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Apollo landing
Space enthusiasts have taken different approaches over the years to reconcile the lack of progress in the decades since Apollo. (credit: NASA)

Coping with the closing

Disempowerment in the post-Apollo narratives about the space frontier

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Among the emotional responses to the 40th anniversary of the Apollo lunar landings validated in the broadcast news coverage of the event were patriotic pride in victory over the Soviet Union in the race to the Moon and the philosophic and spiritual transformation resulting from the dramatic change in perspective on first viewing all of Earth from space, called the “overview effect.” What was not validated was expression of a sense of loss or betrayal that was felt by space enthusiasts1 when the remaining Apollo missions were cancelled a mere three years after the first lunar landing. Nostalgia for a bygone era could be voiced, but not bitterness that space as a geographic frontier was closed because of that decision. That the United States government failed to exploit the lunar landings by establishing a permanent Moon base or by launching manned missions to Mars is an idea whose expression has been effectively tabooed. Rather than go on to conquer space, the American government’s space policy decisions quarantined our entire species on Earth and in low Earth orbit. The resulting disappointment of expectations echoes through the post-Apollo narratives about the space frontier as denial, fantasy, anger, resignation, and rejection. As efforts to cope with the feelings of loss and betrayal that are still not validated by the larger culture they deserve scrutiny, not the least because they might be obstacles to reopening the space frontier.


The perception that there was something unreal about the first opening the space frontier was captured by Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan in his 1999 autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon. “Sometimes it seems that Apollo came before its time,” wrote Cernan. “President Kennedy reached far into the twenty-first century, grabbed a decade of time and slipped it neatly into the 1960s and 1970s.”2 The Moon was the first and as yet the only extraterrestrial world humans have reached, and it would have been strange if it had not seemed at least somewhat unreal. However the strangeness that Cernan evokes is more the violation of the assumption that having once arrived in a new environment, humans will continue to occupy it. One way to emotionally process such a violation is to re-conceive the lunar landings as historically precocious and not as a tragic and absurd failure to capitalize on them. The idea is that humans managed to land on the Moon before they properly could have been expected to do so and by implication before they were able to fully exploit the opportunities presented. The pain of the psychological wound is thus palliated by the belief that humans will return when they are fully ready.

The resulting disappointment of expectations echoes through the post-Apollo narratives about the space frontier as denial, fantasy, anger, resignation, and rejection.

The disappointed could also take refuge in a tradition of skepticism about the value of human space exploration. Writing five years before the first lunar landing, sociologist and liberal intellectual Amitai Etzioni published Moondoggle: Domestic and International Implications of the Space Race, a book critical of NASA for distorting the priorities of science policy, for serving as a stalking horse for the US Air Force’s effort to militarize space and for pursuing an expensive goal—manned landings on the Moon—with little intrinsic value.3 The neologism “moondoggle” is a play on the word “boondoggle”, a reference to the wasteful expenditure of public monies. One year later, conservative gadfly Phyllis Scafly and former Rear Admiral Chester Ward published their Strike From Space: How the Russians May Destroy Us, a book warning breathlessly of threats to American national security because of the influence of tweedy, surrender-prone liberals, like Etzioni.4 Where they agreed with Etzioni, however, was that the proposed manned mission to the Moon was a mistake. They even deploy the sneering phrase “moondoggle”, though without attribution:

As always in the U.S. space program, the big money and the huge national effort go to prestige projects. Only the crumbs are left for military space programs, which would insure our survival and freedom…The moondoggle is a diversion—it looks strong to Americans, but the Soviets, who are not racing to the moon, know there is no military value in that trip.5

Denunciations of distortion of one kind or another are a recurrent feature of general critiques of the civilian space program. Social historian Howard E. McCurdy describes the expectations that space exploration would open a new frontier for human settlement as the result of overselling the programs by space policy advocates, and concludes that it was a recipe for disappointment.6 Social historian Gerard J. DeGroot is even more scathing, dismissing the space frontier as an ideological construct even more romanticized and unrealistic than its source material in Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis of American history:

Conquering space resonated perfectly with myths about conquering the American West—a new generation would be able to share the experiences of their forebears. First would come the brave explorers, who would ride rockets to new outposts of the American Dream. Then would come intrepid pioneers establishing colonies on distant planets. Then would come commerce and, rather like Alaska, the Moon and Mars would eventually become states in the Union.7

If DeGroot is correct, the space frontier existed solely in the realm of public relations and popular culture, where it was used to justify the Cold War competition in space between the US and Soviet Union. No geographic frontier in space closed because there was no territory in space worthy of human settlement.

