The rhetoric of space exploration, redux



In 2008, I presented a paper at the Seventh Triennial Conference of the Kenneth Burke Society* on the rhetoric of U.S. space exploration. I’ve recently re-read the paper and find it still on the mark. I expect, sadly, that no matter who wins the presidential election this fall, this rhetoric – and the ideology that drives it – won’t change. Here’s Part 1 of the paper. I’ll post more tomorrow. I’ve posted the full paper on this site (see the left menu) for those who want to check references and footnotes.

In the early 21st century, the discourse on U.S. space policy remains mired in Cold War-era thinking that pits the United States “against” other space-faring nations and treats civilian, military, and commercial space as separate (and not necessarily equal) regimes. Policy makers and advocates alike tend to employ negative rhetorical strategies, describing space exploration and development as a matter of “us versus them,” winners and losers, leaders or followers.

How might policy makers and advocates transcend the divisions they have constructed between the maintenance of space for peaceful purposes and the exploitation of space for commercial or military purposes, the exploration of space for scientific purposes and the conquest of space for political purposes? What kind of space policy could a new U.S. administration put in place to transcend perceived conflicts?

Rhetorical critic Janice Hocker Rushing (1986) once wrote, “Space is too big to be conquered.” Starting from this premise, I will explore whether and how the global space community can transcend perceived conflicts, divisions, and differences to craft a productive global space policy for the 21st century and beyond. To paraphrase Burke, my aim, in the spirit of postpositivism, is to raise some useful questions rather than produce all the answers.


In the early 21st century, the trend in the space community, energized in the Reagan era and reinvigorated during the George W. Bush years, has been to view the solar system as an environment to exploit, as we have done with our own planetary environment. From this “dominionist” or “manifest destiny” perspective, our home planet, and our home solar system, are seen as resources here for humans to use as they like.

Examining the history of the U.S. space program reveals an ideology of space exploration that has at its core a rationale for conquest and exploitation. This ideology is deeply rooted in a durable American cultural narrative of frontier pioneering, continual progress, manifest destiny, free enterprise, rugged individualism, and a right to life without limits (Billings, 2007). 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 of American exceptionalism, the United States is and must remain “Number One” in the world, as political, economic, scientific, technological, and moral leader.

The rhetoric of space policy and advocacy advances a conception of outer space as a place of wide-open spaces and limitless resources – a space frontier. Though the contemporary cultural environment is vastly different from that of the Cold-War era in which the space program began, the 21st century narrative of U.S. space exploration to date is still intimately intertwined with what feminist critic Susan Faludi (2007) calls “security myth” and “nationalist fantasy,” a story of cowboys on the space frontier.

Delving into the language, or rhetoric, of space flight is a productive way of exploring the meanings and motives that are embedded in and conveyed by the ideology of space exploration – the cultural narrative of pioneering the space frontier. Though a full-blown critique is beyond the scope of this paper, the rhetoric of space exploration is ripe for dramatistic criticism, an opportunity to explore “how broader systems of belief shape and determine the possibilities of acting” (Burke, 1969a, p. 22).

 The official narrative

The foundations of U.S. space policy are the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act and the 1967 United Nations Treaty on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The NASA Act states that “it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind,”1 and the 1967 Treaty establishes that outer space is a domain to be used for the benefit of all humankind, preserved for peaceful purposes, and protected from sovereign claims.2

These foundational laws are devoid of references to frontiers, conquest, and exploitation. Yet the frontier metaphor is dominant in the rhetoric of space exploration.

A fundamental goal of U.S. space policy since the establishment of NASA in 1958 has been to establish, maintain, and strengthen U.S. leadership in space exploration and the global space community, and the influence of the narrative of American exceptionalism has remained strong in official space rhetoric into the 21st century. A sampling of official rhetoric from 1981 to 2008 highlights the persistence of these ideas of pioneering and conquest, leadership and dominance.

