Project: Space Station, Part 2: The Dream

28 Jul

A proposed NASA space station with shuttle docked

As long as there has been a space program, there have been space-program boosters. With budgets dwindling and interest waning after Apollo 11, however, NASA suddenly needed them as never before. Various people started various organizations to educate, to advocate, to lobby, sometimes even to agitate the case for space. Briefly among the more prominent of these folks during the early 1980s was Stan Kent, a precocious English rocket scientist still in his mid-twenties.

Growing up working class in the industrial city of Wolverhampton in the West Midlands, Kent wrote to NASA asking for more information about the Titan rocket used to hoist the Gemini space capsules into orbit. Much to his family’s surprise, they sent it, cementing a passionate love affair with space and with NASA. (NASA was notably wonderful about this sort of thing in their 1960s heyday; many a starry-eyed kid all over the world received a similar thick envelope filled with pictures and articles for no charge but the cost to mail a letter to Houston.) At age 15, he demonstrated for the first time what would prove to be a lifelong knack for self-promotion. Determined to find a way to come to the United States to study rocket science, he entered a contest to design a functioning powered aircraft which won him national attention inside his home country and was enough to recommend him to a wealthy philanthropist in Santa Clara, California, named Austen Warburton. With Warburton’s assistance, he came to the United State to attend university at the age of 17, and graduated from Stanford with a Masters in aerospace engineering in 1978 at the age of 22, winning the prestigious Herman Oberth Gold Medal in the process for his paper on “The Space Shuttle External Tank as a Reentry Module.” He was soon working for Boeing and later Lockheed, and doing consulting jobs for NASA itself.

Kent’s public space advocacy began in 1979, when he got wind of proposals within NASA to stop monitoring the two Viking probes that had landed on Mars three years before simply because they couldn’t afford to continue to pay people to do it. He organized a Viking “charity” which presented NASA administrator Robert A. Frosch with a check for $60,000 to go toward continued monitoring on January 7, 1981. The sum would increase to over $100,000 in the months to come, then increase dramatically again when he organized with former astronaut and Moon-walker Pete Conrad to sell off recovered pieces from the old Skylab space station by way of further fundraising. (By that time Viking 2 had already gone offline due to a failed battery. Viking 1 would continue to transmit — and, yes, to be monitored — until a botched software update took it offline on November 11, 1982.)

Under the aegis of Delta Vee, the nonprofit corporation he set up with the assistance of Warburton and some aerospace colleagues, Kent stumped the country on behalf of space, appearing on television, on radio, in Omni magazine (with whom he did much of his advocacy in partnership), and in countless newspaper articles. He worked to set up a nationwide network of “neighborhood space centers” — “the McDonald’s of space” — and gave speeches to anyone who would have him. Far from your stereotypical rocket scientist, Kent made space cool in what the L.A. Times described as his “new-wave haircut, beige suit, purple shirt, and bright red tie”; he looked like “he might be a member of a rock band.” In September of 1981 he testified before the Congressional Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications at the age of just 25. His pitch emphasized a new, more pragmatic take on space very much in keeping with the dawning hyper-capitalism of the 1980s. The NASA that Kent described was fundamentally a practical enterprise whose work would bring scientific and technological breakthroughs to make life better for ordinary Americans, along with economic benefits to the country; Kent was fond of citing such dubious surveys as the one done in 1972 by Chase Econometrics, which claimed that every $1 spent on the space industry injected $10 to $15 back into the economy within five to seven years.

In that spirit, he and his partners soon set up a second, for-profit corporation they named AstroSpace. Its initial purpose was to research and hopefully to exploit a pet idea Kent called SOLARES: “Space Orbiting Light Augmentation Reflector Energy System,” a way to beam concentrated sunlight down to Earth for use as energy. In the meantime, though, the home-computer boom was happening. Soon Kent hit upon a more earthbound project for his company: to create a computer game that simulated the building and operation of the permanent space station that he and so many others felt represented the next logical steppingstone to Mars and beyond. By 1983 he had sold the idea to Jay Balakrishnan of Human Engineered Software, who loved big, high-concept edutainment titles.

