Dangerous: the space frontier metaphor


(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.”

Oy vey….

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.

* 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.

13 Responses to “Dangerous: the space frontier metaphor”

  1. Transterrestrial Musings - The Frightening Frontier Says:

    […] Billings (whom I’ve known for thirty years or so) seems to have a problem with space development and settlement. I’d argue with her, if I could figure out just what her objection is. Perhaps there’s […]

  2. yg1968 Says:

    Obama supports commercial space for two reasons: First, he doesn’t like space to be dominated by Defense contractors. Secondly, not all Democrats are ant-capitalists. Democrats are popular among Silicon Valley types. In my opinion, Republicans need to do a better job of attracting techies and silicon valley types. Rep. Rohrabacher understands that but many Republicans do not.

  3. Dennis Ray Wingo Says:

    So in other words the core of your opposition to the ideas espoused is that they are republicans or right leaning. You might want to check out the bona fides of George Whitesides, Lori Garver, and a lot of other democrats who feel the same way as those you pillory on the right.

    At the core of the common principles that both republican and democrat space advocates hold in common is that space is out there, it is a place, and there is absolutely nothing wrong and a plethora of things right with extending human life first into the solar system, then into the cosmos. The economic and cultural development of our solar system is a common goal and right of both democrats and republicans, but it seems that what you learned in your matriculation through the educational system may have limited your views to only seeing one side of the issue. Just remember when you lean in one direction too long, you end up going in circles.

  4. Dennis Ray Wingo Says:

    You might also want to look at this article in I09, hardly a right wing scree…


  5. Martin E. Says:

    The Frontier analogy as used by space enthusiasts usually assumes that lone pioneers headed out into the unknown. This is anti-historical. The American West was mapped out by US Government surveys for 60 years or so after Lewis and Clark. They made it merely bold, not foolhardy, for individuals to head West. William H. Goetzmann detailed all this in his 1966 book “Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West”. I wrote about the analogy to space in: “After Apollo” (Harvard International Review, http://hir.harvard.edu/a-new-empire/after-apollo). Space afficionados need to absorb this lesson.

  6. Karl Hallowell Says:

    That’s why I’m concerned.

    Concerned about what? I find it interesting how you managed to write so much without even once spelling out explicitly what you are concerned about. Here’s my perspective on the matter. Suppose we actually manage to stage a new colonization effort like those of the past thousand years. What’s the pros and cons? On the pro side, we would have yet another kick in the pants for human civilization to do new things. And we’d have a considerable degree of diversification of humanity at the economic, social, and perhaps political levels. We also greatly increase our access to resources. There’s a lot more stuff in space than there is on Earth. These all have been seen to varying degree in the more successful Earth-side colonization efforts.

    What about the cons? What were the traditional cons of exploration on Earth? Well, there’s the harm to native peoples, including some cases of genocide. There was some considerable degree of habitat destruction and other environmental impacts since the colonizers tend to more thoroughly exploit resources than the natives did. Diseases were swapped between different regions. We’re not better off because malaria, cholera, or syphilis now have more global extent.

    What’s interesting is that the main drawbacks of Earth-side colonization don’t apply to space-side colonization. We have yet to find a native person or ecosystem in space. One can’t destroy native cultures or disrupt ecosystems that don’t exist. There is alleged to be some potential for disease mutation in space due to the weirdness of the environment of human space-based habitats and higher background radiation. But it would still need to get to Earth somehow and we’re pretty good at quarantines and such, should they become necessary.

    It seems to me that you complain that the real danger is that space-based colonization is more forgiving of various unpopular ideologies than Earth is. I don’t why that should be a problem. If free market or libertarian ideologies work in space, then that’s fine by me. Maybe we should consider adapting what parts of them work for us on Earth. Or maybe that’s why it is the big problem. A proving ground that demonstrates certain unpopular ideologies work, might be threatening to ideologues of other belief systems.

  7. Michael G. Gallagher Says:

    The difference between the last thousand years or so of exploration on Earth and space colonization is this: On the Moon, on Mars, and on the asteroids there are no cute little animals to render extinct or photogenic indigeneous people to wipe out. Therefore there can’t be any reasonable moral objections to opening up the Solar System. If you’re mining on the moon, nobody is going to notice a few extra craters

    Besides, all the government space efforts are dead in the water insofar as manned flight is concerned. No serious innovation is coming out of NASA, the ESA, the RSA, or the Chinese or Indian programs when it comes to bringing down the cost of space travel. Any such efforts, such as Space X or Reaction Engines in the UK, which are receiving government money, were originally the brain children of private entrepreneurs. The traditional “Rocket Mafia” in the government space agencies (look at Senator Shelby of Alabama and his dislike of Space X) has no real interest in dropping the cost of flight to orbit.

