Is space the new frontier? What are the links between the so-called “age of exploration,” and the conquering of the American West, and the United States space program? We will be covering those questions and others in today’s podcast, The Final Frontier: History, Science, and Space Exploration.

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Transcript for: The Final Frontier: History, Science, and Space Exploration

Written and researched by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Produced by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD and Averill Earls, PhD

Ave: Space … the final frontier …

Sarah: That’s right for this installment of our FRONTIERS episode, we’re metaphorically climbing aboard the Starship Enterprise to explore the vast reaches of the galaxy – okay, fine, we’re not actually exploring outer space. We’re not exactly qualified for that.

Averill: Yeah, we’re humanities profs. You’ll have to get all that STEM stuff elsewhere.

Sarah: What we’re actually talking about today was, however, inspired by Captain James T. Kirk’s famous opening lines in that beloved television and film series, Star Trek. Is space the new frontier? What are the links between the so-called “age of exploration,” and the conquering of the American West, and the United States space program?

I’m Sarah!

And I’m Averill!

And we are your historians for this episode of DIG

Sarah: Before we get started, we want to extend a major thank you to Anna Reser, one of the amazing historians of Lady Science – a magazine and podcast devoted to issues of gender, science, and technology. Anna is working on a PhD right now on the history of the American space program, and helped me out SO MUCH in locating the readings for this episode. We’re relying largely on one book: Space in the American Imagination by Howard McCurdy, on Anna’s recommendation. Thanks, Anna!

Sarah: We don’t think about imagination all that much as historians – we think about what people thought, and what they believed, but at least in my work, I don’t often think about what people might have imagined. But our imagination is actually incredibly important to how we decide to shape our society. For instance, there was a time in the United States when most people – most white people, anyway – believed that slavery was just part of the fabric of society. It was just so baked in that many people couldn’t really fathom that there might be a different way. How did that start to change? Well, one element, argues Howard McCurdy, was that abolitionist literature, including novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped people to imagine something different. In other words, fiction and pop culture help people to envision an alternate universe. With the help of these imagination aids, they could suddenly see not only the horrible realities of bondage, but also a future that did not include the enslavement of black Americans.

Averill: As McCurdy argues, “no policy can long exist in a political culture in which popular beliefs and myths question its feasibility.” In other words, if it seems utterly absurd to us, then it’s not possible for some visionary changemaker to go out and implement some policy that will change the world – it’s doomed to fail. Another example McCurdy gives is laws to alleviate poverty. For a long time – centuries?- most people believed that poverty was impossible to fix. Some people were poor, some people were rich – why bother helping poor people? (Ebenezer Scrooge!) But when the works of Charles Dickens, for instance, started to show people that impoverished people were just like them, with families and hopes and dreams, it helped average people to believe that maybe policies meant to fix poverty could do something worthwhile.

Sarah: Or, for instance, conservation, which we’ve talked about before, in our series on environmental history. Americans typically thought about nature as something that needed to be tamed, or controlled, by humans, particularly in order to make it productive. This could mean anything from logging to clear-cutting to make way for farms. (Something that still bothers me personally – I want to weep whenever I see new lots being cleared for construction!) Wilderness was something to be feared and brought under human control. But over the course of several decades, artists and writers helped Americans to think about the wilderness in a different way. The paintings of landscape artists Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, and Thomas Moran. Moran was actually so successful at capturing the beauty of the untouched American landscape that Congress purchased $25,000 worth of his paintings to display inside the capital building in the 1870s. Alongside the art was the writing of men like Henry David Thoreau and James Fenimore Cooper, and John Muir helped Americans to imagine the beauty of places they had never, and probably would never, see with their own eyes. The ability to imagine these places made Americans attached to them, and to think of them as somehow important to the American landscape – a feeling they translated into a desire to protect them through protective policies.

