The Outer Space Undergroud
The headquarters of the international Space Access Society is a four-by-nine-inch bin at a Mailboxes & More in Ahwatukee.
Henry Vanderbilt, the society's executive director and lone employee, has good reason to keep his physical address a secret. Over the years, Vanderbilt's been a magnet for every kook from here to Roswell, New Mexico--folks who'll blow half a day chattering about intergalactic Nazi invasions and alien autopsies.
"I would just as soon not be quoted on the flying-saucer nuts," Vanderbilt says.
But some out there would label Vanderbilt a nut, too.
After all, he believes with all his heart that one day soon, people will board craft at Arizona spaceports and zoom into orbit the way Phoenicians hop Southwest Airlines to San Diego in July.
Henry Vanderbilt is no rocket scientist, but he is also not nuts. What he is is one of the nation's foremost experts in the concept of commercial space travel. Perhaps it is the obsessive certainty with which he pursues his vision that makes him seem a bit eccentric. He knows it's going to happen soon, and he's probably right.
Vanderbilt is part of a quiet but well-credentialed hive of Arizona activists who are trying to make sure the state gets its share of the impending commercial space boom. They are convinced that if the state doesn't act now, golden opportunities will be lost.
Vanderbilt and his cohorts believe space can be accessible to everyone--as a means to launch satellites for a millifraction of the current cost, deliver people and packages halfway around the world in 45 minutes, or offer 12-hour luxury cruises complete with weightlessness, space sickness and a stunning view of Earth. Initially, a trip to orbit will cost about $15,000 per person.
The viability of cheap access to space depends on the success of a reusable, nonexpendable rocket commonly called a Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO) vehicle.
Vanderbilt lobbied the Department of Defense to fund the DCX, the first in a series of test models he hopes will lead to the development of a fully functional SSTO. The DCX successfully completed its testing phase last July at White Sands, New Mexico. Although the DCX was designed to go only two miles up, Vanderbilt says the test proved that a reusable rocket bed can launch a vertical rocket using liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.
Now NASA has joined the Department of Defense to fund the next stage of the experiment, the X33. The X33 will be a third the size of a real spaceship, and will not carry passengers. But it will be designed to test the viability of lightweight composite materials and a monitoring system. Three aerospace firms--Rockwell International, Lockheed Martin and a partnership between Boeing and McDonnell Douglas--have designed models, and the government will choose one this summer. Testing should be completed by 1999 and, if all goes as planned, Vanderbilt says commercial space travel will be possible by 2005.
Somebody will make a lot of money building the SSTOs, the sites where they will be tested and, ultimately, spaceports. A handful of states--Colorado, Florida, California, New Mexico, Alaska--have devoted significant energy and hundreds of thousands of dollars toward wooing such development.
Arizona's space cadets want a piece of the action, too, and toward that end, the Legislature established the Arizona Space Commission in 1991. This year, for the first time, the commission has asked the Legislature for a modest $50,000 appropriation.
Arizona may not lead the race, but experts believe the state--which offers relatively cheap open space, clear skies, stable weather and burgeoning high-tech and astronomy industries--could be a contender.
Arizona is also rich in intellectual property, home not just to Henry Vanderbilt but to some of the world's most devoted and distinguished space-travel proponents:
* G. Harry Stine, a noted science-fiction and nonfiction author considered by experts to be the visionary in the area of commercial space travel. He lives in Phoenix.
* Hugh Downs, the host of television's 20/20, chairs the National Space Society in Washington, D.C. He's a Carefree resident.
* The L-5 Society, a group of would-be space colonists with chapters all over the world, was created in Tucson.
* NASA's Space Engineering Research Center for Utilization of Local Planetary Resources--a lab devoted to finding resources in space--is located at the University of Arizona.
Why are so many space activists drawn to Arizona? Arizona's a frontier state, says Stine, and space is, as the saying goes, the final frontier.
On the other hand, for some, it's just coincidence. Henry Vanderbilt followed a girl to Mesa and stayed.
John Lewis, a professor of planetary science at the University of Arizona and a member of the Arizona Space Commission, has his own intriguing theory as to why so many space junkies can be found here.
"I think there's something to be said for the fact that people in Arizona can see the sky at night," Lewis says.
G. Harry Stine first wrote about commercial space travel in 1951 in a novelette, A Star to Steer Her By. It's about a man who travels the solar system in his spaceship the way we drive across town to work.