The disappointed could also take refuge in a tradition of skepticism about the value of human space exploration.

Belief that space is so unlike any Earthly environment that it cannot bear comparison was expressed by geographer Jason Dittmer is in a post-modern denunciation of the “colonialist” language used to describe news coverage of the Mars Pathfinder mission.8 Contemporary geographers employ post-modernism’s analytic tools to understand the psycho-social meanings that attach to places, apparently including those places visited only remotely through robotic space probes. Dittmer faults news coverage of the Mars Pathfinder mission for daring to describe Mars in the language of the Age of Exploration, which he described as a “phallic project to cover the globe with order, to subject lands and peoples to names and categories, hierarchies and schema, of European design.” The unfortunate result, he concluded, was a narrative representation of Mars, “as a place that can be colonized rather than as a space beyond human geography.”


Beginning in the 1970s, some space enthusiasts coped by articulating exaggerated, even cornucopian visions of the possible benefits to be derived from the economic development and human settlement of space. Physicist Gerard K. O’Neill became a veritable superstar among space enthusiasts with his 1978 The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, which promised universal economic prosperity, social and cultural diversity, and protection of the environment through the construction of enormous orbital space habitats.9 Life would be so good in the space habitats that Earth might be depopulated through emigration.

The availability in the space habitats of high paying jobs of good living conditions, and of better opportunities for children may stimulate the emigration of a considerable segment of the Earth’s population even if overcrowding on Earth is less serious than now appears likely. In the long run, because of the availability in space of unlimited cheap energy, of abundant materials, and of efficient combinations of attractive living area with nearby industry, I suspect that Earth based industry will be unable to compete economically with space based industry. If so then, as has occurred many times in Earth’s history, people will follow the availability of jobs, and that will mean emigration….The vision of an industry free, pastoral Earth, with many of its spectacular scenic areas reverting to wilderness, with bird and animal populations increasing in number, and with a relatively small, affluent human population…10

The portrayal of an Earth with a reduced population would have appealed to those experiencing demographic anxiety after reading biologist Paul R. Ehrlich’s 1968 The Population Bomb.11 The two acute oil shortages in the 1970s stimulated anxiety about natural resources that reinforced the demographic and environmental anxieties that erupted in the late 1960s. Physicist and science fiction author Ben Bova answered them by offering the prospect of immense mineral wealth and energy resources awaiting the reopening of the space frontier:/

What can we gain from the New World that begins a couple of hundred miles above our heads? There is gold out there. More than any Incan Emperor ever knew. And silver, platinum, diamonds, iron, aluminum, copper—any metal or mineral that exists on Earth is waiting for us in space, by the thousands of millions of tons. No one owns it. Yet. Of more immediate concern, there is energy in space. Enormous energy from unfiltered sunlight…Energy is there in space, in superabundance.12

Proposals were also made during the period to mine lunar regolith for helium-3 to be used as fuel for still un-developed fusion technology.


The tendency to blame NASA itself appears to be strongest among space enthusiasts inspired by the economic libertarianism, who express the belief that bold space entrepreneurs could achieve what cautious space agency bureaucrats could not.

