The frontier metaphor: still worrisome


In this post I’m responding to comments on my blog post of July 22, “Dangerous: the space frontier metaphor.”

In that post I provided a reference to my most detailed analysis of the idea of the space frontier, published in 2007 by the NASA History Office. This peer-reviewed paper, “Ideology, advocacy, and space flight – evolution of a cultural narrative,” is available free online. I’d recommend it.

I see no need to respond to specific criticisms, as my readers speak for themselves. However, I can offer some personal history to explain how I see the world and why I see the world the way I do, as a public scholar and a public citizen. To start, building on a description of my analytic perspective that I provided in my doctoral dissertation (published 2005), I’ve written a white paper of sorts to identify the values, beliefs, and other personal factors I’m aware of bringing to my research and analysis as they may influence my process and outcomes. I’ve posted this paper here.

As a social scientist, one of my primary research interests has been the study of space exploration in culture. My working definition of “culture” comes from the late cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who described it as “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embedded in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.” My perspective on the topics I choose to study is unique. I have acquired my experience, knowledge, and worldview in the context of Western, American culture where I’ve lived, and at the same time my experience, knowledge, and worldview are, like those of anyone else, personal and subjective.

My thinking about the U.S. space program and the enterprise of space exploration has evolved continually since I entered the aerospace community in 1983, when I became editor of Space Business News. Starting out, I had no opinions about the space program or commercial space development, as I knew very little about them. In addition, I’d been working as a journalist in Washington for several years already, and I’d learned to keep my opinions out of my copy. On the space commercialization beat, I quickly learned that to get a decent idea of the viability of a commercial-space business proposal, I’d learn more from the investment bankers than I’d learn from the proposal developers. I also started to see how the Reagan administration’s promotion of commercial space development was part of a broader ideological move to “let the private sector do it” and keep the government out of its way.

From 1985-1986, I worked on the staff of the National Commission on Space, a “blue-ribbon panel” appointed by President Reagan to map out a long-term plan for human and robotic space exploration. During my term with the commission I listened to experts and citizens across the country lay out their hopes and dreams for space exploration. They are represented in the commission’s final report, Pioneering the Space Frontier (1986). I learned that while most people we heard from favored space exploration, they were not all enamored of the idea of colonizing outer space. I started to learn more about the history of the idea of space colonization, especially since Gerard K. O’Neill was on the commission.

From 1986 to 1988, I served as the senior editor for space at Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine, which covers aviation, human space flight, and scientific space exploration. I recall, for example, serving as editor for a freelance piece about customers who’d made down payments on commercial space flights with an outfit called Society Expeditions. (That outfit’s commercial space flight plans fell by the wayside.)

From 1988 through 1996, I worked as a consultant/contractor to a variety of NASA programs, including the agency’s space station utilization office and its space life sciences program, supporting their communication, education, and public outreach efforts. From 1992 to 1993, I worked on a series of town meetings convened by NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, bringing together space experts and citizens around the country to talk about what they wanted their national space program to be and do. The views aired at those meetings are summarized in a final report published in 1993. Again, what I heard from citizens around the country is that they wanted their country to continue exploring space, for discovery and understanding. You can read our report on the meetings here.

From 1992 to 1995, I also worked on earning my master’s degree in international transactions, at George Mason University, where I studied, among other things, theories of political economy, the global banking system, trade policy, multinational institutions, and international law.

From 1993 to 1994, I worked on organizing a symposium for NASA’s “Mission from Planet Earth Study Office.” The event – “What Is the Value of Space Exploration?” – took place in July 1994 in Washington, D.C. I developed a rationale for the event, identified speakers and invited them to participate, explained the purpose of the meeting, and wrote a summary of the proceedings that you can read here.

From 1996 to 1999, I took a break from my work in the space community to earn my Ph.D. in mass communication from Indiana University. There I studied communication theory, social theory, the history and sociology of journalism, international communication, the history and philosophy of science, and rhetorical criticism.

From 1999 to 2002, I served as director of communications for SPACEHAB, a commercial provider of space habitats, payload processing, and other space services. (The company is now defunct.)

From 2002 to the present, I have worked under grants and contracts with NASA science programs, doing communication research for them. I currently do research for NASA’s astrobiology and near-Earth object programs.