A painting depicting the sun rising beyond a huge wooded hill

Thomas Cole, Sunny Morning on the Hudson River, 1827 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: This sort of reminds me of gay characters on television…

Sarah: Anyway. This process of learning how to imagine something unimaginable was also central to the movement to establish an American space program the middle of the 20th century. Without getting the public to believe that space travel might be possible, and to imagine what wonders might be beyond our atmosphere, there would be no public support for an incredibly expensive and time-consuming government program that added nothing concrete to average Americans lives. Space “boosters” used popular magazines and influenced the creation of other cultural products, such as science fiction books, magazines, comics, movies and television shows, to help Americans to envision a space program. Now, I want to pause here just to say that this is a tricky process – sometimes so-called space ‘boosters,’ or folks who really wanted to see space exploration get funding and support, actually created this content. (Examples to follow.) Other times, they acted as expert consultants, or helped content creators to create shows or movies; still other times, they just sort of set the stage for cultural content. That was especially common later in the 20th century as the space program got underway in earnest – screenwriters often looked to the realities of the space program for material, even without the urging of individual ‘boosters.’

Averill: In fact, some of the ‘fathers’ of modern space exploration were themselves inspired by science fiction. Robert Goddard, the American engineer who built the first liquid-fueled rocket and the man for whom the NASA Goddard Space Flight center is named for; Hermann Oberth, the German physicist, and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the Russian rocket scientist, were all fans of Jules Verne. Verne, of course, was the mid 19th c. French novelist who wrote science-inspired fiction (science fiction? Science “romances” or scientific adventures) such as Around the World in Eighty Days, From the Earth to the Moon, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Verne wrote what at first glance seemed like fanciful adventures, but they were actually based on some scientific research, and he took great pains to make his adventures seem plausible. For instance, in From the Earth to the Moon, he calculated the velocity that would be needed to launch his characters to the moon. Where science hadn’t yet progressed, he just used his imagination to spice up technology already existed – for instance, he had his characters travel to the moon in a rocket that was launched by a gigantic cannon.

black and white photograph of hermann oberth

Hermann Oberth in the 1950s | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: Hermann Oberth was born in 1894, and grew up on a steady diet of Verne’s space stories, reading them “five or six times” until he “finally knew them by heart.” Oberth went on to study mathematics and physics, earned a PhD, and spent his life trying to solve the problem space flight. In 1923, he published a book called (in English) The Rocket in Planetary Space, which was an interesting blend of complex scientific theories and imaginative, creative ideas about what humans could do once in space. It was a huge hit, and just a few years later, Oberth acted as a consultant on the film By Rocket to the Moon, a Fritz Lang film about space travel that was based on his theories. Lang was an incredibly famous filmmaker – for context, he had just come off of Metropolis, one of the first feature length science fiction films ever, which was vastly ambitious and is still considered incredibly important in film history. Such literature and films about space helped to spread the idea that space exploration might actually be possible – and since they were based on real scientific research, they weren’t pure fantasy. As a result, during the period roughly after WWI through to the 1950s, societies began to form with the intent of advocating for space exploration.

Averill: There’s another reason why excitement for space travel began to grow: people began to believe that the earth no longer held place for exploration. Sarah did an episode during our last series all about polar exploration – arctic exploration was full of adventure and danger, and was just the kind of thing that newspaper loved to publish because it brought in readers. But arctic exploration was more or less out because in 1905, Roald Amundsen finally discovered a Northwest Passage. Even before that, the major European quests to explore the Africa had ended, such as Henry Stanley’s trip down the Congo River in 1877. Increasingly, people believed that there weren’t any more frontiers – space seemed like the it might be the last remaining unexplored territory.

(Sarah, side note: this is really not true – as SeaQuest tried to show us in the 1990s, and Blue Planet again in the 2000s, we really do not know very much about the oceans! Of course, the Yukon, and Himalayas, and South Pole, and etc etc. And also, there are some very strange explorations of the Amazon in the 1910s, including one very ill-fated one that Teddy Roosevelt went on in 1913-1914.)