If descriptions of the possible economic benefits from space grew more realistic in the 1980s, they were often coupled with denunciations of the decision-making of NASA’s senior administrators or of NASA itself. Astronauts Alan Shephard and Deke Slayton attribute the post-Apollo lethargy not only to the absence of international competition that came with winning the race to the Moon and growing Congressional and public disinterest in space exploration, but also to the personnel change at NASA that replaced “dreamers and builders” with “bureaucrats who shifted with the political winds, sadly short of dreams, drive, and determination to keep forging outward beyond Earth.”13 Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) senior manager Greg Klerkx dates the historical moment for the closing of the space frontier not to cancellation of the last Apollo missions but to 1986, the year of the Challenger space shuttle disaster and the launch of space station Mir. For Klerkx, these events signaled that the promise of “sending human explorers to other planets and paving the way for ‘ordinary’ humans to spend time in space” would not be realized.14 Choosing the later date better fit the critique of NASA as a bureaucratic monopoly responsible for systematically obstructing commercial space development while squandering tax dollars on patronage and pork barrel. Distrust of NASA administrators is so intense that some accuse them of bureaucratic sabotage. Geologist Paul D. Spudis, a proponent of the project to establish a US Moon base, voiced his belief in 2004 that some officials at NASA want “to kill this or morph it into something that it was never intended to be.”15

The tendency to blame NASA itself appears to be strongest among space enthusiasts inspired by the economic libertarianism. Despairing of the pace of post-Apollo space exploration, they express the belief that bold space entrepreneurs could achieve what cautious space agency bureaucrats could not. Harsh denunciations of NASA were often coupled with rhetorically extravagant evocations of entrepreneurship. Consider the following effusion by former Speaker of the House of Representatives and conservative intellectual Newt Gingrich:

NASA is an aging, unimaginative bureaucracy committed to over-engineering and risk-avoidance which is actually diverting resources from the achievements we need and stifling the entrepreneurial and risk taking spirit…For those who see manned space flight as having no role they would have thought the Wright Brothers were irrelevant in 1903. The human race has a destiny to spread across the solar system and then across the stars. I prefer that destiny be led by free people.16

Former Daily Telegraph science reporter and science fiction author Adrian Berry rhetorically outbids the economic libertarians with a description of asteroid mining on a utopian anarchist space frontier:

[I]t seems inconceivable that governments, whose members dislike thinking ahead for more than about five years—usually their maximum term in office—would ever dream of providing the initial capital to start this vast project whose beginnings will be the work of many decades. It is far too profit-oriented to allow any role for governments. Space will be no place for bureaucrats—the capitalist will be its king. No future Columbus will tour the capitals of the world in search of state funds, and there will be no future Queen Isabella to come to his financial rescue.17/


Some space enthusiasts have coped with accepting the indefinite human reclusion on Earth and in low Earth orbit. Their perspective echoes President Eisenhower’s 1957 rejection of a proposal for an American space probe to the Moon: “Look, I’d like to know what’s on the other side of the Moon, too, but I won’t pay to find out this year.”18 From that perspective the current pace of space exploration is the best that may be hoped for. Manned missions to Mars and the outer planets can be delayed indefinitely or remain the stuff of dreams. Forget about human settlement of other celestial bodies. RAND Science and Technology Policy Institute Senior Fellow Liam P. Sarsfield concludes that

We can afford to slow down. Unlike in the case of military and national security missions, NASA has the advantage of having the time to conduct measured research, the kind of methodical study that yields great scientific discoveries. Mars is an old planet and shows no signs of evaporating…We could opt for a strategy that rejects a human mission to Mars unless we have a compelling scientific or military reason to go there.19

Some space enthusiasts endorse abandoning manned missions altogether in favor of a more robust schedule of unmanned missions. Space probes are the low risk, low cost technology option preferred by those who believe scientific data collection should be the primary goal of the US space program. They perceive manned missions as being too risky, too costly, producing too little of scientific value other than space medicine, and tending to starve scientifically more productive unmanned missions of scarce funding. Thus physicist Richard A. Muller counsels patience:

We are already planning to send robots to Mars to bring back samples. Someday we may even send astronauts. Lets not be in a hurry to send humans. New telescopes and unmanned instruments will tell us more about space than orbiting astronauts can. There is a future for humans in space. Eventually hypersonic flight will be perfected, and we will be able to ride airplanes into orbit without having the enormous fuel loads that rockets require….When scramjets become available, human visits to space may become both cheap and safe.20

What Muller doesn’t explain is why humans would need to travel into space even when it becomes cheap. With competent robots doing everything that needs to be done in space why not be content to remain here on Earth?

