Manifest destiny in space? A belief in need of ditching


In his book This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age, William Burrows writes of the space community’s intensive promotion of human space flight in the 1980s, the era of NASA’s Space Shuttle and Space Station programs: “At the heart of it all, as usual, [were] the core of dreamers…who steadfastly believed it was their race’s manifest destiny to leave Earth for both adventure and survival.”

I’ve written about the ideology of manifest destiny in space*, and I quote here from my paper. This belief system has been propagated in public discourse for decades by so-called grassroots space advocacy groups, including the National Space Society (NSS), the Space Frontier Foundation (SFF), and the Space Studies Institute (SSI). As noted in my last post, these organizations are “fellow supporters” of Deep Space Industries (DSI), the outfit which announced this week that it wants to mine asteroids.

NSS is the product of a merger of the L5 Society and the National Space Institute (NSI) in 1987. German rocketeer Werner von Braun founded NSI in 1974 to help cultivate public support for the U.S. space program in the post-Apollo era. The L5 Society was founded in 1975 to promote space colonization, as espoused by physicist Gerard K. O’Neill. NSS says its rationale for promoting space settlement is “survival of the human species.” Among the values and beliefs articulated in this rationale are “prosperity-unlimited resources,” “growth-unlimited room for expansion,” individual rights, unrestricted access to space, personal property rights, free-market economics, democratic values – and also enhancement of Earth’s ecology and protection of new environments.

(Some of these beliefs appear to be in conflict with others….)

Gerard K. O’Neill formed the Space Studies Institute (SSI) in 1977 to promote his colonization agenda. SSI’s mission is “to open the energy and material resources of space for human settlement within our lifetime.”

In 1988, some of those believers created the Space Frontier Foundation (SFF), to promote “opening the space frontier to human settlement as rapidly as possible.” This group says its “purpose is to unleash the power of free enterprise and lead a united humanity permanently into the Solar System.” Like the National Space Society, the SFF espouses a conflicting set of goals, including “protecting the Earth’s fragile biosphere and creating a freer and more prosperous life for each generation by using the unlimited energy and material resources of space.” Its stated strategy for achieving these goals is “to wage a war of ideas in the popular culture” and transform U.S. space flight “from a government program for the few to an open frontier for everyone.”

In a series of essays called “the Frontier Files,” SFF co-founder (and DSI principal) Rick Tumlinson offered his version of the space frontier narrative: “We…see our civilization at a crossroads…. Down one path is a future of limits to growth, environmental degradation and ultimately extinction. Down the other path lie limitless growth, an environmentally pristine Earth and an open and free frontier in space.Regarding the purpose of space flight, he asserted: “The one necessary and sufficient reason we are called to the Space Frontier is buried deep within us. It is a feeling…. A calling to go, to see, to do, to be ‘there.” We believe Homo Sapiens is a frontier creature. It is what we do, it defines what we are.”

I’m not at all convinced that these views embody common human values. It’s worth discussing….


*Linda Billings, “Ideology, advocacy, and space flight – evolution of a cultural narrative,” pp. 483-500 in Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Launius, eds., Societal Impacts of Space Flight (NASA SP-2007-4801), National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington, DC, 2007. Available free online at (publications).


Another “asteroid mining” company? Really?



Deep Space Industries (DSI) claims “it is time to begin the harvest of space. The Earth is…floating in a sea of natural resources. The riches of the solar system offer humanity both unprecedented prosperity and an improved environment.  The resource potential of space outstrips that of any previous frontier – without the environmental impacts.”

To quote Seth Meyers, “Really?”

What is DSI?

According to, DSI’s “asteroid mining project aims for deep-space colonies.” (Fox News ran’s story with a new and ridiculous headline: “Company to unveil fleet of asteroid-mining ships for deep-space colonies.”


Conduct a PR campaign and they will report on it…. (See my post of June 27, 2012.)

“We are dreamers,” says DSI’s web site.


