Exploring the social frontiers of spaceflight
Progress and political movements
Taylor Dark, of California State University at Los Angeles, discussed the view that spaceflight is a measure of progress. He said that Americans long ago unabashedly embraced the idea of “progress.” Progress, in the American view, has three primary tenets: there are no limits, the values are mutually reinforcing, and there is an innate directionality—in other words, developmental tendencies that ensure that human civilization will move “upward” and will not regress. However, starting in the 1970s American society experienced a crisis in the idea of progress. An important change was the claim by writers and philosophers, starting in the 1960s but gaining traction during the 1973 oil crisis, that there are limits to growth. This combined with a belief that there are negative spinoffs to technology, such as pollution and accidents. Finally, there were doubts about the directional mechanisms and grand narratives. American society was not necessarily moving towards a better future, but could also regress.
Dark said that space activist movements that grew up during this time revived the idea of progress, with space development serving as a vital component. Groups such as the L-5 Society viewed space development as a means of countering the crisis in the idea of progress. Space provides infinite resources, meaning that there are no limits on economic expansion. Space provides an endless frontier, leading to an endless source of innovation and new knowledge. And expansion into space meant that there were no limits on the lifespan of the human race because humans could migrate off the planet and also protect it from threats such as hazardous asteroids. However, advocates of this view also argued that humanity was entering a “critical period” because the limits to growth and other threats to humanity could possibly overwhelm society before space was developed.
According to Dark, there are several mutually reinforcing values to this new belief system. One is that although technology can be dangerous, over time it is always a net gain for society. Another is the “Overview Effect,” or the belief that expansion into space will encourage peace on Earth and in space. And finally, because science is cumulative, it provides an innate directionality to society, with knowledge improving the human condition. But Dark noted that there are also some contradictory aspects to the space development philosophy. It shares a trait with Marxism-Leninism where the philosophy argues that the outcome is inevitable, yet still requires calls to action to make the “inevitable” outcome occur.
Dark proposed that this American belief in progress has been a powerful influence on government policy, perhaps more so than scientific or economic justifications for the space program. But he ended with a question: will spaceflight be more like Las Vegas or the Salton Sea? Vegas is the goal of many space activists: a sprawling city freed from many of the constraints of normal society, thriving in a hostile environment. But Dark noted that the developers who built hotels and resorts along the Salton Sea earlier in the 20th century had high hopes to achieve essentially the same thing, but the environment and economics defeated them, and their failed efforts are still visible as ruins along the Sea’s semi-toxic shoreline.
Chris Gainor, currently a graduate student at the University of Alberta and author of a book about how Canadians participated in the Apollo program, discussed American domestic political movements and their views of spaceflight. Gainor explained that although one can find evidence of hostility toward the Apollo program in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, this opposition was largely topical and opportunistic. In fact, few civil rights leaders have mentioned the space program at all in their memoirs and they have largely forgotten about it. Gainor also noted that in the 1970s there was actually liberal space activism. For example, the publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog was inspired to publish Gerard K. O’Neill’s book Space Colonies. Many pro-space groups were based in California and concentrated on education, advocacy, and research.
Over time, however, the nature of pro-space support changed in the United States. Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative divided groups over security issues. The Space Frontier Foundation picked up the pro-colonization banner and adopted an anti-government attitude.
Gainor noted that many of these pro-space groups make little or no reference to public opinion, and ignore the possibility that the government may be pursuing the space policy that the public wants them to. He also noted that human spaceflight is still perceived by many in the public as an “optional activity” and not something that is necessary to human survival or even human welfare.
Gainor was asked if there was any evidence that NASA had responded to the counterculture of the 1960s. He said that there was no fundamental change until a decade or more later. NASA did not admit women and African Americans to its astronaut corps until the late 1970s, and did not change its policies to focus more on Earth’s environment until the late 1970s and early 1980s. However, several other conference participants challenged this view. One noted that Richard Nixon’s 1969 Space Task Group divided into two factions. One faction wanted to continue solar system exploration, primarily by sending a human mission to Mars. The other wanted the space agency to focus its gaze on Earth. However, the group was largely unsuccessful at influencing Nixon. Another participant noted that a substantial portion of the Skylab program was devoted to Earth observation, and much of the literature produced from that program emphasized the space program’s role in improving life on Earth.