Stine has no doubt that one day his fiction will be fact. He notes that science-fiction writers have been called "the long-range-planning department of the human race."
An example, please?
Stine leans back from the card table in the library of his north Phoenix home and pulls Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon, published in 1865, from a bookshelf.
By the end of the afternoon, the table will becovered with books, reports and articles--many authored by Stine--that perfectly illustrate whatever point he's making.
With long fluorescent light fixtures and rows of metal bookshelves, the room seems like a classroom, and Stine like a professor in a navy cotton jumpsuit and high tops--a portly 67-year-old with crazy eyebrows and a keen wit.
Stine isn't just a writer; he was trained as an engineer, and pioneered the development of model rocketry.
He also served as science adviser to CBS News during the Apollo missions. Stine recalls that anchor Walter Cronkite used to sit on a platform, with Stine below. Stine would hand up notes and wire copy for Cronkite to read. Stine was in the cafeteria of CBS headquarters on West 57th Street in New York when he heard James Lovell's infamous, "Houston, we have a problem ..." It took four hours to reassemble the news team. Everyone had gone home.
Despite his credentials and devotion to space travel, Stine maintains an irreverent side.
"You know," he says, "the Japanese have identified the primary market for a flight in orbit--a couple hours of weightlessness, then coming back. That market is newlywed couples."
"Because there are a hell of a lot of people who want to find out if it's better in zero-g!"
Stine says some similarly curious NASA employees actually found out in a water tank used to practice weightlessness.
"Very, very late at night, there was a clandestine experiment conducted," Stine says. "The reports were, yes, it is indeed possible, but it helps to have a third person there to push at the right time and the right place.
"Then they discovered that this is the way the dolphins do it!"
And the Three Dolphin Club was created.
Stine claims he knows of seven occasions in the space shuttle where similar unscheduled dockings took place.
Has this been reported anywhere?
"Hell, no, it isn't reported, 'cause those astronauts would be fired!"
(About two dozen women have ventured into space on the shuttle, but NASA spokesman Ed Campion says he knows of no such experiments--official or unofficial--and has never heard of theThree Dolphin Club. "Amusing story, but as far as I know, it isn't true," he says.)
Tales of weightless dalliances notwithstanding, Stine is serious about his work. And he's taken seriously by experts like Lori Garver, executive director of the National Space Society--Hugh Downs' organization--who says Stine is the visionary in his field.
Stine settled in Phoenix in 1973 to write and pontificate on the inevitability of privatized space travel.
"What we were doing, going to the moon, was basically for national security, national prestige purposes," he says. "There was nothing beyond the Apollo program, in terms of a real space program. And the government isn't going to continue to spend money on this forever, so we better figure out a way to make it happen."
In 1975, Tucsonans Carolyn and Keith Henson decided to build their own space colony. Mo Udall, who happened to be running for president at the time, liked the Hensons' ideas, and publicly endorsed them.
So the L-5 Society was created.
The name refers to L-5 Lagrangian point, one of five spots where the gravity of the earth and moon are equal; an object situated there would stay put, balanced. Thus, the L5 Society theorized, it would be the perfect spot for a space colony.
And the goal of the L-5 Society was to construct a space colony--tens of miles across, possibly built out of materials mined from asteroids and the moon.
L-5 chapters popped up all over the country; membership reached 10,000 by the lateSeventies. It sounds far-fetched, but consider the times. The United States was experiencing an energy crisis, and the first consciousness of environmentalism. These people figured they'd need off the planet, and fast.
They weren't the only dreamers. The National Space Institute was created in 1974 with the goal of convincing NASA to promote commercial space travel.
When President Ronald Reagan signed the Commercial Space Act of 1984, encouraging free enterprise in space, one group jumped onboard immediately. Society Expeditions, an adventure-tourism company in Seattle, offered trips to Antarctica and other exotic places, so why not to outer space?
The group called it Project Space Voyage. Its initial plan was to put 20 people in the cargo bay of the space shuttle, but safety was a concern. Program director Colette Bevis issued a request for proposals. She received nine "serious" offers, and ultimately a model for a spaceship called the Phoenix was chosen. The vehicle would lift and land vertically, flying into low orbit and back.
The price was $50,000, with a $7,000 deposit and collection of the rest beginning October 12, 1992, when the Phoenix was to take its first passengers into space.
