Wise guidelines for space policy making


Credit: endless-space.com

As we approach a presidential transition, I’ve been thinking, a lot, about whom the next president will listen to about issues in space policy. (I’d still like to know exactly how, and why, President Obama and his science advisor John Holdren embraced the idea of sending humans to an asteroid and paving the way for asteroid mining.) Today I offer some wise guidelines for space policy, presented by my mentor and friend Eilene Galloway (b. 1906-d. 2009) at a 2003 space policy symposium.* They all sound good to me today. See what you think.

  1. There should be a complete statement of this total problem for which solutions are proposed. Clarify the general policy framework into which specific applications must fit. Clarify the understanding of such words as “peaceful” and “military” so all participants agree on a common meaning.
  1. Do not discard 46-year old [now 59-year-old] concepts that have built up international confidence in outer space as a safe orderly place for the conduct of beneficial activities—humanitarian and commercial.
  1. Avoid chopping up space activities into parts that are not coordinated with the overall goal of maintaining outer space for peaceful purposes.
  1. Avoid embedding political, economic and philosophical concepts which tend to divide nations conducting activities in the naturally international environment of outer space.
  1. Make sure that those in government who are responsible for legislation on organization, programs and budgets understand the unique characteristics of the outer space environment which determines what can be effective in achieving the goal of maintaining outer space as a safe orderly environment.
  1. Include planners with imagination to estimate the probable consequences of proposals for action.


#1 is a no-brainer.

As to #2, Eilene was referring to the work of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), established in 1957, including the production of a collection of treaties that effectively function as foundational international space law (the 1967 U.N. Treaty on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space). Many advocates of so-called “private” space development claim this body of international law establishes no barriers to “free-market” activity in space (read: whoever gets there first gets to take it all). Others disagree. I endorse Eilene’s recommendation.

As to #3, I don’t think we’re there….

As to #4, the United States certainly hasn’t followed this recommendation – see my many previous posts on the neoliberal/libertarian/Western-Christian ideology that propels the human exploration and development of space (July 25-27, 2016; December 28, 2015; August 12, 2015; July 27, 2015; March 27, 2015; etc.)

As to #5, the fact that Congress passed and the President signed the SPACE (Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship) Act of 2015 is an indication, to me, that responsible parties in government may not fully grasp the physical, technological, and political complexities of operating in the space environment – especially with humans in the mix.

As to #6, NASA and the aerospace industry have many intelligent, well-educated, and starry-eyed “planners with imagination” – but IMHO too many of them don’t bother with estimating the probable consequences of acting on those plans. My question is, as always, how will the colonization of other planets and the exploitation of space resources benefit all people of Earth? How will such activities narrow the gap between the rich and the poor?

Deep in my brain and in my heart I think and feel that colonizing other planets and exploiting extraterrestrial resources would be immoral at this stage of human development. I’m not at all sure that Eilene Galloway would agree with me. I wish I could talk with her about it.

Do we govern algorithms, or do they govern us?


Credit: bigthink.com

Earlier this year, one of my professional journals, Science, Technology, & Human Values, published a special issue on “governing algorithms.” What are those, you might wonder? So did I. Now I know. And in some ways I wish I didn’t. They’re just one more thing to fret about….

According to the American Heritage Science Dictionary, an algorithm is “a finite set of unambiguous instructions performed in a prescribed sequence to achieve a goal, especially a mathematical rule or procedure used to compute a desired result. Algorithms are the basis for most computer programming.”

The term “governing algorithms” refers to the ways in which algorithms affect our lives  and also to whether algorithms warrant some sort of governance. Guest editor Malte Ziewitz of Cornell University observes, algorithms are a sort of “modern myth…. They have been depicted as powerful entities that rule, sort, govern, shape, or otherwise control our lives,” and “their alleged obscurity and inscrutability make it difficult to understand what exactly is at stake.”

We’re all familiar with this situation: we want to download a new application, but before we can do that we must agree to a set of terms and conditions and privacy policies. “Providers claim they are acting legally because they have the user’s consent…. When asked why they do not read [these documents], users often reply that they make no sense,” writes Lucas Introna of Lancaster University. “If consent is given, does it cover handing over data to governments?”

Algorithms, deployed as software, are “inscrutable” – at least to the vast majority of us who cannot either write or read code. “They become black boxes.” Decisions made by human coders become “encapsulated in complex inscrutable algorithms that enact (in millions of lines of source code) our supposed choices based on complex relational conditions, which after many iterations of ‘bug fixing’ and ‘tweaking’ even the programmers often no longer understand,” Introna says.