The closing keynote speech was delivered by M.G. Lord, author of Astro Turf: the Private Life of Rocket Science. Lord discussed the influence of written science fiction on the space program, but spent much of her time discussing the radiation hazards to humans venturing beyond Earth orbit. It is entirely possible, Lord proposed, that radiation is so dangerous that it makes the dreams of space colonization untenable—human settlers would be forever faced with cancers and other tissue damage and lifespans would be short. There is the possibility of better drugs and selective screening of astronauts, but these options present difficult choices and challenges. For instance, Lord noted that women are more susceptible to radiation tissue damage than men, so an extreme option would be to simply not allow women on long-duration space missions.
Beyond the radiation threats are the psychological risks. Can a small group of people survive for years in extreme confinement? And what should the crew do when one of their members is sick or injured and they lack the resources to help them?
Lord’s talk was provocative and engaging. Her theme was a common one for the conference: that our dreams and expectations for spaceflight may be far removed from the actual reality. Lord also drew the biggest laugh from the audience. While discussing the works of Robert Heinlein, she compared the residents of conservative “red states” to the population controlled by alien brain slugs in Robert Heinlein’s novel The Puppet Masters. Despite this, the conference largely avoided politics, snobbery, and the academic jargon typical of social history discussions.
Toward a social history of spaceflight
The conference organizers, NASA historian Steven Dick and Air and Space Museum Space History Division director Roger Launius, plan on producing conference proceedings in the next year or two. Hopefully they will also sponsor a second conference to revisit and expand on the subject. There were many provocative ideas voiced at the conference that will hopefully lead to further research and publication. The conference featured a large number of speakers—too many to foster much dialogue or interchange of ideas and knowledge. But as a first step toward the development of a social history of spaceflight, it achieved impressive results.
Even though the speakers covered many topics, there were some surprising omissions. Although several speakers mentioned politics and political identification, this subject deserves far more attention than it received. For instance, there was no empirical research into political support for space exploration or development. Although several speakers noted that those on the left of the American political spectrum are less likely to support spaceflight (or at least human spaceflight), and also noted that there is a stridently libertarian, anti-government, pro-space activist community, nobody at the conference sought to explain why NASA has received relatively bipartisan support over the decades.
Another subject that received relatively little attention was space and the Internet, particularly the blogosphere. Of course, anybody with the right software and an opinion can start a blog, and just because a blog exists does not meant that anybody is reading it. But with over 100 blogs that have some kind of space theme, one would expect that at least one commentator would have addressed this subject in some depth, but the blogosphere was largely ignored by the speakers. The fact that many bloggers appear to embrace a free-market, libertarian, decidedly anti-NASA attitude also deserves more attention. Why are there no liberal pro-space blogs?
Another surprising omission was virtually no mention of Star Trek and its influence on the space program. Many speakers mentioned the powerful influence that written science fiction has had on shaping attitudes and expectations for spaceflight, but the most popular and well-known science fiction program of the last four decades was ignored by the speakers. Nor did any of them discuss other popular science fiction television shows or movies, which have reached far more people than science fiction literature ever did. Do television shows like Stargate SG-1 or Battlestar Galactica play any role in shaping public perceptions of spaceflight today? Both are niche programs with limited audiences. But what about mass market science fiction movies like Space Cowboys or the Star Wars movies? Similarly, Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, wrote a novel about a NASA conspiracy called Deception Point that was on best-seller lists for many months. The novel has a decidedly negative attitude toward the space agency, and demonstrates poor understanding of its subject, but has probably been read by many people who have had little other exposure to spaceflight. Has it had any impact in shaping societal attitudes?
Finally, a subject deserving greater attention is how different societies have viewed spaceflight. Several speakers such as Siddiqi, McCurdy, and Geppert noted that the American view of spaceflight is not necessarily shared by other cultures in Europe and around the world. To what extent can these different attitudes explain the different levels of effort among the world’s space programs? That, too, is worthy of further research.