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How Isaac Asimov inspired a Seattle space visionary

Space shuttle Atlantis: the last liftoff. Now, Seattle is getting a space shuttle trainer. Credit: NASA

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.”

“There are those who want to ‘solve Earth’s problems first,’ but these problems are insoluble unless we move out into space,” Asimov wrote. “Unless we expand our range and draw on the resources of more than earth we will collapse and civilization with wither and die.” There are many who would agree, but Earth-first politics and budget-cutting, not to mention the turning of the shuttles into museum pieces, suggests a slog toward the heavens, not a leap. The surly bonds of earth politics are surly indeed.

Asimov envisioned Moon tourism — and discussed the possibilities of promoting fitness there through low-gravity exercise. He also saw Lunar tourism bringing visitors down to tour mining operations from moon rovers. He also envisioned space yachtsmen navigating the solar winds.

But, he was especially excited about the diverse floating worlds of orbiting space colonies. They were anything but the monoculture of NASA. Adventure travelers of the future would be amazed, he thought, by the diverse cultures of the settlements. “Each different space settlement will be like a different island in the ocean.” Each one would suit the tastes of its founders. “One might be a bit suburban; another might be a Dutch landscape; or an African; or a Spanish — different languages, different customs, different attitudes, different amusements. It will be the delight of humanity that these small and isolated worlds will add to the diversity of human culture….”

This wasn’t the first time Asimov had exercised his imagination for a Seattle project. He had been consulted for the Federal Science Pavilion for the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962, and proposed developing an exhibit and film centered around an international Moon base where Americans and Russians worked side by side, but his ideas and script did not make the final cut.

The time frame for Asimov’s vision was very general. One editor tried to pin him down to making predictions about the timing and cost of space trips, but Asimov was too smart for that. In correspondence he wrote, “I am not anxious to be too specific in terms of dates and prices for tickets as I don’t want to be held up to ridicule in the 21st century. It is one thing to be upbeat and hopeful in a general way. It is another to quote years and dollars. May I be excused from that?”

He was, but even without price tags and timetables space colonization is an easy target for ridicule and satire, especially when the cast of Saturday Night Live spoofs “Newt Gingrich, Moon President.” Grandiosity might be as American as apple pie, but so is puncturing it. 

Still, visionaries tend to see things like the human move into space in practical terms. Bob Citron certainly did. If luxury liners could be designed to take customers to Antarctica in comfort, why not orbit? The Asimov plan wasn’t endless dreaming, it was a map to the future, lined with adventure, and could be the result of a series of very logical, practical steps. It would be motivated by high-mindedness (saving civilization) and money, but also by a kind of boyish sense of adventure. Citron certainly had that in spades, and he wanted every citizen to share that sense of wonder and excitement. The thrill of modern technology was that it put adventure to within reach of the rest of us.

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