It was somewhere amid the kitchens and closets that I caught a glimpse of humanity's future beyond the Earth.
For better and worse, I tend to be a "big picture" sort of person. One aspect of this is my longstanding interest in space exploration and astronomy, subjects about which I have written frequently at TCS and elsewhere. The everyday, smaller-scale type of "space"—real estate on this planet—is something in which I've had only a moderate interest (as evidenced by my living in the same Manhattan rental apartment for almost two decades).
However, prompted by impending marriage and a softening real-estate market, my fiancée and I have been looking at houses in what New York City people call "upstate" (say an hour north of the city). As we both have an affinity for old houses, and she has an architectural background, we have included in our search structures that will need considerable renovation (or even a massive build-out in the case of one stone barn).
And, while inspecting grout and crawlspaces might not evoke images of the celestial, it has become increasingly evident to me that certain skills and attitudes valuable in terrestrial real-estate acquisition and improvement are essential conditions of a human future in space. For space exploration to move beyond its current limited scope and pace will require not just such big-picture elements as political will, technological breakthroughs, and major economic incentives. Crucially, it will also require that people have hands-on experience, a do-it-yourself attitude, and a personal stake in the outcome.
Consider the recent news that NASA will send astronauts to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope in 2008. This will be the fourth servicing mission for Hubble, and it will underscore that among the qualities needed for successful astronaut work is being handy. Notwithstanding the traditional preference among professional astronomers for robotic missions over manned ones, the fact remains that Hubble, a keystone of astronomy in the past decade and a half, would not be working if repair people did not come by as needed.
The importance of being able to fix and build things, moreover, will only increase as space operations are conducted for longer periods and further from Earth. Habitation on the moon or Mars may involve prefabricated domes or tubes, for instance, but will also require improvisation, patch-ups, and knowledge that can only be derived from a close look at the details of an alien environment. Deep-space missions, much like fixing up old houses, will require figuring out what to do, not just following an instruction manual.
Space tourism is rightly noted as a promising means of accelerating human space flight via market forces. However, the model of space travelers as passengers who sit back and enjoy the view may turn out to cover just a fraction of human space activities. I suspect that a major draw for humans to space will be the possibility of doing something once you're there. This might involve more active forms of tourism, such as driving a rover across the lunar surface. But over time it should also include the possibility of owning and developing property on celestial bodies.
Some years ago, I wrote an article for Reason sketching out how a system of space property rights might develop, and later I wrote for TCS that space bonds linked to property rights could be a valuable incentive for space exploration. If such proposals sound far-fetched, consider what real estate on Earth would be like if property rights here were in the same legal and political limbo as they are in space. Public housing, for all its often troubled history, at least involves ownership by government. At present, neither public nor private entities have any accepted way of acquiring extraterrestrial property.
Consider the massive task that is performed every day of building and rebuilding the housing stock on Earth. Some of it is performed by governments or large developers, but much of it is done in a highly decentralized way, by individuals or small contractors. A successful human presence in space will also require such decentralization. From that standpoint, space enthusiasts should take heart from the growing popularity of do-it-yourself TV shows and superstores here and now. The people who live on Mars will be those who have the skills and desire to build a house there, brick by pressurized brick.