Project: Space Station was certainly that. The game that Kent and Balakrishnan described (separately) to InfoWorld magazine in 1984 — it was quite obviously the HES product that the latter was most excited to discuss — filled nine disk sides. Balakrishnan:

It’s an absolute simulation. First of all, to start you have to go to Congress to requisition a budget. You have to choose your scientific team that will comprise the space mission. There’s a book, almost like a story, with different fictitious characters that you can select your team from. There’s a whole page of biographical data on each person — where they went to school, whom they married, whether they’re stable individuals or not, and so on. Then you must decide on what kind of industry you’re going to develop in space — for example, if you want to make ball bearings or crystals or whatever.

Then you design your space station. Each one is a different module. You might build a plant area, living quarters, etc. Then you run a simulation. Now the plant starts working, giving oxygen and life, and the industry starts working. You see that it’s a viable operation. Finally, after you have overseen everything, you resign your post. You were the director of a successful space industry, so you get your gold watch at the end. Of course, during the game all kinds of random things can occur. Maybe you’ve gone over budget. So you go back to Washington, D.C., and appeal for a higher requisition to keep the business going.

Together Kent and Balakrishnan organized an “advisory” board for the project that consisted of Kent’s colleagues in the aerospace industry along with the high-school students who would be the game’s most obvious target market, all “overseen” by the hapless, computer-illiterate Leonard Nimoy (who must have been wondering by this point why he’d signed on with HES at all).

I find this original conception of Project: Space Station fascinating as an early example of a computer game with an explicit real-world rhetorical goal. One could call it without hyperbole propaganda, a political advertisement for a NASA space station. The justifications it makes for such a project are the same as those Kent was making in his speeches, and, indeed, those that Ronald Reagan more obliquely referred to in his State of the Union address of 1984. In Project: Space Station, players would enjoy success not so much in the form of exploratory firsts or pure scientific breakthroughs but rather that of crop surveys that would make American agriculture more efficient, new semiconductors that would make American computers more powerful, lasers that would revolutionize American manufacturing, even the proverbial cure for cancer. If it wasn’t always entirely clear why some of these research projects had to be done by people in space, well, that was a problem Project: Space Station shared with some of Kent’s speeches.

AstroSpace's original Project: Space Station

AstroSpace's original Project: Space Station AstroSpace's original Project: Space Station

AstroSpace's original Project: Space Station

This huge game being developed by a bunch of aerospace people with no experience in game development was of course all but doomed to failure. Kent and company did manage to get far enough to produce some intriguing screenshots that, as published in the April 16, 1984, issue of InfoWorld, stand today as the only tangible artifacts left to us from this version of Project: Space Station. The whole thing collapsed by the end of that year, with HES going bankrupt and being absorbed by Avant-Garde Publishing and AstroSpace coming to an abrupt end along with Kent’s time as a space advocate. He made an extreme and kind of bizarre change in life direction, opening back in Santa Clara a night club called One Step Beyond that became a regular stop on the college-rock touring circuit for some years. Today he writes erotica, hosts naughty events at a sex shop, and is something of a fixture of the Southern California nightlife scene while apparently still keeping his hand in from time to time as a rocket scientist. In 2012 he consulted on the perfect combination of all his interests: a proposed Playboy space station.

(Stan Kent’s space advocacy is chronicled in the August 3 1980 Washington Post, the January 8 1981 and November 12 1982 New York Times, and the July 22 1982 L.A. Times. The two InfoWorld articles that describe Kent’s original vision for Project: Space Station are in the April 16 1984 and September 3 1984 issues. A transcript of his testimony before Congress is contained in the government publication “Future Space Programs, 1981: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications of the Committee on Science and Technology, U.S. House of Representatives, Ninety-seventh Congress, First Session, September, 21, 22, 23, 1981.” The space-advocacy movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s and the place of a space station within are treated at length in Reaching for the High Frontier by Michael A. G. Michaud, available online from The National Space Society.)


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16 Responses to Project: Space Station, Part 2: The Dream

  1. ZUrlocker

    July 28, 2014 at 10:56 pm

    A minor editing mistake: “Stan Kent, a English rocket science” should probably be “English rocket scientist.”