What DSI unveiled at its Jan. 22 press conference is a series of Powerpoint slide shows illustrating what it dreams of doing. DSI a company formed by true believers in the conquest of space. It exists on paper (and its web site) though that appears to be about it for now. I’m doubtful of the claims of this latest band of would-be space conquistadors. I’ve been following the exploits and analyzing the rhetoric of some of them for 30 years.

NBC News reports that DSI’s CEO David Gump, said at the company’s press conference, “One reason for having this press conference is to become findable by additional investors.”


To quote Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr. in “Jerry Maguire”), “Show me the money.”

What appears to be at the heart of DSI’s business plan is hard-core-libertarian, “free-market” capitalist ideology – a dangerous belief system, in my view. It reeks of Ayn Rand (among others).

I quote from a paper I wrote in 2006*: the ideology of space exploration “draws deeply on a durable American cultural narrative – a national mythology – of frontier pioneering, continual progress, manifest destiny, free enterprise, rugged individualism, and a right to life without limits. 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, the United States is and must remain “Number One” in the world community, playing the role of political, economic, scientific, technological, and moral leader. That is, the U.S. is and must be exceptional. This ideology constructs Americans as independent, pioneering, resourceful, inventive – and exceptional. And it establishes that liberal democracy and free-market capitalism (or capitalist democracy) constitute the only viable form of political economy. The rhetoric of space advocacy exalts those enduring American values of pioneering, progress, enterprise, freedom, and rugged individualism, and it advances the cause of capitalist democracy.”

Back to DSI. The company says its “vision” is that “the human race is ready to begin harvesting the resources of space both for their use in space and to increase the wealth and prosperity of the people of planet Earth.”

Really? Which people? All people? Or just some people?

This sort of rhetoric makes me queasy.

“Welcome to the revolution,” said DSI principal Rick Tumlinson in opening DSI’s press conference. “Here we are talking about a new age.”


Echoing the rhetoric of the limits-to-growth debate of the 1970s, Tumlinson continued, “We have a myth permeating our culture [that]…the future is ever narrowing in its possibilities.” This “myth,” he claimed, “survives only in the minds of people who believe that this” – that is, Earth – is it.” His vision, he said, is to “expand the civilization of Earth into the cosmos…. The people are the ones who are going to be opening up space,” in the tradition of Lewis and Clark.

Tumlinson is a founder of the Space Frontier Foundation (SFF), an organization “dedicated to opening the Space Frontier to human settlement as rapidly as possible.” In his LinkedIn profile, Tumlinson describes himself as a “NewSpace Leader, Writer, Speaker, [and] Entrepreneur.” He lists his current affiliations as the Texas Space Alliance, Space Diver Inc., and SFF. From SFF’s web site: “Our goals include protecting the Earth’s fragile biosphere and creating a freer and more prosperous life for each generation by using the unlimited energy and material resources of space. Our purpose is to unleash the power of free enterprise and lead a united humanity permanently into the Solar System.”

According to DSI’s web site, SFF is one of its “fellow supporters” along with the National Space Society and the Space Studies Institute – groups that embrace the belief system described above. (More on these outfits in my next post.)

DSI’s vision prompts me to recall the 1981 science-fiction film “Outland,” in which miners working in a human colony on Jupiter’s moon Io are dropping dead like flies. A law enforcement official investigates and finds the miners died of an amphetamine-type drug that enabled them to work continuously for days at a time, until they dropped. The dealers of the drug are linked to the guy who runs the mining colony. Surprise….

Yes, I know, DSI says it will use robots, not people, to do its mining. As to the ethics of mining resources in outer space, first consider Article I of the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty: “The exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.”

I know of at least one lunar scientist who’s not happy about smashing spacecraft into the Moon (as NASA intentionally did with its twin lunar orbiters Ebb and Flow last year), disturbing a pristine environment before scientists can properly study it. We’ve had years of public discussion about the value of preserving pristine terrestrial environments for their own sake. Perhaps we might discuss the value of preserving pristine environments elsewhere….

