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starship-design: Larry Niven: Making Somebody Pay (This is too good...)

Larry Niven: Making Somebody Pay

By Larry Niven
posted: 01:45 pm ET
14 September 2000

A panel at the World Science Fiction Convention was about evolving ways to
make the conquest of the universe pay for itself.

"Sell the right to leave your footprints in the moon," one said. "The
contract says that they’ll be roped off for all eternity, like Neil
Armstrong’s. Someone will bite."

And I thought: barefoot.

Arthur Clarke has pointed out that a man dropped into vacuum won’t just
explode. He’d have roughly two minutes, conscious, to get himself into air
again. He’d blow his eardrums (they grow back) and the varicose veins might
be spectacular, a badge of honor. If he forgot to exhale he’d burst his
But we’re playing tourist games; we don’t have to go that far.

One of you is going to be the first human being to walk barefoot on the
moon. There’s no need to be stark naked. Take a pressure suit -- standard by
the time we can make this offer -- remove the boots, apply tourniquet
pressure around the ankles or calves. We’ll bring you out to some flat patch
of deep dust, in a moon crawler (also standard by now). You’re in the
airlock; there’s a countdown--
Now you do the three-yard run. Not too fast, bozo, because you’ve got to
make that turn, and if you bound over the damn airlock you’ll have to come

Afterward we’ll set up the fence and signs, treat your feet for dehydration
and frostbite, possible cuts and that mapwork of burst blood vessels you’ll
be bragging about into the next century. We’ll take close-up pictures of the
footprints to go with the video of your run, and drive you back to Moonbase.
(We can’t use a flying vehicle! Rocket exhaust would erase the footprints.)
Danger? No worse than skydiving. Well, not much.

Expense? Today it’s impossible. Tomorrow. . . . My lovely wife Marilyn gets
the Neimann-Marcus annual catalogue. It always offers a hugely expensive
one-of-a-kind gift. What a lovely 50th anniversary present this would be!
Bill Gates, I never know when you’re listening.

That’s for later this century. What about the near term?

Consider space as entertainment. We pay for the next generation of
spacecraft via a subscription channel that watches every launch, that gets
exclusive coverage from the probes and live coverage aboard the
International Space Station.

It would be dishonest. Every taxpayer paid for the probes, the shuttles, the
space station. We can’t cut them off from what they bought. It’s a bootstrap
problem: private enterprise doesn’t have much to sell as entertainment until
it can afford to launch something.

A currently popular scheme, variously expressed, would fit right in.

We drop a crawler (like Sojourner) on the moon. (Eventually we’d want Mars.)
It’s relatively cheap, no bigger than a toy, although orbiting relays
(needed around Mars) would bring up the price. It’s controlled from Earth by
VR. Give the controls to the highest bidder. Or go for publicity and
donations: let Jay Leno steer the thing on TV. Get advertising from
Toys-R-Us or Sega.

If you can drop a thousand such mini-rovers across the moon, you’d go to a
flat rate: anyone can steer a mini-rover over lunar terrain for fifty bucks
a minute or something reasonable. Losing one costs extra.
Jerry Pournelle told me about a discussion of the mini-rover scheme.
Question: where do you drop the first mini-rover? Tryouts on the moon, of
course, even if your ultimate goal is Mars. Where would it get the most
media attention?

Apollo 11's landing site was their first choice, Jerry said, but that’s dull
turf. Tranquility Base was the guaranteed flattest possible place to land
the first LEM, with no interesting-but-dangerous rocks, projections,
anomalies . . . nothing.

Of course you could tour around Armstrong’s footprints . . . but even though
he drives pretty good -- being a classic car buff -- Jay Leno might run over
the footprints. Someone eventually would. Can’t have that.

I say: drop the toy car next to the first automobile on the moon.

1. It’s too big to hurt by accident.
2. $50-a-minute drivers could follow the tracks the moon buggy left. See
everything the astronauts saw. Go on to terrain they missed.
3. We can "drive" the moon buggy itself this way. But we don’t need a
humanoid robot (or another astronaut) for that. Just an advanced mini-rover
to climb up and plug into the controls, carrying a program update and a
camera to ride the dash.
4. All it takes is funding.

Larry Niven is a noted master of futurism and science fiction. Sooner or
later, the editor will get your comments to him, or implement your other