    • Jimmy Maher

      July 29, 2014 at 8:03 am

      Mmm, I’m seeing “Stan Kent, a *precocious* English rocket scientist…”

      • Victor Gijsbers

        July 29, 2014 at 9:35 am

        It still says “science”, not “scientist”.

        • Jimmy Maher

          July 29, 2014 at 10:14 am

          Oh, okay. Thought you folks were trying to point out something else entirely: an “a/an” error. Don’t ask me how I jumped to that conclusion. Fixed now.

  2. Nate

    July 29, 2014 at 5:25 am

    That particular flavour of space activism seemed to haunt most of the early-80s microcomputer scene. Jerry Pournelle’s Chaos Manor, the anchor column of Byte Magazine, seemed to split equally between reviewing the latest hardware/software, and advocating loudly for a private commercial space industry. The same techno-utopianism that pitched 8-bit micros as ‘preparing your children for the future’ also visualised that future as having, for sure, orbiting O’Neill cylinders, equatorial spaceports in North Africa and Peru, and solar power satellites crewed by spacesuited construction gangs.

    And since I was a pre-teen at the time, I lapped it all up. I had more more of an orientation toward hard science than fantasy; it didn’t cross my mind to think that the lecturing, professorial ‘hard science’ visions about space in magazines like Scientific American and Aerospace Age were just as much an id-driven marketing fantasy as the ads for expensive watches on the back covers.

    It seems, looking back, that 1984 was probably the high water mark of the techno-utopians both in space activism and microcomputing. After that, the business crowd led by IBM and Microsoft took over, and personal computing became much more professional, but somehow lost the brightest, strangest part of its soul.

    It took me well into the 90s before the realisation finally set in that the manned space future, like the Cold War, had been pretty much entirely a propaganda construct, and that the arguments for building Space Shuttles were just like the arguments for building ICBMs: flimsy, cynical and not really plausible even to their most passionate advocates. And that, like the rest of the Reagan era, it was ultimately all a waste of time and resources, and one we were very lucky to survive.

    I’ve never really forgiven the space boosters for that deep childhood sense of betrayal. Even as I’d really, really love to go back to that bright innocent time in the very early 80s when Space Shuttles and microcomputers really were magic.

    It was, after all, a time when you could listen completely unironically to this Rush song and cheer.

    • Jimmy Maher

      July 29, 2014 at 8:19 am

      Thanks for this!

      I’m not quite so cynical about the whole thing as you. Yes, there was a certain amount of disingenuousness in the pitch of people like Stan Kent, but that’s because they were trying to find a practical, economic way to justify — this being the hyper-capitalist 1980s — something that couldn’t really be justified on practical, economic grounds. But there is a larger argument that humanity *needs* to be pushing Out There, needs to slip the bonds of Earth at some point or we’re all going to go stir crazy and eventually kill each other off completely on this crowded little planet. Feeling unable to make this argument without being laughed at and dismissed as science-fiction dreamers, activists fell back on this idea that everything, absolutely everything could be done better in space. Weightlessness was going to be the magical ingredient that would let us cure cancer and invent inconceivably strong and flexible new materials; manned observatories floating in space were going to make our farmers more productive; astronauts were going to build a huge power station in space to capture energy from the Sun and beam it to Earth in the form of microwaves. Name any long-sought scientific or technical advance, append “by people in space” to the end of it, and it suddenly became possible and, indeed, all but guaranteed.

      • Nate

        July 31, 2014 at 10:29 am

        Oh, I’m not entirely cynical about space. I’m a huge fan of our robot probes, for instance; that we’re running rovers on Mars and orbiters around Saturn is something that makes my inner 12-year-old squee with delight.

        But I am tired of hearing false arguments for space colonisation constantly repeated – in tech forums, by intelligent people who ought to know better, and could, at the cost of a few hours of honest research. And these are usually people who claim to be rational fact-lovers.

        “But there is a larger argument that humanity *needs* to be pushing Out There, needs to slip the bonds of Earth at some point or we’re all going to go stir crazy and eventually kill each other off completely on this crowded little planet.”