*Linda Billings, “Ideology, advocacy, and space flight – evolution of a cultural narrative,” pp. 483-500 in Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Launius, eds., Societal Impacts of Space Flight (NASA SP-2007-4801), National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington, DC, 2007. Available free online at (publications).

Never-ending mysteries of science

Joseph wright of derby-793344

I’ve just discovered what promises to be a marvelous book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generations Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by the “Romantic biographer” Richard Holmes (2008).* The chemist Humphrey Davy, in an 1810 lecture, captured the spirit of his times thus: “Nothing is fatal to the progress of the human mind as to suppose our views of science are ultimate; that there are no mysteries in nature; that our triumphs are complete; and that there are no new worlds to conquer” (p. xiii). The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was by this time already engaged in the Romantic scientific enterprise: “I shall attack Chemistry, like a Shark,” he wrote in a letter in 1800 (ibid.).

I can hear some of my colleagues in science grinding their teeth. “Romantic” science? Ugh. (Even I grit my teeth over those value-laden words “progress” and “worlds to conquer” – so widely used and abused in the ongoing justification for space exploration….)

“Romanticism as a cultural force,” Holmes writes, “is generally regarded as intensely hostile to science, its ideal of subjectivity eternally opposed to that of scientific objectivity.” He offers a different perspective. “The notion of wonder seems to be something that once united” Romanticism and science – and perhaps it “can still do so.”*

What we commonly refer to as The Scientific Revolution, the late-seventeenth-century cultural movement, “promulgated an essentially private, elitist, specialist form of knowledge, Holmes says. “Its lingua franca was Latin, and its common currency mathematics. Romantic science, on the other hand, had a new commitment to explain, to educate, to communicate to a general public.”

I would not choose “romantic” to describe me or my worldview. I subscribe to the dictionary definition of “romantic” – that is, “fanciful; impractical; unrealistic.” Capitalize that R, however, and I’ll be happy to call myself a Romantic scientist!


* The illustration above – a lovely depiction of wonder – is a detail from a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), “A philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery.” The painting appears in the frontispiece of The Age of Wonder. (An orrery is an apparatus designed to represent the positions, motions, and phases of various bodies in the solar system.)

Thinking about life in the universe…


I’d like to share some thoughts from a new book by my colleague in astrobiology, Milan CirkovicThe Astrobiological Landscape: Philosophical Foundations of the Study of Cosmic Life. I’ve just begun to read it, and I already know it will be a pleasure.

In his introduction, Milan says his aim is to demonstrate that in a young field of research such as astrobiology, “foundational philosophical and methodological questions can play a very stimulating and inspirational role.” Thus he opens the doors of inquiry wide….

“But danger also lurks in bringing such philosophical perspectives to the fascinating issues of contemporary astrobiology,” he notes. “One should be wary of an almost reflexive tendency in works of philosophy to present them as though the authors believe them to be the final word on their subject. This comforting illusion would be self-indulgent, even in much better developed fields than astrobiology…. Sadly, this has not prevented some authors from writing in this way.” (Want examples? Read the book.)

His book, he says, “should be understood, in the literal sense, as a philosophical exploration [Milan’s emphasis] of perplexing issues arising from contemporary research on the origin, existence and future of life in its widest cosmological context.””

“Conceptual completeness is overrated, anyway” – amen! – “even in well-established realms of knowledge,” he says. “Half-baked ideas that cohere in tone and attitude have more often been fruitful seeds of novelty and sources of inspiration than volumes of well- developed ‘grand systems’…. Those who insist on completeness in the tangled reality of the history of ideas look,” he observes, “more often than not, akin to Shigalyev, a tragicomic character in Dostoevsky’s Demons: a disturbingly persuasive fool, who argues that if people do not devote exactly ten weeks to listening to his universal theory of society and liberty, they can go home and forget about political activism, since there can be no viable alternative to his programme.”

Thanks for that, Milan! (And I hope you’ll pardon me for quoting so heavily, as you say it so well.)