(Are you fretting yet? Just a little bit uneasy? I am.)

Introna examines the “algorithmic actor” Turnitin, which offers a computerized method for checking academic writing for sourcing and plagiarism. Turnitin claims its system “fosters critical thinking.” (I’ll have to think about that claim….)

Turnitin’s sister company iThenticate offers a similar system for academic publishers. “This is the algorithmic governance of academic writing on an unprecedented scale,” says Introna. “When did academic writing come to be seen as a ‘problem’ in need of such governance?

Think about a search engine’s indexing and ranking algorithms – or a news feed’s, or, say, jobs.gov’s….

To wrap up, let me mention some other papers and articles about algorithms, published elsewhere – their titles alone will give you something to think about:

“’Why do white people have thin lips?’ Google and the perpetuation of stereotypes via auto-complete search forms” (Baker and Potts, Critical Discourse Studies, 2013)

“Automating the news: how personalized news recommender system design choices impact news reception” (Beam, Communication Research, 2014)

“Want to be on top? Algorithmic power and the threat of invisibility on Facebook” (Brucher, New Media and Society, 2012)

“Financial news and market panics in the age of high-frequency sentiment trading algorithms,” (Kleinnijenhuis et al, Journalism, 2013)

“NSA uses Google cookies to pinpoint targets for hacking” (Soltani and Gellman, The Washington Post, 2013)

Talk amongst yourselves….

The practices of journalists: what scholars have to say


Credit. R. Crumb, 1977


In the current cultural environment, which inundates us with media content whether we like it or not (airport lounges, elevators, gas pumps…), much of it unfiltered (Twitter, Facebook, blogs), it might be useful to consider what scholars have observed about how journalism and journalists work.

Studies of the practice of news production provide many insights. While some of these studies were done decades ago (e.g. Gans, Gitlin), they are still relevant.

“News” is not something that journalists find but something that journalists participate in constructing, and journalists construct “news” through discourse. In the late, great James Carey’s (1992) ritual conception of communication, “the purpose of news is not to represent and inform but to signal, tell a story.” News is both a form and a product of culture, maintaining culture (values, norms…) over time, through story-telling. Media content is a source and a manifestation of culture, a form of cultural mapping that contributes to the construction of social norms and deviance, and journalistic standards and practices are means of defining media content, constructing news. As sociologist of journalism Michael Schudson has explained, journalists are “cultural actors” who produce news according to a system of “stored cultural meanings and patterns of discourse.”

The professionalization of journalism has enabled journalists to construct and maintain cultural authority for themselves — a role in defining what is news and what is not, a gate-keeping function. Journalists construct their cultural authority by employing their “god-terms of facts, truth, and reality,” as mass communication scholar Barbie Zelizer put it, to construct depictions of social reality. Journalists make choices in constructing the news that favor the interests of elites, in ways that are not necessarily intentional but simply “embedded in professional routines. By adhering to professional standards, practices, values and conventions, journalists participate in constructing and reconstructing social norms, and deviance from those norms.

While what journalists are expected to do is explain things, what they actually do is ritualistically construct and enforce social norms. By engaging in what communication scholar Carolyn Marvin has called “the ritual practice of yielding interpretive authority to experts,” journalists can convey the appearance of distancing themselves from the worldviews and values they depict in their stories. Media content tends to lean toward official stories, and journalists tend to rely on official sources inclined to maintain the status quo.

Sociologist Herbert Gans observed that the maintenance of social order is a key news value. He found that journalists routinize news selection by following conventions regarding sources (who counts as official, authoritative, and credible), substance (timeliness, controversy, prominence, the unusual), value (utility, entertainment), and audience appeal (human interest) in deciding what is news; and that they employ story selling, story buying, and story highlighting – the construction of what he called a highlighted reality — in the process of deciding what is news.

Gans observed that journalists engage in self-censorship by cooperating with people in power, and he noted that they do not appear to be aware of conforming to social norms. Journalists reaffirm the ideological status quo…by ridiculing deviance from the accepted “norm.” Journalistic practices that contribute to maintaining the status quo range from organizational-level media routines (pack journalism, reliance on other media, adherence to a standard set of news values) to professional conventions (objectivity, balance, fairness) to individual biases rooted in factors such as gender and class. Among personal values and beliefs that contribute to journalists’ decisions about what counts as news are ethnocentrism, “responsible capitalism,” individualism, and a belief in the need for social order.