        Yes, that’s the argument right there, and unfortunately, though it’s beautiful and wondrous, it’s false. As you note, it’s not rational; it appeals to the pre-rational imagination. And it bothers me that there exists an organised movement (somewhat less organised, but still passionate) that takes it as a tenet of faith. Because almost every part of it is not only wrong, but dangerous to believe. It exists in diametric opposition to a sane awareness of ecology, limits to growth, and the global viewpoint that’s the only way we’re going to survive the pressures of the next few centuries.

        Space as science now understands it – at least within the next few centuries, barring discovery of warp drive physics – is only ever going to be a tiny outpost of scientific resarch for a privileged few. Yes, it’s cool that we have a space station. It’s okay to do it because it’s cool. Whales are cool too! But we’re simply never going to “move off Earth” in any numbers that will matter for Earth’s population. No disaster we can imagine will ever make space more livable than Earth. Not within the solar system, at any rate. Mars is our best shot, and it will never be more habitable than Antarctica and the Sahara after a massive nuclear exchange.

        Neither will setting up (tiny and fragile and cramped) off-world colonies help prevent war. It’s going to accelerate it. In fact, the launchers for space evolved as a byproduct of the ICBMs which represent humanity’s darkest self-destructive urges. Getting space access means you also have the ability to toss rockets at your enemies; developing commercial asteroid mining is also going to mean developing the ability to precisely target and de-orbit rocks of a size that killed the dinosaurs. This technology is not going to make us more peaceful; it is, however, going to allow us to create species-extinction events on Earth.

        Finally – again, unless someone overturns Einstein tomrrow – our best science says we’re not going to get to the stars except through the tiny choke-point of establishing self-sustaining ecosystems on space stations and starships that can endure for thousands of years. And those are going to suffer *far* more from the ‘cramped, stir-crazy, kill everyone’ problem

        I love the space colony dream; it affected me deeply as a child. But it’s deeply, deeply irrational, and we’re long past the point were we had any excuse for holding it. And worse, the “we gota get off this rock” atitude gets in the way of solving the problems we need to solve.

        We have to learn to live together on this Earth for the next 1,000 years without an escape hatch. Is making that thought transition, after the accelerando of the last century, psychologically dificult? Yes. But we don’t have the luxury of self-deception. The last 50 years of the space program have reinforced in huge glowing neon signs that Earth really, really is unique in human-accessible space. And yet we’re destroying it, and “old Earth got used up, so we went into space” is the lie we tell ourselves as we watch.

        Sorry. I’m passionate about this, because I’m afraid of what the whiplash will do to us when we finally realise that space was a mirage. Will irrational optimism turn into hatred for ecologists who say “no, there are limits”? Well, that’s already surfacing in the climate-change denial movement.

        But, yeah. Space is still cool, and I wish the maned spaceflight boosters had been right. I just wish we had a vision equally as powerful on a gutlevel, to inspire a generation about what we could do here on Earth.

        • Jimmy Maher

          July 31, 2014 at 12:53 pm

          Thanks, Nate. There’s a lot here, some of which I actually agree with. As for the things I don’t, I can only speak for myself. But since you’ve pronounced my argument “the argument” for space, hopefully I’ll do. ;)

          “It [the argument] exists in diametric opposition to a sane awareness of ecology, limits to growth, and the global viewpoint that’s the only way we’re going to survive the pressures of the next few centuries.”

          “Diametric opposition?” Really? This sounds like a classic zero-sum-game fallacy. One can be supportive of space travel without being opposed to — indeed, while being passionately supportive of — all of those things. One could argue that the two go hand in hand; many astronauts have talked about the new appreciation they gained for the Earth as a precious, fragile cradle of life when they first viewed it from space.

          “Space as science now understands it – at least within the next few centuries, barring discovery of warp drive physics – is only ever going to be a tiny outpost of scientific resarch for a privileged few.”

          First, let’s take interstellar travel off the table, as it’s at best a useless distraction and at worst a straw man. It may indeed be effectively impossible by any other means than generation ships. If not, it probably is going to involve wormholes and manipulations of inconceivable amounts of energy and properties of physics about which we’re clueless. Let’s agree that if it happens at all we’re likely talking millennia before it does. So what? The solar system strikes me as a pretty huge and interesting place in its own right.

