The Outer Space Undergroud

Arizona's quiet visionaries yearn to make the state a hub of commercial space travel

Society Expeditions was forced to pull the plug on Project Space Voyage in 1986. The Challenger disaster gave people second thoughts about the idea of venturing into space.

Henry Vanderbilt watched the Challenger disaster on giant screens at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California. He had recently become interested in space via a computer bulletin board, and had traveled to Pasadena from Boston--where he was living at the time--to report on the launch for the bulletin board.

Unlike Project Space Voyage's clientele, Vanderbilt didn't lose interest after Challenger. By that time he had come to believe that if the human race is to be preserved, we must colonize space and turn Earth into a "garden planet."

Vanderbilt discovered the L-5 Society, and was so taken with the concept he packed up his 1978 Ford Fiesta and headed to Tucson to run the group's computer system. He describes L-5ers as "a mix of blue-sky dreamers, rocket engineers and academics," but says internal politics impeded progress.

In 1987, the L-5 Society merged with the National Space Institute to form the National Space Society in Washington, D.C. The new group had more members, with varied interests. Some wanted to colonize the moon, others wanted an orbiting space hotel.

Vanderbilt followed the society to Washington after the merger, but quickly realized the National Space Society wouldn't make any more progress than the L-5 Society had.

"They weren't even going to make low orbit," he says with disgust.
So in the summer of 1992, Vanderbilt founded his very own group, Space Access Society. The nonprofit organization has a specific goal: affordable low orbits.

Vanderbilt describes himself as an occasionally employed computer programmer and writer. At 40, he's technically a baby boomer, but his spirit is pure Generation X. So's his look: faded jeans, black tee, leather jacket. He's trained in physics--which prepares you for everything and nothing, he quips.

"We're not exactly trusting the government to do it right on their lonesome," Vanderbilt says, so he spends his days "phone schmoozing" Washington bureaucrats and politicians, and encouraging his society's 500plus members to do the same.

Space enthusiasts from around the world travel to Phoenix each spring for Space Access Society's annual conference. Vanderbilt regularly draws top NASA officials and representatives of aerospace companies, many of which are working independently or with the government to create Single Stage toOrbit spaceships. Those vehicles will need a place to be built, tested and, eventually, launched.

That's where the Arizona Space Commission comes in.

Even though the state-sanctioned Arizona Space Commission has been around since 1991, some legislators are still confused about its purpose.

"They thought our job was to assign offices and fill space [in state buildings]," says Chuck Backus, a commissioner and dean of the ASU East campus at Williams Gateway Airport.

A few learned better in January, when the commission made a presentation before the House Economic Development, International Trade and Tourism Committee. Commission chairman Bob Walkup showed a video of the DCX test launch, and computer-generated models of the X33.

His vision, he told the committee, is for Arizona to be a leader in international commercial space development and operation within 20 years.

Like many members of the commission, Walkup has impressive credentials. For years he worked in aerospace and communications for Rockwell International. He joined Hughes Aircraft Co. in Tucson in the early Eighties, and although he'd never thought much about SSTO vehicles, realized at the end of that decade that commercial space travel would be the technological bonanza of the future. He's also the chairman of the Greater Tucson Economic Council.

In spite of Walkup's background, the response from the legislators was lukewarm. Representative Robin Shaw, Republican of Scottsdale, choking back giggles, asked if these spaceships were actually meant to replace airplanes.

Yes, G. Harry Stine, another commissioner, told her. He added, "This puts Arizona as the transportation hub for the Pacific Rim for the 21st century. And believe me, the market is there, and it's going to be the market to get things started."

Representative Robert Blendu, Republican of Phoenix, told the commission, "I think it's a great idea, but there again, we're going to have to think about that and figure out, is it a vision or is it a mirage?"

For the first time this year, the commission has asked for money--$50,000 to provide clerical support and pay for membership to the Aerospace States Association. It looks as though the commission will get it. Representative Bill McGibbon, Republican of Tucson, who chairs the committee, is working to get the appropriation approved.

Meanwhile, Stine has little patience for the likes of Blendu and Shaw.
"There are people out there who simply don't have vision," he says. "And I understand this. Some people have it and some people don't. And a part of my job is to try to pass that vision along so that at least they don't stand in the way. Either do something or get the hell out of the way!"

Indeed, there are people in the way--even people who Stine insists know that his vision is attainable. Dr. John Logsden, director of the Space Policy Institute, a think tank at George Washington University, predicts the government--not private enterprise--will dominate space for the next 20 years.

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