Journalists adhere to professional conventions of objectivity, skepticism, and verifiability as a way of sustaining their cultural authority. The journalistic convention of objectivity has been deemed the most important in the profession, and journalists employ it as a “strategic ritual,” as sociologist Gaye Tuchman characterized it, a defensive routine to protect themselves from criticism.

Though journalists subscribe to the convention of objectivity as a means of avoiding bias, objectivity it has become a sort of bias in itself, according to Schudson (1978), an element of the social construction of news that keeps journalists dependent on official stories and sources. “News routines are skewed toward representing demands, individuals, and frames which do not fundamentally contradict the dominant hegemonic principles,” as social critic Todd Gitlin has said, including “the legitimacy of the social order secured and defined by dominant elites…. Simply by doing their jobs, journalists tend to serve…elite definitions of reality.” Most journalistic accounts “are presented from the inside out,” as mass communication scholar Meenakshi Gigi Durham has explained. “Information is collected and interpreted by people who are inside the dominant social order about those who are either inside or outside it, with no overt acknowledgment of these social locations or the implications thereof.”

Read Mother Jones, Off Our Backs, The Monthly Review , The Nation, The Progressive, Truth-Out, or listen to “Democracy Now” and you’ll get a different depiction of social reality than you will on CNN or in The Washington Post.

As a media analyst, I have a few suggestions. Know who owns your media (see http://www.freepress.net/ownership/chart for details). Know which media conglomerates are investing in the campaign to make us pay for access to the Internet – Comcast, for example (2011 revenues, $55.8 billion), which owns, among many other outlets, NBC Universal, Telemundo, USA, SyFy, CNBC, Bravo, Oxygen, Fandango, 50 percent of msnbc.com, and 32 percent of Hulu). Know that the Walt Disney Company (2011 revenues, $40.1 billion) owns, among many other media outlets, ABC TV, ESPN, Lifetime, 227 radio stations, Marvel Publishing, Pixar, Hollywood Records, Mammoth Records, Buena Vista Records, Lyric Street Records, Buena Vista Concerts, and Disney Theatrical Productions.

Diversify your sources. Develop your own media filters – don’t let mathematical algorithms do it for you (more on this topic in a future blog post). Become a critical consumer of media content. Check out the products of the Media Education Foundation – titles include “Advertising and the End of the World,” “Behind the Screens: Hollywood Goes Hypercommercial,” and “Rich Media, Poor Democracy.”




Berkowitz, D. (Ed.) (1997). Social meanings of news: a text-reader. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Boudana, S. (2016). Impartiality is not fair: Toward an alternative approach to the evaluation of content bias in news stories, Journalism July 2016 17: 600-618.

Carey, J. (1992). Communication as culture: essays on media and society. New York: Routledge.

Durham, M. G. (1998). On the relevance of standpoint epistemology to the practice of journalism: the case for ‘strong objectivity.’ Communication Theory, 8(2), 117-140.

Gans, H. (1979). Deciding what’s news: a study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek and Time. New York: Vintage.

Gitlin, T. (1980). The whole world is watching: mass media and the making and unmaking of the New Left. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pan, Z. & Kosicki, G. M. (1993). Framing analysis: an approach to news discourse. Political Communication, 10, 55-75.

Schudson, M. (1978). Discovering the news: a social history of American newspapers. New York: Basic Books.

Schudson, M. (1995). The power of news. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press.

Schudson, M. (2003). The sociology of news. New York: W.W. Norton.

Shoemaker, P. J. & Reese, S. D. (1996). Mediating the message: theories of influences on mass media content (2d ed.). White Plains, NY: Longman.

Singer, J.B. (2016). Transmission creep: media effects theories and journalism studies in a digital era. Journalism Studies, Published online: 31 May 2016, DOI:10.1080/1461670X.2016.1186498.

Soloski, J. (1989). News reporting and professionalism: some constraints on the reporting of the news. Media, Culture and Society 11, 207-228.

Steenson, Steen (2016). What is the matter with newsroom culture? A sociomaterial analysis of professional knowledge creation in the newsroom, Journalism 1464884916657517, first published on July 8, 2016 as doi:10.1177/1464884916657517.

