When Star Trek announced that Space was the Final Frontier, it rang cool. It also rang true. Spending time in the mountains of Colorado, a place that was frontier little more than a century ago, makes me wonder what
frontiers still exist for us, and why frontiers are important.
We have allowed space as a frontier to drizzle away. We did the man on the moon thing, got a space station up and running on
a super subsidized basis, had a few well-heeled private space travelers, but in terms of a Star Trek level of imagining, we have let space slip away.
In nineteenth century Colorado, it was not the sky that was the limit, it was the land. Conquering the mountains and enduring the hardships to tap their hidden resources was a feat of economic gambling, engineering savvy and brute strength.
Men came in search of gold, and found some, but mostly they found silver, iron, copper and molybdenum.
They figured how to extract the metals from inhospitable places. They dug the mines, built towns for miners, laid
railroads to transport the goods, and when the veins of ore ran dry in one place, they moved everything to new locations.
The main highway through Climax, CO, which goes over Freemont Pass, was relocated five times as engineers mapped the shift in molybdenum deposits. Dillon, CO moved four times, first to accommodate railroads, and later, for water.
Colorado’s early economy, based on pulling precious stuff from the ground, led to a cycle of boom and bust that reflected patterns that existed throughout the United States during the 1800’s, when the role of government was more limited and our
systems of banking and trade were still being formulated. However, even during periods of bust there was an understanding that it was only temporary; another opportunity would reveal itself, around the mountain as it were, and another boom would explode. Americans had good cause to be optimistic; the frontier was inexhaustible.
The idea of the frontier shifted in the twentieth century. In World War I we flexed the muscles that made America strong to influence Europe, by the 1920’s Wall Street became wild as any Old West Town, but the when the ultimate bust of The Great Depression resulted, we introduced safety nets. The very term ‘social security’ is anathema to a frontier mentality. Yet, when we conquered the nuclear frontier and emerged from World War II as the dominant super power, we thought we could have it both ways –unbridled opportunity for the risk takers without the downside of real losers. By the 1950’s we had run out of land to expand into, so we developed a consumer model of expansion. Automobiles and suburban development and Interstate highways fed on each other, Americans consumed more stuff. We couldn’t push further west so we made more, wanted more, and pumped it all up –
bigger cars, bigger houses, bigger yards.
This is the economy of the Colorado mountains now – an economy of ski resorts and second homes. The boom of the 1990’s and 2000’s in Colorado tourism puts all previous booms to shame. The mountains are brimming with picturesque
wooden villas available for weekly rental; the local population makes a better livelihood catering to the whims of the well-heeled visitors then they ever did mining ore.
There is nothing wrong with skiing down the side of a mountain that trappers used to scale with picks or bicycling along a path that railroads used to haul minerals. At one level it is a testament to our complete conquest of the mountains that now we use them for play. But frolicking in the mountains is not the same as mastering them. Mastering is the
skill we hone on a frontier, a skill I believe is essential to the integrity of everyone who strives in life.
So, what frontiers do we have left? We know the standard answers – energy sustainability, economic opportunity, information capability, biomedical advances, virtual reality, robotics, even quarks. Having reached the limits of our physical world, the new frontiers are social and intellectual and,
frankly, they lack the collective wow factor that engage souls. Our future is portrayed as collaborative teams working the edges of systems already in place. Improving margins without upsetting anything fundamental. This is all necessary work on a planet that is fully explored and has six billion mouths to feed. Yet, a future of renovating This Old House lacks the wow of building your own dream house.
The cool thing about people is, once our bellies are full, we are not satisfied. We are wired to create, to invent, to explore. The drive to push our limits differentiates us from other species. Sure, some people are placated by passive entertainment, or the
simulation of Disneyworld, or the physical rush of downhill skiing. But I maintain there is a core group of people for whom entertainment is insufficient. They want to push the next frontier.
What we need is a way to synthesize the opportunities of the intellectual and social frontiers budding around us into a singular vision with the commanding strength of “Go West, Young Man.” Space cannot be the final frontier, because conquering new frontiers is an elemental aspect of our humanness. Right now we have a plethora of frontier opportunities, and while it is possible to have multiple
frontiers, they lack the clarity of one, bold effort. I think that having a clearly articulated vision of where we are headed would do wonders to jumpstart the lethargy of this country, as Kennedy did with the space program in the 1960’s. Being the Awkward Poser I am inclined to see multiple views of any issue, so I doubt I will be the one to name the frontier that
lies beyond space. I am happy to raise the question – feel free to make suggestions.