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DAWN OF THE 'PEOPLED SPACE AGE'

(Page 4 of 5)



"We rip up the earth for coal, molybdenum, chromium, and steel, but space is saturated with energy and resources. Once you've paid the price of getting out of the earth's gravity, it's cheap to bring in asteroids, park them next to your orbital factory, and extract materials. If we don't get off the earth and start recognizing that space can provide these nutrients for the growth of this organism, then we are going to eat ourselves alive. . . ."

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Initially, he comes across as the affable, redheaded "Aw, shucks" farm boy, but friends say he is thick-skinned and capable of defending himself in a town where a Brown appointee already has one strike against him.

He has built a reputation on sheer perspiration. He is a tireless worker who consistently forgets to take his vacations. Over the last several years he has developed a hard-hitting style of diplomacy that astounds the most wizened political veterans.

"Rusty can be tough but still incredibly diplomatic under circumstances which would drive most people to poke out the eyes of their enemies with sharp sticks, " a close friend says.

By training, Schweickart is a scientist. He has an MA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in aeronautics and astronautics, and he was one of the first of the civilian astronauts in the Apollo program. He was an Air Force fighter pilot but was not chosen from the bullpen of military test pilots that supplied most of the candidates in the astronaut program.

While many associated with NASA describe the space program as a time line of amazing engineering feats, Schweickart latches onto the sense of adventure and spirit of exploration. Whenever the subject comes up, he cocks back his head, and his blue eyes sparkle with imagination. If sitting down, he is likely to grab the arms of his chair as if preparing for blastoff. Soon his head is spinning with futuristic visions and the room almost seems to go orbital.

He impresses one as the old-fashioned guy who would like to get in a ship and sail out and see if the ocean really has an edge. He inspires the wacky sort of confidence that would make anyone feel comfortable getting into his spaceship and going to check out some far-flung corner of the universe.

What concerns Schweickart about the new space shuttle is, first, that it could become the primary property of professional astronauts rather than a diverse group of the venturesome and curious, and second, that the shuttle might become so routine and automated that astronauts would become glorified truck drivers. The gutsy guy looking for a little adventure could find working in a space colony no different from roughnecking on an oil platform in the North Sea or Prudhoe Bay.

"In the early days of the space shuttle program the idea was to make provisions for people to go up who were not professional astronauts. They might be graduate students or researchers, at first, and, eventually, the butcher, the baker. The shuttle will be a very useful tool, but the problem is that NASA is so tight on funding that everything has been sacrificed to the vehicle. We may end up with something like a delivery van that carries up satellites and kicks them out of the back of the truck into space."

When the price of the moving van is right, Americans and other earthlings will pull up stakes and begin homesteading space, the way the Western frontier was settled -- gradually, and by the most adventurous.

"First there will be the technicians who fix the communications satellites and public service platforms and auxiliary power systems," Schweickart says. "You'll have to build them barracks, and they are human beings, so they will have cooks, and kitchens, and movies -- like the North Slope of Alaska or a research facility in Antarctica. You will have the visiting scientists in space for six months, and they will bring their secretaries and the guys who fix the telephones.

"It will start off as a couple of houses and then a village and a town and a small city with a city council and a mayor. The space colony will produce products and services related to Earth, and Earth will dominate in terms of prices and access. The community in space will feel exploited and get angry, to the point that a town meeting is called; people don't want to put up with all this imperialist baloney from earth. They will vote to float a bond issue to invest in a propulsion system; they will hook it on the back and spiral into space, saying, 'Sayonara, Earth!'"