Tuchman, G. (1972). Objectivity as strategic ritual: an examination of newsmen’s notions of objectivity. American Journal of Sociology, 77, 660-670.

Zelizer, B. (1997). Journalists as interpretive communities. In D. Berkowitz (Ed.), Social Meanings of News: A Text-Reader (pp. 401-419), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Zelizer, B. (2004). Taking journalism seriously: news and the academy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.



Danger: beliefs embraced as facts


Credit: christopherwitt.com

As a social scientist, I’m interested in how people distinguish between what they know and what they believe. For some, there is no difference. For me, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference, but I think about it all the time. In the current cultural environment, I’m especially concerned about the human tendency to accept beliefs as facts. I urge some critical thinking, especially in regard to the consumption of media content.

In The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1966), Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann explained the concept of social constructivism. As summed up nicely in Wikipedia, “Its central concept is that people and groups interacting in a social system create, over time, concepts or mental representations of each others’ actions, and that these concepts eventually become habituated into reciprocal roles played by the actors in relation to each other. When these roles are made available to other members of society to enter into and play out, the reciprocal interactions are said to be institutionalized. In the process, meaning is embedded in society. Knowledge and people’s conceptions (and beliefs) of what reality is become embedded in the institutional fabric of society. Reality is therefore said to be socially constructed.”

Two decades before Berger and Luckmann, sociologist Robert Merton published an essay in The Antioch Review (Vol. 8, No. 2, 1948) entitled “The self-fulfilling prophecy,” explaining how “a false definition” of a situation can prompt “behavior that makes the originally false conception come true.” I observe this process occurring all too often in our social world, and so I re-read Merton’s essay frequently.

“It is the social or public self-fulfilling prophecy that goes far toward explaining the dynamics of ethnic and racial conflict in the America of today.” Keep in mind that Merton’s “today” was 1948, and also consider the state of our social world 70 years later….

As to how to invalidate a self-fulfilling prophecy, Merton suggested, “The initial definition of the situation which has set the [belief-to-fact process] in motion must be abandoned. Only when the originating assumption is questioned and a new definition of the situation introduced, does the consequent flow of events give the lie to the assumption.”

In this essay Merton also explained how the dominant culture in a society defines “out-groups” according to misguided beliefs and then systematically condemns members of these groups both for embracing and rejecting the values – the beliefs – of the dominant culture. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t, as Merton wrote. “The systematic condemnation of out-groupers continues largely irrespective of what they do” (emphasis in original).

Merton argued that “moral scruples and a sense of decency” are not enough to invalidate “false definitions.” Institutional change is necessary to turn things around. I agree.

The self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby fears are translated into reality, operates only in the absence of deliberate institutional controls” [emphasis in original], he wrote. “And it is only with the rejection of social fatalism implied in the notion of unchangeable human nature that the tragic circle of fear, social disaster, and reinforced fear can be broken.”

I provide this post as food for thought. You can read the full text of Merton’s essay on Jstor – you’ll have to register, but reading is free.

The rhetoric of space exploration, redux – Part 3


Credit: discovery.rsm.mil

Yesterday I posted the second part of a paper I wrote in 2008 on the rhetoric of space exploration. Here’s Part 3, my conclusions. Full text with references and footnotes is available here.


To sum up, the conventional rhetoric of space exploration perpetuates a long-standing, yet outdated, “all-American” ideology. Burke (1969b) defined ideology as both a belief system and a partial and thus deceptive view of reality. The belief system perpetuated by space rhetoric is a sort of fundamentalist ideology, excluding or rejecting as unenlightened those who do not advocate the colonization, development, and exploitation of space.

Examining the rhetoric of space exploration as a cultural ritual, performed for the purpose of maintaining the current social order, with its lopsided distribution of power and resources, reveals how it perpetuates the values of those in control of that order – in this case, the values of the military-industrial complex (progress, profit, competition, war).

In order to survive as a cultural institution, space exploration needs an ideology. It needs to have some connection to widely held beliefs. It needs a role in a cultural narrative. But a new narrative may be warranted to replace the outdated and counterproductive nationalistic frontier story.14

 The 21st century cultural environment demands a new approach to U.S. space policy making, a collaborative approach that will require abandoning the conventional rhetoric of competitiveness and dominance. There have been calls for change. Some have advocated adopting a collaborative and cooperative rather than a nationalistic and competitive approach to space exploration. Others have called for erasing the hard boundaries dividing civilian, military, and commercial space.

