From Mensatana, c. 1987
High Frontier vs. Star Wars
by Paul Stephens
Recently, I saw the results of a poll conducted by Reason Magazine. One of the questions gauged the reader’s interest, pro or con, on the subject of “Star Wars/High Frontier.” If President Reagan or his theoreticians have stolen the title “High Frontier” from Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill, this fact is not yet widely known to the American people. O’Neill’s conception of a “High Frontier” (the title of his book published in the 70’s) has nothing to do with the Strategic Defense Initiative or “Star Wars.” In fact, they are in direct competition with one another for financial and technological resources, and carrying out one of them virtually precludes the other.
High Frontier, in O’Neill’s formulation, calls for building permanent human habitats in outer space, materially supported by the construction of huge solar micro-wave-transmitting power stations and factories in earth orbit. These power stations would beam down electricity in the form of microwaves to receiver-arrays on earth. Most of the construction materials would come from the moon (having a much smaller “gravity-well”, and being rich in aluminum and silicon). Although far-fetched and still not taken entirely seriously, O’Neil’s plan captured the imagination of science fiction fans and advocates of space development and exploration in the 1970’s. Even environmentalists, pacifists, the Russian followers of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (who saw earth as “the nest” from which a full-fledged humanity would someday emerge), and others could relate to O’Neill’s humanistic vision of a kind of scientific Utopia for the future.
The Strategic Defense Initiative, on the other hand, is the reductio ad absurdum of militaristic paranoia. Contrary to many existing treaties and common sense, this program would carry the arms race into outer space, costing hundreds of billions or trillions of scarce public dollars, and render obsolete existing weapon systems built, supposedly, to preserve peace through “deterrence.” No tangeable benefits of any kind are envisioned from space-based weapon systems. Instead, a period of destabilization, arms build-ups, mutual suspicion and paranoia would be the inevitable result if we continue to develop and deploy such systems.
By all accounts from reputable, disinterested scientists, the actual technological systems now under development simply aren’t feasible. It is much more costly to fortify against attack than to double or triple the attacking force. Through the use of decoys, atmospheric delivery systems, and other strategies on the part of potential attackers, the space-based defense system can easily be nullified or outflanked, like a kind of space-age Maginot Line. At worst, it could invite or even necessitate attack before it is completed, for it constitutes a return to American arms superiority and the capability of dominating and intimidating other countries— particularly if something like the Reagan Administration is still in power. Precisely because such systems represent a means of strategic intimidation, space-based weapons were long ago outlawed by treaty.
The Reagan Administration’s attempt to revive this discredited thinking and technology is merely one more indication of his (and his advisors’) incompetence, chicanery, and paranoia. Having already usurped the ideals of the cowboy and the American West, Mr. Reagan (because he acted in Hollywood “Westerns,” I suppose) has blithely assumed that anything which pertains to a “high frontier” must have something to do with “star wars” or, for all I know, the gunfight at the O.K. corral. If the American media has fallen for this “package deal,” surely it is up to the rest of us to expose it.
Perhaps this is a case of Mr. Reagan, as auteur. wanting to direct Dr. Strangelove II: Cap the Knife. Or is it another massive payoff to his defense industry friends and supporters in California? Whatever it is, it should be seen as being dangerous, irrational, and foolish.
Implicit (for whatever reasons) in the mindset of the Reaganites is a virtually total disregard for “lower classes” and the universal interests of humanity. To embrace the United Nations; to make peace with the Russians; to rid the world of the threat of nuclear war — these things are simply not priorities for the Reagan Administration. Their mindset requires a “bogey-man” – some “enemy” or malevolent force or ideology which must be fought to the death.
Thus, we are made to believe that it is better to be poised on the brink of nuclear war, hating other nations and their people, than to work for peace. Any suggestion that all nations, cultures, and traditions have an equal moral value, complexity, and legitimacy is likely to face hostility or even violent opposition from this Administration. The most obvious truths must be forever obscure to the Reagan-class mind.
The wise and sane alternatives are obvious: the human species ought to care for itself and its long-term interests. Every nation and race shares a common future, common needs, and very similar aspirations. Peace is the natural state of affairs. It is war which is the irrational, contrived abberation; the expression of self-hatred and species-hatred; the ultimate degradation of all our highest values and aspirations.
War is the triumph of evil over good; of death over life. And it is war which our present political leadership insists we should prepare for, and rely on as an instrument of “policy.” Their view is simple: You don’t like somebody? Then attack him. Invade his country. Overthrow his government. Or support dictatorships which would otherwise be overthrown.
On a practical level, Mr. Reagan and his political allies would murder an Allende while succoring a Marcos or a Somoza. They make it a point to be oblivious to world opinion. With inconceivable arrogance, they see themselves as defending “the free world” and bringing the “benefits of American civilization” (and especially American weapons) to the rest of the world.
This is nothing new. Ever since the Mexican War and especially the Spanish American War of 1898, we’ve had a tradition of stupid jingoism being acted out in spite of every kind of rational, moral, and humanitarian objections. Since building up our vast nuclear arsenals, there is no legitimate “defense.” There is either peace or mutual annihiliation. Right now, there is a “balance of terror” and little else. Is it any wonder that any splinter group of dissidents now sees terrorism as the only efficacious means to bring about change? What are nuclear arsenals but the greatest instruments of terror the world has ever known?
Anyone who acts to perpetuate war and our reliance on it should be regarded with the greatest suspicion. We have no further use for war and its appliances. There is no longer anything to be gained from it. The only thing worth fighting for is a nation’s freedom and its territorial integrity. Those who attempt to take away the freedom or violate the territorial integrity of others cause wars, and they are guilty of the greatest possible immorality.
The only sure way to avoid war is for everyone to refuse to participate in it. And we should begin by refusing to participate in “Star Wars.” Space exploration and habitation is a completely different matter. As Carl Sagan recently pointed out, the financial and technological resources necessary for the development of one regular strategic defense system (like the B-1 bomber or MX missile) would be sufficient to build and carry out a’ manned mission to Mars, with Soviet, European, Japanese, and other nations’ support and cooperation. And this would have all the “spin-off” benefits of SDI, plus the advantages of peaceful cooperation and scientific knowledge in many vital fields, including planetary ecology. Lets work for the future instead of being enslaved by the past.
Paul Stephens, Great Falls, Montana