If all else fails, there is consolation. Consider how former NASA administrator Thomas O. Paine ended his foreword to the 1991 edition of Wernher von Baun’s The Mars Project:

Von Braun watched the first humans explore the Moon; and he knew that among our children are the first explorers of Mars. As interplanetary travel becomes increasingly feasible in the twenty-first century, the expansion of life outward from its earthly cradle will become an enduring international goal. Space exploration and settlement will be accelerated by exponentially growing world economies, decreasing superpower confrontation, continuing advances in science and technology, and advancing spaceflight experience. Human intelligence is destined to activate the evolution of life on other worlds.21

What Muller doesn’t explain is why humans would need to travel into space even when it becomes cheap. With competent robots doing everything that needs to be done in space why not be content to remain here on Earth?

Eulogies typically succeed in consoling the living by promising an afterlife where hopes and dreams may be realized. For those now living who will never see the realization of most of the dreams of the space age, a future in which later generations achieve them provides a substitute afterlife. Alas, a generation has already grown to young adulthood since Paine channeled von Braun in predicting that the children alive in 1991 would explore Mars. Given the current pace of space exploration, none of those children seem likely to walk on Mars.

Popular science writers Francis French and Colin Burgess march resignation up to its philosophic limit in the epilogue to their history focused on the Apollo astronauts.22 Comparing the lunar landings with the construction of the ziggurat by the Babylonian king Nimrod that probably appears in Biblical accounts as the Tower of Babel, their book ends with this syrupy summation: “The ways of reaching the stars come and go over the centuries, but the same dream remains, and never dies.”


Conspiracy theories, constructed from themes in other narratives, provide emotional relief because they permit complete rejection. Anger and denial combine in the Apollo Hoax, the belief that the lunar landings were faked by NASA on a stage.23 Bill Kaysing’s 1967 We Never Went to the Moon may have been the first to exploit the vague sense that something was not right about the lunar landings. The War in Vietnam, Watergate Scandal, and public revelations about actual conspiracies such as the FBI’s COINTELPRO and the CIA’s MKULTRA programs helped create an atmosphere of suspicion that made for the successful promotion of the conspiracy theory. As would be true of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, even the best-documented official accounts of events may be unequal to their emotional impact. Some members of the public will inevitably seek more satisfying, if implausible, alternative explanations for such events. Until human explorers actually return to the sites of the original Apollo lunar landings, belief that NASA staged the lunar landings in a film studio is likely to survive in the minds of the paranoid or easily gulled.

Fantasy and anger combine in an even more amusing conspiracy theory that posits the lunar landings took place but that they concealed the purpose of collecting alien artifacts rather than because of international competition. In their 2007 howler Dark Mission, Richard C. Hoagland and Mike Bara describe NASA as a government agency controlled by a Masonic conspiracy, “ritual elitists” bent on monopolizing space for themselves.24 That explains, they assert, why the Apollo program ended abruptly and manned space missions have been limited to low Earth orbit ever sense. Conspiracy theories of this sort resemble religious belief in that they make non-testable claims for truth and posit the existence of forces operating well beyond the normal experience of human motivation. Like millennial religious belief, they find an audience because they ask little more than credulity or a willingness to be entertained by the shocking or the improbable.