It is time to consider the feasibility and utility of a trans-sectoral, transnational space policy that transcends the traditional, outdated boundaries constructed between the interests of the United States and other nations and between civilian, commercial, and military interests.

Rhetorical transcendence is, in Burke’s conception, a symbolic bridging or merging, a way of getting past the either-or options of acceptance or rejection. How might space policy makers transcend perceived differences in perspective, transcend “relativism” for “relationism,” transcend compromise for connectivity? How might policy makers align their interests and motives and achieve Burke’s rhetorical aim of identification?

One option would be to broaden the frame for policy making by (re)establishing that the context for space policy is the Outer Space Treaty, the international law that governs all of human activity in all of outer space. A broader frame would reveal the consubstantiality of all involved in the endeavor of space exploration.

It also might be useful to broaden this rhetorical frame even further toward transcending policy and its partner, politics. The origin of the words “policy” and “politics” is the Greek word “politeia,” meaning “citizenship.” The Greek “politikos” means “civic.” In contemporary usage, the English words politics and policy have acquired an array of meanings that emphasize the shrewdness, calculation, and expediency involved in their execution.15 (The English word “police” has the same Greek root as politic and policy.)

Raising awareness that policy making is an element of citizenship and that space policy making is an element of global citizenship might be a way toward transcending conflicts.

This brief review of space rhetoric reveals a dominant narrative and some subordinate narratives as well. The dominant narrative advances the values of the dominant culture and justifies unilateral action and the globalization of “the American way.” Competing with this narrative is a vision of what Rushing (1986) called “utopian ideas of collective progress” and “a spiritual humbling of self.”

More than 40 years after Kenneth Boulding told us we had to get the message, space exploration is enabling people on Earth to understand that we are biological systems living in an ecological system. This competing narrative may be a site within which the ideology of space exploration might rejuvenate itself – where the vision of a human future in space becomes a vision of humanity’s collective peaceful existence on Spaceship Earth and the need to work together to preserve life here and look for life out there.


The rhetoric of space exploration, redux – Part 2


Credit: http://www.metal-archives.com

Yesterday I posted the first part of a paper I wrote in 2008 on the rhetoric of space exploration. Here’s Part 2. Full text with references and footnotes is available here. Tomorrow I’ll post Part 3, my conclusions. 

Though the frontier metaphor dominates, other perspectives have surfaced from time to time in the discourse on space exploration. 

In 1965, economist Kenneth Boulding offered another perspective on the value of exploring space. “As a result of [space] exploration…and the explosion of scientific knowledge,” he said, “Earth has become a tiny sphere, closed, limited, crowded, and hurtling through space to unknown destinations.” Echoing futurist R. Buckminster Fuller’s well known conception of “spaceship Earth,”9 Boulding said our planet “has become a space ship, not only in our imagination but also in the hard realities of the social, biological, and physical system in which [humans are] enmeshed” (n.p.).

“It is clear,” he concluded, “that much human behavior and many human institutions…are entirely inappropriate to a small closed space ship. We cannot have cowboys and Indians…or even a cowboy ethic…. Man [sic] is finally going to have to face the fact that he is a biological system living in an ecological system” (n.p.).

In the mid-‘80s, Janice Hocker Rushing (1986) made the case that the post-Apollo-era focus of space exploration on the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life was a product of a widespread understanding that humankind exists in a universe, not only on planet Earth. The narrative of space exploration might better reflect this understanding by telling a story of “a spiritual humbling of self” rather than “an imperialistic grabbing of territory.” And in the ‘90s, cultural studies scholar Constance Penley (1992) observed that while “the WASP space cowboy version of spaceflight” has persisted from the Apollo era into the present, at the same time NASA “is still the most popular point of reference for utopian ideas of collective progress.” In the popular imagination, she said, “NASA continues to represent…perseverance, cooperation, creativity and vision,” and these meanings embedded in the narrative of space flight “can still be mobilized to rejuvenate the near-moribund idea of a future toward which dedicated people…could work together for the common good.”