          Significant numbers of practical, permanent outposts in the solar system may indeed also require “a few centuries.” Again, so what? The solar system isn’t going anywhere, and with luck neither are we. I don’t expect to see a 2001 future in my lifetime. But I’d like to see us get started on it.

          “Neither will setting up (tiny and fragile and cramped) off-world colonies help prevent war. It’s going to accelerate it.”

          First of all, I never said it would. But let’s talk about it anyway, because this is a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot lately for a future article.

          I would ask you to think back to the conclusions many reached in the immediate aftermath of the first atomic bombings. Many very smart people reached the apparently logical conclusion that a global nuclear catastrophe was inevitable, that we were staring down the barrel of the end of history (the bad kind, not the good kind embarrassingly advocated by Francis Fukuyama back in those halcyon days of the early 1990s). There had never before been any weapon, they reasoned, that, once invented, hadn’t been used and used extensively until superseded by something more destructive. Why should the atomic bomb be any different?

          Well, for some reason the atomic bomb was different — at least for the time being; the jury will always unfortunately be out with the final verdict. It was different in spite of leaders on both sides of the Cold War who weren’t always models of enlightenment. There really was a time when it was *conventional wisdom* that the Earth would be a smoking radioactive pile by now. Hasn’t happened, which is cause for hope. Just as significantly, the technology to make an atomic bomb is practically off-the-shelf stuff by now. The only tricky part remains the materials. If apocalyptic levels of destruction are what you’re after, are you going to go with trying to develop a suitcase-sized bomb and setting up a few terrorist cells or trying to engineer a massive project to move an asteroid out of its orbit? I know which sounds easier to me… the latter sounds like a good project for a James Bond villain.

          Another historical counterexample, closer to home: weapons in space, period. There was a time when it was simply assumed by both sides in the Cold War that conflict would eventually move into space. This assumption is all over the shuttle’s flawed design. The Pentagon actually had plans to send the shuttle up to meet enemy missile silos in space and destroy them. The fact that space has never been weaponized, with the exception of reconnaissance satellites, is *amazing* and, again, contrary to all the conventional wisdom about humanity’s fundamentally violent nature and the like. Nobody wanted to be the first to start down that road in earnest, so it never happened.

          For all its problems, the world is now a less violent place than it’s ever been. Most countries, starting at different levels and moving at different rates as they may be, are slowly getting saner and more peaceful. Fear of some terrorist boogeyman in space dropping an asteroid on our heads strikes me as a *terrible* reason to avoid going there.

          “We have to learn to live together on this Earth for the next 1,000 years without an escape hatch.”

          Of course, give or take some centuries. We should absolutely take care of the Earth like it’s our only home, because for the foreseeable future it is. But we can always lay the groundwork for venturing out there, and let the other portion of humanity, otherwise absorbed as they should be in the equally important activities of preserving our animals and plants and ocean and atmosphere, enjoy a grand adventure, one that might just do us all good spiritually — or, if you like psychologically. We have more than enough resources for both, and these ideas are not mutually exclusive.

          I actually find your portrayal of space boosterism as somehow *dangerous* kind of bizarre. Is *anyone* who opposes sane environmental legislation seriously using a justification of “doesn’t matter, because we’ll all be on Mars soon?” These ideas have *no* traction even with the hardcore Republican base. Newt Gingrich was nearly laughed out of the last Republican primaries because of all of his crazy plans for space. Similarly, if you’re compiling reasons that people oppose environmental regulations or any other sane, necessary policy, “because space exploration would be cooler and is worthier of the money” would come in at about slot 10,000, corresponding to about .0000000001% of the people in question.

          • Nate

            August 1, 2014 at 6:00 am

            These are good counterarguments you present, especially the “spiritual” benefit of space exploration; I do think that a good case can be made that the presence of humans in orbit and on the Moon has had an impact on the human spirit (the ‘blue marble’ picture comes to mind) far out of proportion to the military, commercial or scientific spinoffs.

            ” Is *anyone* who opposes sane environmental legislation seriously using a justification of “doesn’t matter, because we’ll all be on Mars soon?” These ideas have *no* traction even with the hardcore Republican base.”

