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).



2 Responses to “Manifest destiny in space? A belief in need of ditching”

  1. Charlene M. Anderson Says:

    Thanks, Linda, for once again going after the cluster of beliefs centered around “manifest destiny” and the human “need to explore.” When I started working in space advocacy over 30 years ago, I believed the myths. But after using them to pound away on the public and raising only moderate and transient support for space exploration, I came to see that such beliefs and the narratives that support them no longer function in this society. These myths died along with the political world that, in the 1960s and early 1970s, supported the glory days of NASA. That world is gone.

    And yet, this belief system persists among a few people in high places. Not too long ago, I listened to a distinguished space scientist say, in testimony before Congress, that “Exploration is in our DNA.” “Oh, really,” I wanted to say, “Where do geneticists find it encoded?” I suspect this scientist would not accept such sloppy reasoning in a peer-reviewed paper on astrophysics.

    If space exploration is to return to any semblance of the glory days, it will have to let go of the past and create a new set of narratives that today’s public can believe in.

  2. Codz Says:

    I really appreciate you writing this and I have been coming back to it regularly and citing it in various places every since I first read it. I was already in agreement with your questioning gaze to the dominant narrative before coming to the post but I want to thank you for putting it into writing and letting us know about the Space Frontier Foundation… funnily enough founded the year I was born. I think the connection to mining companies and what they are doing on earth to cause an impetus for their wack endeavors is a really important thing to highlight. I connect all of this in my own research to the origins of education itself as being about uprooting Indigenous peoples, starting with the Tribes of Europe, and making them look upward toward the towers of Empire for salvation. Just some thoughts.

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