While current U.S. space policy highlights colonization and exploitation, the U.S. space science program is following a path of exploration for understanding. The study of the origins and evolution of life on Earth, the origin and evolution of Earth itself and its sister planets, the origins and evolution of life in the universe and the origins and evolution of the universe itself are intricately intertwined. Astrobiology – the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe – offers new ways to think about the past, present, and future place of human and other life in space.10

Astrobiologists have learned that life as we know it – carbon-based cellular life – can survive in virtually all terrestrial environmental extremes, from nuclear radiation to permafrost and Earth’s deep, dark subsurface. At the same time that research into the origin, evolution, and distribution of life is revealing that life is highly resilient, these same lines of research are helping to reveal how life and its environment are deeply interdependent, improving understanding of life on Earth and prospects for life elsewhere, and contributing to understanding of global climate history and evolution.

Among some members of the space community, “space security” is a term now used to draw civil, commercial, and military space policy issues inside a single, broad frame. The Center for Defense Information (CDI), a Washington, D.C., think tank, runs a “Space Security Project” intended “to highlight the strategic, political, technical and economic questions surrounding the potential weaponization of space.”11 As the United States is considering the option of “space-based weapons…, the future of space is nearing a crossroads,” CDI observes. “Will the 50-year tradition of international cooperation and space sanctuary prevail; or, will the fear of military and/or economic domination drive nations to compete aggressively for primacy in the ultimate “high ground”? The Secure World Foundation of Superior, Colorado, a partner of the CDI, promotes space security as well, envisioning “a global space commons that is free from threat and available for the benefit of all humanity.”12

Another D.C. think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, talks of “smart power in space” instead of pioneering the space frontier: “In much the same way that the Apollo program and Vietnam War era were then the two most visible displays of soft and hard power, we are now faced with a similar situation…. We must now signal to the world that we are not a nation that lives by use of military force alone. We must increase our support of civil space utilization and exploration to bring it back in line with spending on military and intelligence applications of space” (Sabathier and Faith 2008, n.p.).

Where does Burke come in?

[American rhetorical critic Kenneth] Burke’s dramatistic criticism – in particular, his idea of transcendence by perspective – is a productive way of exploring the established rhetoric of space policy and the rhetoric of alternate narratives and speculating about transcending perceived differences among them. The “metatext” of official and popular rhetoric about space exploration warrants full-blown Burkean analysis. A full-blown analysis is beyond the scope of this talk. But as food for thought, some observations are offered here.

“The motivation out of which [one] writes,” according to Burke (1973), “is synonymous with the structural way in which he puts events and values together.” A rhetor may be “conscious of selecting a certain kind of imagery to reinforce a certain kind of mood,” according to Burke, but “cannot possibly be conscious of the interrelationships among all these equations” (p. 20). An analyst, however, may be able to find these patterns by examining the completed text. Such an analysis aims to identify the rhetorical strategy employed in a text, the purpose of the symbolic action in it, “the functions which the structure serves” (p. 101).

By employing what Burke (1973) called planned incongruity – “a rational prodding or coaching of language so as to see around the corner of everyday usage…a kind of metaphorical projection” (pp. 400-401) – an analyst can look beyond common meanings of terms and consider new meanings. What Burke called terministic screens – rhetorical frames of power, act, and order that highlight some aspects of a text and downplay others – are structured to direct audiences toward certain meanings and away from others. A new perspective afforded by planned incongruity offers a way of transcending such screens by enabling consideration of other meanings.

The terministic screen deployed with the frontier metaphor includes terms such as pioneering, freedom, destiny, leadership, enterprise, progress. This screen of frontier terms evokes nationalism, capitalism, ownership, conquest, exploitation. What other meanings might be coaxed out of this screen of terms?

Recall that Burke (1969a) said “distinctions…arise out of a great central moltenness” (p. xix), and it is in areas of indistinction or ambiguity – closer to that molten center, as it were – where transformations can occur. And then consider that the root of the word “frontier” is the Old French word for “front.” In the English language, that word “front” conveys a complex of meanings, ranging from the most common definition – the part of anything that faces forward – to the definition that probably comes closest to the meaning of “front” in “frontier”: an area of activity, conflict, or competition. A common military definition of “front” is also tied up in the meaning of “frontier”; that is, the area of contact between opposing combat forces. Other meanings of “front” that should be considered in assessing the meaning of the frontier metaphor are: a façade; a position of leadership or authority; and a person or thing that serves as a cover for secret, disreputable, or illegal activity.13

Consider, as well, the possible meanings of “progress.” The root of “progress” is the Latin word meaning “to go forward.” J.B. Bury (1932) said progress is movement “in a desirable direction” – but he also noted that “it cannot be proved that the unknown destination towards which man is advancing is desirable” (p. 2). In their histories of the idea of progress, both Bury and Robert Nisbet called progress a dogma. While Bury identified progress as an idea originating in the modern era, Nisbet (1980) traced its roots to ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, and he documented how it evolved to take on the qualities of destiny and “historical necessity.” (p. 47).

