A recent tweet by Planetary Society blogger Emily Lakdawalla, citing my blog post of July 24, 2013, “The frontier metaphor: still worrisome” – appears to have stirred up the hornets’ nest of space libertarians. This week I’ve received a stream of mostly-anonymous comments on Twitter and on my blog posts. They have all been of the same ilk – dismissive, condescending, sometimes plain old rude. (I give credit to my old friend Rand Simberg for not hiding behind anonymity.)
I typically do not post anonymous comments on my blog. I don’t blog anonymously. I’m happy to engage in dialogue with people of different opinions. For productive dialogue to occur, participants need to know at least a little bit about each other. I will not respond to specific insults, as they are of course intended to put me on the defensive. I have no need to go there….
As my faithful readers will know, for more than a decade I have been engaged in an ongoing project of research, analysis, and critique of the ideology of space exploration, in particular its embrace of the frontier metaphor and the idea of manifest destiny. As a U.S. citizen, I am especially interested in how and why this ideology has long been embedded in U.S. space policy and whether and how it serves the public interest.
The latest book I’ve been reading about the history of the idea of manifest destiny and its embrace by U.S. policy makers digs deep into the religious roots of this belief.
In Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right (1995), historian Anders Stephanson’s premise is that the idea of “manifest destiny is of signal importance in the way the United States came to understand itself in the world and still does.” It’s an “institutionally embedded” ideology. Stephanson writes that “The world as God’s ‘manifestation’ and history as predetermined ‘destiny’ had been ideological staples of the strongly providentialist period in England between 1620 and 1660,” the period when English Puritans migrated to North America. The related belief in “right” – that is, that white Europeans had been “chosen by the finger of God to possess (America)” – is at least as old. These beliefs came to underlay a U.S. national narrative of “prophecy, messianism, and historical transcendence.”
If you’d like to refresh your memory about previous blog posts on this subject, you can check out, for starters, “Blowing the dust off an old belief system, again”, February 26, 2015; “Disturbing visions of our future in space” – “Disturbing visions of our future in space”, October 8, 2014; “More on American exceptionalism” – “More on American exceptionalism”, February 13, 2014; and “Private property rights in space: still a bad idea”, November 13, 2013.
I would also recommend my peer-reviewed publications on this subject, such as:
- “Ideology, advocacy, and space flight – evolution of a cultural narrative,” pp. 483-500 in Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Lunies, eds., Societal Impacts of Spaceflight (NASA SP-2007-4801), National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington, D.C., 2007 (available free at history.nasa.gov);
- “Fifty years of NASA and the public: What NASA? What publics?”, pp. 151-182 in S.J. Dick, Ed., NASA’s First 50 Years: Historical Perspectives (NASA SP-2010-4704), NASA History Division, Washington, D.C., 2010. (also available for free at history.nasa.gov); and
- “Frontier days in space: are they over?”, Space Policy 13(3), August 1997.
I offer this suggestion to the critics of my work: boys, do your homework. I’ve done mine.