink of an eye? Why hasn't Luna City been built yet? I want to be a Lunatic! I want domes on Mars, miners in the asteroid belt, manned spacecraft to Pluto.

Hovercraft are hard to find, but electric-powered vehicles do exist. Saturn is making a solar vehicle, the Saturn EV1, available for lease in California, though not yet for sale on the open market. But if it does well there, the concept might spread. The Concorde exists, though no new models are schedule to be built. As for Luna City, I am not a Lunatic yet.

I want flu and colds to be eradicated! I want defects ended in the womb! I want for no one to die so someone else may live. Especially now -- I have a cold. Organ donation will have to continue until you can order a liver grown from your own cells -- or cells from your closest family member.

Where are the crops to feed the starving, peacekeepers to end all wars, leaders possessing real insight?

We're still looking for the answers to these questions. We give -- food is airlifted -- but the reasons for famine are not eradicated. Wars, desertification, leaching the land, and the overuse of pesticides continue. No one can rise up as a human being and become a better person if one is starving and homeless, living in fear of being shot, hunted and alone.

Where the hell is the future I wanted? All we get are dreams!

And in the dreaming, what may we come up with next?

And here is where I come in. I will write, and hope that someone will make what I dream of. I do not build, myself. I am no scientist. I do still believe that I will someday look down on Earth from the space station, watching the Earth rise, blue and white, with the golden rays of Sol glistening over the curve of the world.

And that is my dream.

What is yours?

 

Reader Comments


Lady Laura Jayne Hawke is a writer in a glittering neon desert. She spends her non-cyberspace time floating in a pool under the palm trees, or reading a book with a cat on each foot.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Should We Return to the Moon?

Mars Project

Asteroid Mining and Uses

Artemis Project

The Science of the International Space Station

Las Vegas Monorail

SSTO

Hydroponics

Human Genome Project

Disaster Relief

Saturn EV1 Web Site



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