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Review: Krafft Ehricke’s Extraterrestrial Imperative


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Krafft Ehricke’s Extraterrestrial Imperative
by Marsha Freeman
Apogee Books, 2009
softcover, 302 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-894959-91-9
US$27.95

In a speech at a space law conference in Washington last month, NASA’s Alan Ladwig, who just took a position running the agency’s public outreach activities, spoke of the need of developing a new compelling rationale for space exploration. The rationales used today, from spinoffs to international cooperation to education, were good, he said, but none of them seemed compelling enough in their own right. Seeking something more compelling, he then quoted from a 1970s article titled the “Extraterrestrial Imperative” by Krafft Ehricke: “Man is at the cutting edge of terrestrial life, and has no rational alternative but to expand the environmental and resource base beyond Earth.” Such expansion, he added, was necessary for nothing less than the “preservation of civilization.”

“Man is at the cutting edge of terrestrial life, and has no rational alternative but to expand the environmental and resource base beyond Earth.” Such expansion, he added, was necessary for nothing less than the “preservation of civilization.”

It’s easy to see why that could be construed as a compelling rationale for space exploration: after all, what could be more important than ensuring the preservation of our civilization? However, many in the room that day, particularly those who came of age after Apollo, may know little about the author of those statements, if they had even heard of Ehricke at all. For those curious to know more about the man and his vision of why humanity needed to go into space, Marsha Freeman’s Krafft Ehricke’s Extraterrestrial Imperative can help fill in the gaps.

The book consists of two parts. The first part is intended to be a brief biography of Ehricke, the German-born engineer who worked on the V-2 and came to America after World War II. Ehricke later went on to work for several aerospace companies, including Convair, where he helped design what would become the Centaur, the first upper stage powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. However, he built up his reputation with articles and speeches about the importance of human spaceflight, especially in the 1970s when concerns about the environment and limited resources grew, and spaceflight seemed less relevant than it did during the race to the Moon.

This biography is not that detailed, though: his Centaur work, arguably as important as anything he did (as a version of the Centaur remains in use today on the Atlas 5) gets only a few pages. Much of this bio appears primarily designed to annotate and provide an introduction to the second part of the book: a selection of Ehricke’s own documents that have been reprinted from various magazines, journals, and directly from his own files. These documents range from a 1930s science-fiction story he wrote of a 1991 human expedition to Venus to various later papers he wrote on topics as varied as hospitals in space and the prospects for, and the cultural importance of, space tourism.

The bulk of these documents, though, deal with his development of what he would call the “extraterrestrial imperative”. This includes a 1957 journal article on “the anthropology of astronautics”, where he outlines “three fundamental laws of astronautics”: the only limitations on humans are those that are self-imposed; the solar system and beyond are humanity’s “rightful field of activity”, and expanding into the universe fulfills humanity’s destiny. Later papers and speeches expanded this into this extraterrestrial imperative, one that he tried to develop as a counterpoint to the limits of growth arguments that had taken hold in some quarters in the 1970s. In one paper he writes, “I cannot imagine a more foreboding, apocalyptic vision than the future of a mankind endowed with cosmic powers but condemned to solitary confinement on one small planet.”

“We explore space not because it is there, but because we need its potential,” Ehricke wrote in 1970. “This we must recognize clearly, because it is the key to our attitude toward the space effort.”

One thing Freeman doesn’t examine in much detail, though, is why Ehricke’s arguments failed to take root. Not only have his visions of developing industrial bases on the Moon, concepts he worked on late in life (he passed away in 1984), failed to be realized, his overall imperative—exploring space to tap its resources for the betterment of all humanity—has failed to become a core part of national space policy. (It has made it to the periphery at times, including a 2006 speech by John Marburger, presidential science advisor at the time, where he discussed the need to “incorporate the Solar System in our economic sphere.”) Was this because the dire predictions of the Club of Rome and the like failed to come to pass? Or, perhaps, Ehricke wasn’t effective in getting his message out. Many of the reprints in the book come from space and related technology publications, where he would be preaching to the choir, rather than the mass media. In the first part of book Freeman mentions that Ehricke has written a “multi-hundred-page” book version of the Extraterrestrial Imperative, but could not get it published; a tiny portion is reprinted in this book.

Given that, it’s probably a bit of an exaggeration—if not full-blown hyperbole—to say that Ehricke “has taken his place among the intellectual and philosophical elite of our time,” as Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt states in the book’s forward. For many in the space field, though, even those who had not heard of him, his core argument remains personally compelling. It must therefore be a project for NASA internally, and space advocates externally, to refine that argument and find a way to get it in front of a wider audience. “We explore space not because it is there, but because we need its potential,” Ehricke wrote in a 1970 paper included in the book called “A Case for Space”. “This we must recognize clearly, because it is the key to our attitude toward the space effort.” Ehricke’s ultimate legacy—if not much bigger stakes—may depend on the ability of current and future generations to take that rationale as described in the documents published in Krafft Ehricke’s Extraterrestrial Imperative and turn it into arguments that can win over a skeptical public.


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