Nisbet declared progress the most important idea in modern Western history. This modern idea of necessary and inevitable forward movement is deeply embedded in the cultural narrative of U.S. space flight. Beginning with the creation of the United States of America, science and technology became the means of American progress, and conquest and exploitation became the morally imperative method. Ultimately progress came to be thought of as the accumulation of material wealth came to be a measure of progress. This deeply seated belief in progress provides a moral justification for materialism and consumerism.

What meanings are space policy makers and advocates intending to convey – and what meanings are they in fact conveying – when they talk about the space frontier, progress in space exploration?


The rhetoric of space exploration, redux


 Credit: youtube.com

In 2008, I presented a paper at the Seventh Triennial Conference of the Kenneth Burke Society* on the rhetoric of U.S. space exploration. I’ve recently re-read the paper and find it still on the mark. I expect, sadly, that no matter who wins the presidential election this fall, this rhetoric – and the ideology that drives it – won’t change. Here’s Part 1 of the paper. I’ll post more tomorrow. I’ve posted the full paper on this site (see the left menu) for those who want to check references and footnotes.

In the early 21st century, the discourse on U.S. space policy remains mired in Cold War-era thinking that pits the United States “against” other space-faring nations and treats civilian, military, and commercial space as separate (and not necessarily equal) regimes. Policy makers and advocates alike tend to employ negative rhetorical strategies, describing space exploration and development as a matter of “us versus them,” winners and losers, leaders or followers.

How might policy makers and advocates transcend the divisions they have constructed between the maintenance of space for peaceful purposes and the exploitation of space for commercial or military purposes, the exploration of space for scientific purposes and the conquest of space for political purposes? What kind of space policy could a new U.S. administration put in place to transcend perceived conflicts?

Rhetorical critic Janice Hocker Rushing (1986) once wrote, “Space is too big to be conquered.” Starting from this premise, I will explore whether and how the global space community can transcend perceived conflicts, divisions, and differences to craft a productive global space policy for the 21st century and beyond. To paraphrase Burke, my aim, in the spirit of postpositivism, is to raise some useful questions rather than produce all the answers.


In the early 21st century, the trend in the space community, energized in the Reagan era and reinvigorated during the George W. Bush years, has been to view the solar system as an environment to exploit, as we have done with our own planetary environment. From this “dominionist” or “manifest destiny” perspective, our home planet, and our home solar system, are seen as resources here for humans to use as they like.

Examining the history of the U.S. space program reveals an ideology of space exploration that has at its core a rationale for conquest and exploitation. This ideology is deeply rooted in a durable American cultural narrative of frontier pioneering, continual progress, manifest destiny, free enterprise, rugged individualism, and a right to life without limits (Billings, 2007). This ideology rests on a number of assumptions, or beliefs, about the role of the United States in the global community, American national character, and the “right” form of political economy. According to this ideology of American exceptionalism, the United States is and must remain “Number One” in the world, as political, economic, scientific, technological, and moral leader.

The rhetoric of space policy and advocacy advances a conception of outer space as a place of wide-open spaces and limitless resources – a space frontier. Though the contemporary cultural environment is vastly different from that of the Cold-War era in which the space program began, the 21st century narrative of U.S. space exploration to date is still intimately intertwined with what feminist critic Susan Faludi (2007) calls “security myth” and “nationalist fantasy,” a story of cowboys on the space frontier.

Delving into the language, or rhetoric, of space flight is a productive way of exploring the meanings and motives that are embedded in and conveyed by the ideology of space exploration – the cultural narrative of pioneering the space frontier. Though a full-blown critique is beyond the scope of this paper, the rhetoric of space exploration is ripe for dramatistic criticism, an opportunity to explore “how broader systems of belief shape and determine the possibilities of acting” (Burke, 1969a, p. 22).

 The official narrative

The foundations of U.S. space policy are the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act and the 1967 United Nations Treaty on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The NASA Act states that “it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind,”1 and the 1967 Treaty establishes that outer space is a domain to be used for the benefit of all humankind, preserved for peaceful purposes, and protected from sovereign claims.2

These foundational laws are devoid of references to frontiers, conquest, and exploitation. Yet the frontier metaphor is dominant in the rhetoric of space exploration.

