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How Isaac Asimov inspired a Seattle space visionary

Remembering the career of Bob Citron, a Bellevue entrepreneur who combined a bit of Rick Steves and Carl Sagan.

Bob Citron

Bob Citron Navrek/Wikimedia Commons

It went little noticed in Seattle, but a local resident named Bob Citron died Jan. 31 in Bellevue. He received an extensive obituary in the Los Angeles Times, one that focused on his contributions to — and passion for — the private development of space, and getting us all up there someday.

Newt Gingrich has brought up the subject of Moon bases and the commercial development of space, but Bob Citron was there way before Newt. He helped develop a passenger module for the Space Shuttle, later converted to a cargo compartment. He worked on a variety of enterprises designed to put the solar system within reach of researchers and travelers.

I knew Citron because he hired me to help him launch a magazine in 1977. It was called Adventure Travel and our first office was a soon-crowded apartment in the University District. In the early days, we literally worked at folding tables and sat on cardboard boxes. The magazine turned into a 100,000-circulation national monthly that preceded the Outside magazine phenomenon. It was eventually sold to Ziff-Davis in New York in 1980.

We used to describe the magazine as National Geographic, except you could do what was in the pictures, like sign up to trek to Mt. Everest, raft the Bio Bio, or cruise the coast of Antarctica. Bob had made documentaries for Geographic, and helped found the Center for Short-Lived Phenomenon for the Smithsonian, a global network of science reporting on breaking events, like quakes, eruptions, and mass migrations. 

He had also launched an organization called Earthwatch that, even today as part of the Earthwatch Institute, puts travelers into the field with working scientists. Citron combined the traveler's bug of Rick Steves with the Carl Sagan-style popularization of science. People were willing to pay to do some archaeology or wildlife field studies. He'd tapped into a baby-boomer desire for a dose of thrill and high-mindedness. Adventure Travel was a spin on that idea: Forget Club Med and tap opportunities to explore the world. Our magazine was the chief benefit of membership of what Citron dubbed the American Adventurers Association.

Citron's post-Adventure Travel life was devoted to space and futurism, and it was space that offered the ultimate adventures down the road. Bob had visited most countries in the world; space was his last frontier, but he was eager to get there long before Paul Allen or Jeff Bezos started experimenting with their own rocket ships.

His interest in space dated back at least to Sputnik, but I am struck with how his devotion to space entrepreneurism in the 1980s and afterward echoes a story we commissioned for Adventure Travel in 1979, one I remember Citron was thrilled with. Citron's wife and the magazine's editor, Barbara Sleeper, asked science fact and fiction author Isaac Asimov to write a piece for us about the future of adventure travel. Asimov had for years been writing future histories of the cosmos (e.g. The Foundation Trilogy). This assignment was more practical: outline the opportunities for space travel by 2080, or thereabouts. 

Asimov turned in a story called "The Average Person as Astronaut" in which he quickly dismissed travel to nearby planets and passing asteroids for various reasons (too time consuming, too boring). Like Gingrich, he focused mostly on the opportunities of the nearby Moon and surrounding space.

The Space Shuttle program, he believed, would justify the development of space stations and orbiting colonies that would supervise solar-powered manufacturing facilities using raw materials mined on the Moon. "The Shuttle is a reusable spacecraft. It is a workhorse, a truck for the vacuum," he wrote. He predicted space labs and observatories would be established to advance science and facilitate experiments that are more readily done in space. He believed that space stations could generate energy for use on earth too, such as transmitting solar power via microwave.

Asimov saw the move into space as essential for humanity's survival on a planet where humans were depleting resources. It will happen, he wrote, "unless human beings deliberately decide not to do it, either out of short-sightedness or a failure of nerve."


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