            In the hardcore Republican base? I don’t know. I seem to see this idea more in the right-wing libertarian technology blogosphere; among young people whose formative years were during the exponential-growth Internet tech boom of the 90, who are now fretting at anything they see as restraints to growth (and who they often visualise as ‘science-hating environmentalists’). I don’t see it held by people who have poltiical power – who tend to be older – but it feels to me to be common among the young, idealistic, and technologically inclined.

            It’s certainly not a well-worked-out vision for the future . It just seems to be more of a deep unexamined belief that “… but we really don’t have to worry about resource depletion, because there’s plenty more in space”.

            But on the other hand, it’s good to think that I’m way overestimating both how prevalent this argument is, and how influential the people are who make it.

            And after all, maybe miracles can happen: take this NASA announcement, for instance

          • Jimmy Maher

            August 1, 2014 at 7:25 am

            I wouldn’t worry about the techno-libertarians too much. These are just immature young men with limited life experience who’ve been deluded by the magic of the Internet into thinking the individual is omnipotent. In reality, that omnipotence of course depends on a huge, intricate network of technology and communication that is only made possible by the *collective* order. Without it, these young men are just pasty nerds with few practical life skills. Most of them will realize that around the point that they get married and/or become fathers if not before; the rest don’t exist in significant enough numbers to matter.

    • dr. no

      July 30, 2014 at 7:59 pm

      Let’s be fair. To a person back in 1980, something like the Internet or Siri would have seemed just as plausible as orbital solar power satellites or a permanent colony on the moon. The fact that the former became reality and the latter did not is “obvious” only because we lived through it.

      As Einstein said, we cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them. The techno-utopians at least had the courage to dream of something big that would make a difference. Sometimes it seems like all the mainstream press can talk about is 1% changes in unemployment or what some celebrity said on twitter.

      • Nate

        July 31, 2014 at 10:48 am

        “To a person back in 1980, something like the Internet or Siri would have seemed just as plausible as orbital solar power satellites or a permanent colony on the moon. The fact that the former became reality and the latter did not is “obvious” only because we lived through it.”

        True. It is interesting to think about what might have happened (could still happen?) if there were a big push for space solar. It’s about the only halfway plausible economic driver for near-future orbital habitation I can think of.

        The 1979 James P Hogan SF novel “The Two Faces of Tomorrow” is intriguing because it suggests a (then-plausible) extrapolation from both 1970s space and 1970s Internet research, which has now become a very alien past. A global computer network coordinating huge work projects on the Moon is given access to an O’Neill colony (which are being built at a rapid rate) and an experimental AI upgrade. Completely missing from this universe is any sense of commercial cost-benefit calculations (any private enterprise at all, really; it’s all government-funded Big Science) or the kinds of infrastructure and resource limits which started to hit us in the 1980s.

        I do miss the technocratic spirit that built the scienc megaprojects of the 50s and 60s; I guess Reaganism pretty much dismantled and killed that dead. We seem to have such tiny ambitions now. On the other hand, the USSR also demonstrated that giving unlimited power to huge development projects doesn’t necessarily work out for the best. Would be nice to have an alternative, if there is one.

  3. Nate

    July 29, 2014 at 5:29 am

    Let me try that link again.

  4. John G

    July 30, 2014 at 3:26 pm

    Totally amazing work you are doing here. I think I had this game but had no idea it was created by a real life Buckaroo Banzai character.

  5. Grunion Guy

    November 30, 2014 at 7:47 am

    As a person that spent the first twenty-five years of my life in Santa Clara, California, I was fascinated to learn the history behind the man that opened One Step Beyond. I only ever took in a few shows there back in the day but I had several friends who thought of that club as their second home.

    • Dgl

      October 29, 2015 at 12:15 am

      Stan opened one step beyond in 1986 Halloween and destroyed it and all of us who designed cleaned and got it opened and tried to keep it openall the the money went upnhis nose as a cocaine addict, he destroyed one step beyond,didn’t pay theState taxes On employee payroll accounts and escaped to L A To write erotic books about women’s shoes,have no respect forStan Kent he destroyed a lot of lives!


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