A fundamental goal of U.S. space policy since the establishment of NASA in 1958 has been to establish, maintain, and strengthen U.S. leadership in space exploration and the global space community, and the influence of the narrative of American exceptionalism has remained strong in official space rhetoric into the 21st century. A sampling of official rhetoric from 1981 to 2008 highlights the persistence of these ideas of pioneering and conquest, leadership and dominance.

In its final report, “Pioneering the Space Frontier,” the National Commission on Space (1986), appointed by President Reagan to develop a long-term plan for space exploration, described “a pioneering mission for 21st– century America: to lead the exploration and development of the space frontier.” Humankind is “destined to expand to other worlds,” the commission said, and “our purpose” is to establish “free societies on new worlds.” Toward achieving those goals, “we must stimulate individual initiative and free enterprise in space” (pp. 2-3).

The George H. W. Bush administration declared that “America’s space program is what civilization needs…. America, with its tremendous resources, is uniquely qualified for leadership in space…our success will be guaranteed by the American spirit – that same spirit that tamed the North American continent and built enduring democracy.” The “prime objective” of the U.S. space program is “to open the space frontier.”3 NASA declared in response, “The imperative to explore” is embedded in our history…traditions, and national character,” and space is “the frontier” to be explored.4

Following suit, the Clinton administration asserted, “Space exploration has become an integral part of our national character, capturing the spirit of optimism and adventure that has defined this country from its beginnings…. Its lineage is part of an ancient heritage of the human race…deep in the human psyche and perhaps in our genes.”5

On behalf of the George W. Bush administration, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Marburger (2006) said that questions about the President’s so-called “Vision for Space Exploration” – the call to send people back to the Moon and on to Mars – “boil down to whether we want to incorporate the Solar System in our economic sphere, or not.” According to national policy, Marburger said, “‘The fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.’ So at least for now the question has been decided in the affirmative.”

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, appointed by President George W. Bush in 2005, said shortly upon arriving at the agency that the aim of the U.S. space program is “to make the expansion and development of the space frontier an integral part of what it is that human societies do.”6 “We want to be the world’s preeminent space-faring nation for all future time,” he said, “second to none.”7 Space exploration is linked with “core beliefs,” Griffin said, about what societies should be doing “on the frontiers of their time…. North Americans are the way we are because of the challenges of the frontier…. Western thought, civilization, and ideals represent a superior set of values,” these values are “irretrievably linked to” expansion, and now this expansion will continue into the human frontier of space, he asserted.8

Though Griffin has tempered his rhetoric somewhat over his three years as head of NASA, he and his deputies continued, in their public appearances and official statements, to envision a human future in space where “Americans” are in charge.

Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama issued space policy position papers during their 2008 campaigns for the presidency. McCain (McCain-Palin 2008) said in his statement that as President, he would “ensure that space exploration is top priority and that the U.S. remains a leader; [and] commit to funding the NASA Constellation program [the new space transportation system that NASA must build to fulfill Bush’s “vision”] to ensure it has the resources it needs to begin a new era of human space exploration.” (It is worth noting that in his statement McCain referred to George W. Bush’s “vision for space exploration” as “the NASA vision for space exploration.”) Obama (2008) said in his eight-page statement that, as President, he would “embrace” human exploration of space and “continue NASA’s architecture studies and advanced planning to ensure…that America can lead the world to long-term exploration of the Moon, Mars, and beyond, in a collaborative and cost-effective way.”

It thus appears that, in 2009, U.S. citizens can expect no major deviations from the George W. Bush administration’s push for extending human presence into space. Whether and how this goal will be met, especially whether and how the ideology of conquest and exploitation is employed, remains to be seen.

[Update, July 2016: It thus appears that, in 2017, U.S. citizens can expect no major deviations from the Obama administration’s push for extending human presence into space. Whether and how this goal will be met, especially whether and how the ideology of conquest and exploitation is employed, remains to be seen.]

*”Kenneth Burke: Transcendence by Perspective,” July 29-July 1, 2008. Kenneth Burke (1897-1993) is the U.S.A.’s foremost rhetorical critic. He is known for his analytic method of dramatic criticism. My favorite of his many astute observations is, “War is a disease of peace.”


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 576 other followers