(Illustration: Across the Space Frontier, published in 1952.)
The Space Frontier Foundation (SFF) is holding its annual conference later this week in California.
The event has a tagline: “Space settlement is no longer a dream, it is an industry.”
As far as I can tell, “space settlement” is only an industry in this sense: advocating for colonizing and exploiting outer space is a vocation for a small group of people, most of whom appear to know each other. Some of these people have been making a living at advocating for this idea – or “dream,” as they tend to call it – for decades. They share the same belief system – that “we” (humans) have a right to go where we want, live where we want, do what we want, and take what we want.
One of them is Rick Tumlinson, SFF co-founder and lead ideologue. I’ve written about the frontier-conquest rhetoric of Tumlinson and his ilk before*:
“Examining the history of space flight advocacy reveals an ideology of space flight that 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….
…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’…Tumlinson offers 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 asserts: ‘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’.”
Back to the agenda for the SFF’s 2013 conference: NASA officials scheduled to appear there include deputy administrator Lori Garver and associate administrator for human exploration and operations Bill Gerstenmeier. From Congress will be Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a pea in the same ideological pod as Tumlinson (I’d like to note that their ideology has an uncomfortably macho streak running through it). Also on the agenda are a bunch of the space-exploitation regulars I’ve been watching for decades. (Some of them are my friends – we’ve always agreed to disagree.)
Also speaking, about “growing the microgravity research market,” is successful venture capitalist and well known UFOlogist Jacques Vallee. Among his many books are Anatomy of a Phenomenon: Unidentified Objects in Space — A Scientific Appraisal (1965), Challenge to Science: The UFO Enigma (1966), Edge of Reality: A Progress Report on UFOs (1975, with J. Allen Hynek), Confrontations: A Scientist’s Search for Alien Contact (1990), and Forbidden Science: Journals 1957-1969 (1992).
The agenda also features Richard Pournelle of NanoRacks. He’s the son of science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle, one of the better known names in the southern California libertarian space advocacy community. According to Wikipedia, “In 1994, Pournelle’s friendly relationship with Newt Gingrich led to Gingrich securing a government job for Pournelle’s son, Richard. At the time, Pournelle and Gingrich were reported to be collaborating on, ‘a science fiction political thriller.’ Pournelle’s relationship with Gingrich was long established even then, as Pournelle had written the preface to Gingrich’s book, Window of Opportunity (1985). ”
The latter title was Gingrich’s ode to commercial space development. I recall attending a book-signing party for it, when I was editor of Space Business News (1983-1985). I also recall avoiding shaking hands with the author….
Among exhibitors booked for the SFF conference is TEA Party in Space, which says: “Our goal is nothing less than the expansion of American civilization into the solar system. Fifty years ago, the United States was in a Space Race with the Soviet Union. Our nation applied the strategy we had developed in World War II – a ‘crash’ federal research and development program that spared no expense to accomplish the short-term goal of landing an American on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. America can no longer afford the big government ‘crash’ model. We must return to traditional American free-market principles to expand permanently into space. It was American individuals and businesses who pioneered the wilderness, built a continent-spanning nation, and created the most prosperous economy in the history of humanity.”
It’s ironic, to me, that the Obama administration and its space agency, NASA, which are advocating for expanding international cooperation in space activities, are at the same time – tacitly if not openly – condoning an ideological perspective that is baffling and even discomforting to many non-U.S. citizens (and a good number of U.S. citizens as well).
After writing this post I can’t help but worry about how and where our education system has failed people – college-educated people – who in adulthood appear to have a limited understanding of U.S. history and political economy.
Of course they may accuse me of the same shortcoming….
In fact it happened quite recently. A Forbes contributor responded to my critique of an article he wrote about the glorious future of space development that lies before us by commenting (among other things), “I don’t know if you’re familiar with the way any other exploration initiatives have happened on our planet over the past thousand years or so.”
I’m afraid I am.
That’s why I’m concerned.
I’m reminded now of a radio report I heard this morning about Republican politician Mitch Daniels’ effort, while governor of Indiana, to ban the works of populist historian Howard Zinn from the state’s schools. Daniels called Zinn’s best-selling book, A People’s History of the United States, a “”truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page.”
I’ve read this book – and used it with students. While of course Daniels is entitled to his opinion, I have to say that I’m confident that it’s misinformed. And for a politician to limit students’ access to different perspectives on history is definitely misguided at best.