    As for your dislike of Gingrich, everybody is usually right about at least one thing. I like his idea about the Mars Prize.

    As for international cooperation on space, that may only apply to strictly scientific efforts. Commercial endeavors such as asteroid mining, at some point will almost certainly run into opposition because of economic and political interests, including the competitive nature of international politics. For example, the Russians and the Chinese (Russia is returning to dictatorship and China is trying to tighten th screws on the one it already has) are almost certain to try to block any Western, particularly American efforts, at large-scale space commercialization either through the UN or other venues. This will be done for reasons of power politics and ideology, no matter what they may say publicly about economic fairness and giving the less-developed world a fair shake.

    Of course, if the people in Moscow and Beijing see any virtues in space commerilaization, they’ll try to pursue their own efforts while at the same time attempting to block ours.

    As for your Oh vey about American history, what started in in 1775 at the start of the American Revolution did produce what was for a long time the most prosperous nation on Earth. We certainly had our little pecadillios like slavery and mistreatment of the Indians, but now we have an African-American president in the White House (Not the guy I would have wanted. I would have preferred Colin Powell, but he didn’t want the job when he had the chance.), and as for the Indians, some tribes now have casinos which they use to take money from stupid white people. I know, I’ve been to the Seminole Indian Casino in the Everglades.

    American power, while certainly not completely alturistic in its purposes, has produced an international system that through its emphasis on market economics and a usual, but not always, focus on individual freedom, that has benefitted the lives of hundreds of millions of people throughout the world, including ourselves. If you cannot accept this premise, please consder two things. What would the world now be like if the Cold War had gone the other way, and the terribly iconic satellite photograph of the Korean Pennisula which shows a brilliantly lit up South Korea and a North Korea plunged into total darkeness.

    A nation cannot be completely alturistic in international affairs. That would be suicidal. The field in inherently amoral.

    The attitude you’ve displayed in your editorial only confirms a suspicion I’ve had for a long time, that deep in the recesses of their hearts the social welfare crowd is deathly afraid of meaningful space development, including colonization, for the simple reason there won’t be any room up in the sky for a welfare state. Any immigrants to a space colony will the best educated and the most intelligent migrants in human history. And, considering the fact that they’ve decided not to move just a mere few thousand miles to another continent, but across tens of millions of miles of space to another planet, they’ll likely be the most independently minded colonists ever as well. Not much room for food stamps or welfare checks, at least not for a very long time to come.

    I’d like to finish with Howard Zinn. I’m unfamilar with his book, but I have read he was a Marxist. If that was the case then I can completely understand why Mitch Daniels wouldn’t want his book used as a text in the Indiana state university system. I’ve had direct and indirect experience with the ideology and to be a Marxist in this day and age a person has to be willfully ignorant, delusional, or a potential killer.

    Have a nice day.

    Michael G. Gallagher,
    Seoul, South Korea

  8. doctorlinda Says:

    7/24/13 – I have received a number of comments on this post. I moderate my comment threads to avoid the sort of anonymous spitting matches that are so common in unmoderated online forums. All of my critics have identified themselves, and I am approving all of their comments for posting here. I will respond to them all, here, soon.

  9. Martin E. Says:

    Linda: If you contact me by email I can put you in touch with an anthropologist who is studying the NewSpace community. He’s most interesting.

  10. Paul Says:

    If space remains a place that is merely visited, rather than settled, it’s difficult to see why we should be spending much money on manned space activities. Perhaps colonization advocates are disconcerting because they are the only ones answering the question “why are we doing all of this?”

  11. Library: A Round-up of Reading | Res Communis Says:

    […] Dangerous: the space frontier metaphor – Doctor Linda […]

  12. Colonize Mars? Not until we learn some lessons here on Earth | Fusion Says:

    […] narrative in the United States space program parallels the American cultural narrative, what Dr. Linda Billings, NASA Space Communicator and space policy analyst at George Washington University calls “frontier […]

    • doctorlinda Says:

      Thanks to Dr. Lee for her thoughtful commentary. As to her observation that I seem to be “in the minority when it comes to challenging these narratives,” this is true within the aerospace community. In other communities, it’s not. Dr. Lee also writes that comments on my blog posts “reveal that [my] critiques are neither appreciated nor tolerated.” I’ve been a member of the aerospace community for more than 30 years, and my critiques are indeed tolerated – after all, I am still working and blogging. As to “appreciated” – as far as I can tell, it is a small minority of like-minded men who continue to squawk every time I critique. It is important to raise these questions as the United States continues to pursue wider cooperation in space activities. Keep up the good work, Dr. Lee!

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