Common ground

Each of the narratives offers an escape from the emotionally painful truth that the entity that briefly opened space as a geographic frontier was also the same entity that closed it. Patriots naturally find it very difficult to come to terms with their feelings of loss and betrayal by their own government. Foreigners who viewed the Apollo lunar landings favorably might have had much the same reaction. Each of the narratives is effective because of the emotional appeal of the particular escape that it offers. Denial relieves the sense of loss by dismissing the desired end. Fantasy does the same by promising that the end is available by other, less difficult means. Anger narrows the focus of the feelings of betrayal from a dangerous object to a safer object, from the entire US government to a handful of bureaucrats or a single government agency. Resignation relieves the sense of loss by promising that the desired end will be achieved at some unstated point in the future. Conspiracy relieves the sense of betrayal by recasting the US government as evil rather than as merely disappointing, and thus justifies complete rejection. If all that the narratives did was to make space enthusiasts feel better by relieving their sense of loss and betrayal then they could be ignored as ordinary distortions of the past. Unfortunately, to the extent that the narratives continue to be articulated and believed, they tend to disempower space enthusiasts, turning them away from the very daunting political task of lobbying the US government to appropriate the monies necessary for a space program capable of taking our species back across the space frontier.


  1. Note that the term “space enthusiasts” is not pejorative but instead neutral. It describes all those, like the author of this article, who view the exploration, development, and settlement of space as worthy goals.
  2. Gene Cernan and Don Davis. 1999. The Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America’s Race in Space. New York: St. Martin’s Press. P. 344.
  3. Amitai Etzioni. 1964. The Moon-Doggle: Domestic and International Implications of the Space Race. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company. Pp. 153-154.
  4. Phyllis Schafly and Chester Ward. 1966. Strike from Space: How the Russians May Destroy Us. New York: The Devin-Adair Company.
  5. Schafly and Ward, 1966, Ibid., Pp. 119-120.
  6. Howard E. McCurdy. 1997. Space and the American Imagination. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. Pp, 233-243.
  7. Gerard J. DeGroot. 2006. Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest. New York University Press. p. 42.
  8. Jason N. Dittmer. “Colonialism and Place Creation in Mars Pathfinder Media Coverage.” Geographical Review. 2007. Vol. 97, No. 1, Pp. 112-131.
  9. Gerard K. O’Neill. 1978. The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space. New York: Bantam; Gerard K. O’Neill. 2000. The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, 3rd Ed. Burlington, Ontario: Apogee Books.
  10. O’Neill., 2000. Ibid., p. 121.
  11. Paul R. Ehrlich. 1968. The Population Bomb. New York: Ballantine Books; Britain’s answer to Ehrlich was nuclear physicist John H. Fremlin, whose authored the even gloomier if less remembered 1972 Be Fruitful and Multiply: Life at the Limits of Population (London: Rupert Hart-Davis).
  12. Ben Bova. 1981. The High Road. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Pp. 78-79.
  13. Alan Shephard and Deke Slayton. 1994. Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon. Atlanta, GA: Turner Publishing. Pp. 331-332.
  14. Greg Klerkx. 2004. Lost in Space: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of A New Space Age. New York: Vintage Books. p. 25.
  15. Leonard David. “Moon Viewed As Policy Battleground.” July 17, 2004. Retrieved July 20, 2004.
  16. Gregory Anderson. “A Few Words With Newt Gingrich.” The Space Review. May 15, 2006.
  17. Adrian Berry. 1996. The Next 500 Years: Life in the Coming Millennium. New York: Gramercy. Pp. 202-203.
  18. Quoted in Matthew Brzezinski. 2007. Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Race. New York: Henry Holt. p. 223.
  19. Liam P. Sarsfield. “The Arrival of Tomorrow: NASA in the 21st Century,” in Edward L. Hudgins, ed., Space: the Free-Market Frontier. 2000. Washington, DC: The CATO Institute. p. 41; Sarsfield’s caveat is that a scientific or military justification for a more vigorous space program might develop.
  20. Richard A. Muller. 2008. Physics for Future Presidents. New York: W.W. Norton. p. 226.
  21. Thomas O. Paine. 1991. “Foreword,” to Wernher von Braun. The Mars Project. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press. p. xiii.
  22. Frances French and Colin Burgess. 2007. In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965-1969. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. p. 412.
  23. Bill Kaysing and Randy Reid. 1967, 1981 reprint. We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle. Cornville, AZ: Desert Publications.
  24. Richard C. Hoagland and Michael Bara. 2007. Dark Mission: The Secret History of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Los Angeles: Feral House. Pp. 247-248.