In its final report, “Pioneering the Space Frontier,” the National Commission on Space (1986), appointed by President Reagan to develop a long-term plan for space exploration, described “a pioneering mission for 21st– century America: to lead the exploration and development of the space frontier.” Humankind is “destined to expand to other worlds,” the commission said, and “our purpose” is to establish “free societies on new worlds.” Toward achieving those goals, “we must stimulate individual initiative and free enterprise in space” (pp. 2-3).

The George H. W. Bush administration declared that “America’s space program is what civilization needs…. America, with its tremendous resources, is uniquely qualified for leadership in space…our success will be guaranteed by the American spirit – that same spirit that tamed the North American continent and built enduring democracy.” The “prime objective” of the U.S. space program is “to open the space frontier.”3 NASA declared in response, “The imperative to explore” is embedded in our history…traditions, and national character,” and space is “the frontier” to be explored.4

Following suit, the Clinton administration asserted, “Space exploration has become an integral part of our national character, capturing the spirit of optimism and adventure that has defined this country from its beginnings…. Its lineage is part of an ancient heritage of the human race…deep in the human psyche and perhaps in our genes.”5

On behalf of the George W. Bush administration, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Marburger (2006) said that questions about the President’s so-called “Vision for Space Exploration” – the call to send people back to the Moon and on to Mars – “boil down to whether we want to incorporate the Solar System in our economic sphere, or not.” According to national policy, Marburger said, “‘The fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.’ So at least for now the question has been decided in the affirmative.”

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, appointed by President George W. Bush in 2005, said shortly upon arriving at the agency that the aim of the U.S. space program is “to make the expansion and development of the space frontier an integral part of what it is that human societies do.”6 “We want to be the world’s preeminent space-faring nation for all future time,” he said, “second to none.”7 Space exploration is linked with “core beliefs,” Griffin said, about what societies should be doing “on the frontiers of their time…. North Americans are the way we are because of the challenges of the frontier…. Western thought, civilization, and ideals represent a superior set of values,” these values are “irretrievably linked to” expansion, and now this expansion will continue into the human frontier of space, he asserted.8

Though Griffin has tempered his rhetoric somewhat over his three years as head of NASA, he and his deputies continued, in their public appearances and official statements, to envision a human future in space where “Americans” are in charge.

Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama issued space policy position papers during their 2008 campaigns for the presidency. McCain (McCain-Palin 2008) said in his statement that as President, he would “ensure that space exploration is top priority and that the U.S. remains a leader; [and] commit to funding the NASA Constellation program [the new space transportation system that NASA must build to fulfill Bush’s “vision”] to ensure it has the resources it needs to begin a new era of human space exploration.” (It is worth noting that in his statement McCain referred to George W. Bush’s “vision for space exploration” as “the NASA vision for space exploration.”) Obama (2008) said in his eight-page statement that, as President, he would “embrace” human exploration of space and “continue NASA’s architecture studies and advanced planning to ensure…that America can lead the world to long-term exploration of the Moon, Mars, and beyond, in a collaborative and cost-effective way.”

It thus appears that, in 2009, U.S. citizens can expect no major deviations from the George W. Bush administration’s push for extending human presence into space. Whether and how this goal will be met, especially whether and how the ideology of conquest and exploitation is employed, remains to be seen.

[Update, July 2016: It thus appears that, in 2017, U.S. citizens can expect no major deviations from the Obama administration’s push for extending human presence into space. Whether and how this goal will be met, especially whether and how the ideology of conquest and exploitation is employed, remains to be seen.]

*”Kenneth Burke: Transcendence by Perspective,” July 29-July 1, 2008. Kenneth Burke (1897-1993) is the U.S.A.’s foremost rhetorical critic. He is known for his analytic method of dramatic criticism. My favorite of his many astute observations is, “War is a disease of peace.”

One Response to “The rhetoric of space exploration, redux”

  1. The rhetoric of space exploration, redux – Part 2 | doctorlinda Says:

    […] I posted the first part of a paper I wrote in 2008 on the rhetoric of space exploration. Here’s Part 2. Full text with references […]

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