My experience in the human space flight community in the late 1980s and the early 1990s led me to conclude that the business of human space flight was, essentially, broken. It still is. For 30 years I have been listening to leaders in this community talk about the need to reduce space launch costs by an order of magnitude. It hasn’t happened. (I know that some so-called commercial launch providers promise a drastic reduction in cost. We’ll see.) For 30 years I’ve kept hoping that this community might offer up a rationale for continued human exploration that might be broadly meaningful to people outside the space community. It hasn’t happened yet. For 30 years I’ve watched aerospace corporations – ably represented by their own considerable lobbying forces, with help from the industry-funded Aerospace Industries Association, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Space Foundation, and National Defense Industrial Association, among others – dominate the process of developing our national agenda in space.

Sidebar: While companies have laid off tens of thousands of workers, the aerospace industry is strong. Today’s Washington Post reports on page 1 today that major players in the aerospace and defense industry – among them Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics – are “faring well despite [federal] budget cuts” and sequestration. Lockheed Martin reported yesterday that its profit had risen 10 percent during the second quarter of its current fiscal year, to $859 million.

I’ve had many opportunities to speak or write about my concerns in recent years. Whenever I speak about my unease with the space frontier metaphor, I get positive feedback, mostly (though not exclusively) from women and non-U.S. citizens. I’ve learned that even Western Europeans, who we might assume share the same “Western” cultural values embedded in our national narrative, do not necessarily find the American-style ideology of pioneering and settling the space frontier particularly palatable.

In a paper I published in the journal Space Policy in 2006, I wrote: “The US civilian space program is focused on planning for a new round of human missions beyond Earth orbit, to realize a ‘vision’ for exploration articulated by President George W. Bush. It is important to examine this ‘vision’ in the broader context of the global enterprise of 21st century space exploration. How will extending human presence into the Solar System affect terrestrial society and culture? What legal, ethical and other value systems should govern human activities in space?”

In that 2006 article, I quoted from a paper published in the first volume of Space Policy, in 1985 (Hempenius SA, Voute C., Human development and the conquest of Space, Space Policy 1985, 1:179–86). The authors of that paper asserted that space exploration carries with it “the danger of domination by extrovert cultures. Proper development of space technology requires international cooperation, scientific creativity and technological innovation combined with sociopolitical, economic and cultural aims and objectives and ethical values. Norms and objectives have to take into account religious concepts, humanistic viewpoints and sociocultural criteria. The ethics of the conquest of space have to consider the benefit of all mankind and that of each single individual, group and society as complementary and of equal importance.”

I’ll say again today that space policy makers would still do well to consider these concerns in their deliberations on the ethics of space exploration and development.


2 Responses to “The frontier metaphor: still worrisome”

  1. David S. F. Portree Says:

    Dr. Billings:

    I appreciate your stance re: the motivations behind spaceflight. To me contemporary motives seem not to take into account the very thing they are meant to emphasize, which is space. Our contemporary economy is not suited to space; our bodies are not suited to space; our technology is pushed to its limit to put people into space and bring them home safely. In other words, we have work to do. Retreating into “newspace” and frontier fantasies is not going to move us forward; a realistic appraisal of where we stand – that we have plenty of basic spadework that will take years or decades to accomplish – just might. This is why realistic planners have called for a period of concerted, unglamorous space technology development ahead of any major new space initiative. I think Ride was the first person to make that case in a very public way, in LEADERSHIP AND AMERICA’S FUTURE IN SPACE. We’ve seen a few efforts along these lines – Project Pathfinder in the post-Challenger/pre-SEI era, the New Millennium Program before people became confused about what it aimed to do, a few others – but nothing of the scale and persistence required.

    As for the “why” of spaceflight – the conquest narrative never made sense, I think because conquering rocks and exotic ices makes no sense. At root conquest implies a biological imperative, I think. Space needs an intellectual imperative. We visit space for many reasons, but curiosity at least forms a figleaf for those reasons, and in the end what we find by being curious emerges as the most lasting, influential commodity to emerge from our space adventures. I’ve argued that the British Empire existed so Darwin could visit the Galapagos. Of course, the Victorians would have said something different. I sometimes think that the Cold War existed so that Jack Schmitt could drive around Taurus Littrow with his rock tongs and trenching scoop.

    Are we smart enough to skip over the costly accoutrements and get straight to the intellectual imperative? Is being curious enough? The signs are not encouraging, but perhaps we’ll get there eventually.


  2. More on American exceptionalism | doctorlinda Says:

    […] and colonization, ripe for “commercialization” unfettered by government oversight. (My most popular blog post of last year took yet another look at the ever-dangerous frontier […]

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