Volume 17, Number 01, Winter 1999


One of the recurring themes of libertarian science fiction has been the desirability of space travel and space colonization. We see space as a new frontier where people can go to be free—and without the moral ambiguities of slavery, ethnic warfare, and ecological destruction that tragically flawed the opening of the American frontier. Our vision is of attaining a new human diaspora through private, voluntary efforts. But what can we do to share that vision and to sell its goal?

Viewing the market as the prototype of private, voluntary organization, libertarians tend to emphasize opening space to entrepreneurial capitalism and to make this a selling point for our vision of space travel. This clashes with the mistrust of capitalism that still pervades our culture; but for society to move toward libertarianism, that mistrust needs to be overcome in any case, and we can hope to see acceptance of private space travel as a spinoff. This emphasis leads to appeals both to the feasability of earning a profit from space ventures and to the enrichment of Earth as a whole by such ventures.

But the pursuit of economic gain isn't the only human motive or the only selling point for space travel. It may not even be the most effective one.

In the classic story on this theme, Robert Heinlein's "Requiem," and its prequel, "The Man Who Sold the Moon," Delos D. Harriman, the protagonist, makes space travel and space colonization a reality by making them profitable; but this isn't his motive at all. When he finally goes into space himself, far from earning him a profit, it kills him—but he dies happy, having at last achieved his lifelong dream. The tragic irony of his life before that is that all the profits he has earned not only cannot pay his way into space but in fact keep him chained to the earth. Heinlein shows us that Harriman dreamed of space first and only later turned to earning the fortune that made space possible for other people.

At the end of "The Man Who Sold the Moon," Heinlein compares Harriman to Moses looking at the Promised Land; and the religious note is not accidental. For a certain small number of people, going into space is an almost religious vision.

Science fiction fans who go to conventions are likely to hear songs about this. Anne Passovoy's "Harbors" is a classic treatment of the theme, with its painful line "The children born this morning may already be too old." A more recent song, "Outward Bound," by Echo's Children (to the tune of "Beulah Land," a traditional hymn), evokes the joy of a woman expecting to go into space, and dismissing hardship and risk as trivial. I have never been able to hear these songs unmoved, and their spirit, I believe, is what moves many of us.

Can we share that spirit with others? I don't know. The U.S. government's first moon flight awakened it briefly, but few people still have it. But I think we need to keep it alive in ourselves and to express it to anyone who is receptive. The pursuit of such intangible goals may seem elusive, but I believe they may be as powerful as economic goals, and perhaps able to sustain us as we pursue those economic goals. And if the current global movement away from central planning and toward market economies continues, the resulting increase in wealth may give us the price we will have to pay to buy that dream.

Among the parables of the New Testament is the story of a merchant who sold everything he had to buy a single pearl. The people who are ready to do this when the pearl is outer space are the people who will get us there, if anyone does. Like other dreams and visions, this needs dreamers and visionaries.

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