Bevis says 252 people paid the $7,000--with $5,000 going into a refundable escrow account and the remaining $2,000, nonrefundable, going into Society Expeditions' bank account.
"We had people taking out three mortgages on their homes!" she recalls.
More than 1,500 travel agencies participated in the marketing scheme, including Starworld Travel in Scottsdale, owned and operated by Joe Arpaio and his wife, Eva. (Sheriff Joe refuses to speak about his starry-eyed offer; a spokesman says he peddled the trips, but never sold any, and that Eva runs the travel agency now. Eva didn't return New Times' call. Bevis says she can't access her records to confirm whether the Arpaios actually sold any space junkets.)
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.
As long as the government is in control, Logsden adds, space tourism won't happen. And, he reminds overeager space activists, "It was a long time between the Vikings and mass travel across the Atlantic."
The technology used to launch people into space came about in the 1960s; it's both expensive and risky. Today, it costs $10,000 a pound to launch payload into low orbit--100 to 500 miles above the Earth's surface. That means that if you could devise a process to turn lead into gold simply by flying it into low orbit and back, it would be a losing proposition. Each flight of NASA's space shuttle--which drops its expendable boosters into the ocean as it rises toward orbit--costs $1 billion.
And NASA hasn't always been so crazy about opening space to Everyman.
NASA administrator Daniel Goldin supports the concept of commercial space travel, but the agency only recently has taken such a position. Astronauts aren't eager to give up the prestige of being the elite few allowed into space, activists say, and NASA brass--protective of an already dwindling budget--have been unwilling to acknowledge that space travel can be done at less cost and with fewer people.
Kumar Ramohalli doesn't understand why NASA's funding is constantly injeopardy. He is the co-director of theUniversity of Arizona/NASA Space Engineering Research Center for Utilization of Local Planetary Resources in Tucson. He's watched his annual budget dwindle from $2million in the early Nineties to a few hundred thousand this year.
Ramohalli and his students don't focus as much on cheap space travel as they do on a theory called In Situ Resource Utilization, the concept that man one day will utilize resources found in space.
The idea, Ramohalli says, is to take an empty fuel tank along and fill it up, rather than lugging the fuel along.
Steve Brod, a doctoral candidate in the program, is working on a way to create oxygen on Mars, by combining carbon dioxide--which is already on the planet--and energy. NASA is testing the device, and Ramohalli hopes it will be sent to Mars in 2001.
Similarly, planetary science professor John Lewis is analyzing the makeup of asteroids; he theorizes that allmining on Earth could stop if wecould capture asteroids' resources. (Just think about the ease of processing ore in a weightless environment.)
Ramohalli and his students have also built a prototype of a space robot--some call it a space janitor--that would remove space junk in low orbit and return it to Earth for recycling. Tons of space junk, from small objects to huge hunks of metal, are orbiting the Earth; in 1993, a paint chip cracked a window of the space shuttle.
With so many amazing advancements, Ramohalli can't understand why people aren't more excited about space.
"There's a very unfortunate but very wrong perception that space is very costly," he says.
"But is it really? Let's make a comparison. For the S&L bailout, with one signature, they took care of $150 billion. That's ten years of NASA's budget."
David Brandt-Erichson lives on Moonstone Drive in Sabino Canyon. These days, he figures Moonstone Drive will be as close as he'll ever get to outer space.
He wasn't always so gloomy.
Brandt-Erichson was a microbiologist working in the Bay Area and wasn't much interested in space until 1978, when he happened upon the book Colonies in Space by T.A. Heppenheimer--"a comprehensive and actual account of the prospects forhuman colonization of space." He saw afootnote about the L-5 Society, wrote forinformation and started a Bay Area chapter.
In 1980, Brandt-Erichson retired from microbiology and moved to Tucson to dobookkeeping and office work in theL5Society's small, run-down office justnorth of the University of Arizona campus.
Today he's the secretary of the National Space Society, but Brandt-Erichson has allbut given up hope of getting to space. The former L-5ers still gettogether everymonth, but now it's mainly social.
"We seem further away now than we did then," he says. When he first joined the L5 Society, Brandt-Erichson recalls, they used to say, "L-5 in '95."
Last year, the National Space Society held its annual convention in Ohio. The irony was not lost on Brandt-Erichson.
"I said, 'We only made it to Cleveland!' So,we were a little dejected.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.