Sarah: Expeditions like all of those didn’t just have scientific importance – they became a form of mass entertainment. Newspapers followed the exploits of famous adventurers closely, and even took on stunts themselves to sell papers. Nellie Bly, for instance, set out in 1888 to beat Jules Verne’s suggested 80 days for a trip around the world – Bly, writing up her adventures for The New York World, made it around the world in 72 days. Space boosters began to sell space exploration as the next step in human exploration. Philip Cleator, the founder of the British Interplanetary Society, wrote in 1936: “the spirit of adventure, the lure of the unknown, will attract man to Mars just as surely as they caused him to penetrate into the wilds of Africa and the solitude of the Polar regions.” Space travel, then, started to seem to the public like something analogous to those polar adventures we talked about before – McCurdy calls this the “small ships and brave men” image of scientific exploration. In other words, space exploration was made to fit into a pre-existing narrative of travel, adventure, and exploration – one that average people were primed to consume.

Averill: In the early days, one challenge facing boosters was trying to give Americans a frame of reference for space flight. What would it look like? How would it work? Starting in 1951, the Hayden Planetarium in New York City organized several symposia on space travel. The speakers were scientists and researchers, but the organizers purposely invited newspapers and magazines, hoping to spread the message. Organizers felt confident that space travel would develop eventually without the boosters, but they worried first that it would develop only as an offshoot of the military (and would therefore be potentially weaponized, rather than developed as a scientific inquiry) or that it would develop very, very slowly. The only way around that, they felt, was by getting the public onboard. If average folks were excited about space exploration’s potential, they would pressure their representatives to take the venture seriously. Of course, this meant getting information about space travel to the public in an accessible, fun way. (Doesn’t this sound at least a little bit like what we’re doing with this podcast – trying to convince people that history IS actually important and that maybe they should support the work of historians?) And magazines were very interested in helping to bring that message to public – Collier’s, which had a circulation of some 3.1 million readers, partnered with symposium organizers to publish an 8-part series on space exploration. The articles were accompanied by paintings by Chesley Bonestell, a painter who was known for his ability to illustrate planets, space, and rockets. You may not have heard of Bonestell, but you’ll definitely recognize his work – it has a sort of iconic, mid-century modern look to it.

a painting of a lunar module on the surface of the moon with an eclipse in the background

Wernher von Braun’s moonships as painted by Chesley Bonstell for Collier’s, 1952 | Flickr CC-BY-SA

Sarah: The Collier’s series led to another way boosters were able to sell the idea of space exploration: through the power of Disney. Walt Disney was in the final stages of planning Disneyland. The park was going to be organized around four

a color still from a video depicting Werhner von Braun pointing to a illustration of a rocket

Still of Wernher von Braun in the Disney short film, “Man in Space,” March 9, 1955 | Fair Use

themed sections: Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantastyland, and Tomorrowland. Most of those themes were fairly well fleshed out … except for Tomorrowland. Disney also planned to release a television series to promote park, but the Tomorrowland segments were causing the writing team problems. One of Disney’s senior animators, Ward Kimball, had followed the Collier’s series closely, and reached out to the boosters behind that series – writer Willy Ley, aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun, and physicist Heinz Haber. The result was an impressive combination of animation, real footage, and science instruction. It’s really something else – I’ll link to it in the show notes – but it combines both the concrete reality of the technology that scientists already have, what they’re experimenting on, and what’s possible down the road. It’s a combination of science and imagination – but with practicality. It’s futuristic, but not fantastical. Wernher von Braun actually states on the show that :If we were to start today on an organized and well-supported space program, I believe a practical passenger rocket could be built and tested within ten years.” He was creepily accurate. The first three-stage rocket with astronauts on board launched just thirteen years later.

Averill: But that’s not all that came of the collaboration between Disney and the space boosters. They did produce several more installments about space travel between 1955 to 1957, but they also collaborated on the actual rides in the Tomorrowland park at Disneyland. The park was supposed to depict America in the year 1986 (although there were no crimpers or acid wash jeans or leg warmers in sight). In the center of the park was an 80 foot tall needle-nosed rocket ship, which had been designed under the direction of Ley and von Braun. As visitors moved through the park, they viewed a short film about space travel, then entered room that was supposed to be the inside of the rocket, where screens on the floor and walls made it seem as though they were traveling through space. Later that year, Disney added a model space station on the recommendation of Ley and von Braun, where visitors could “look down” on the planet earth and watch the United States go from dawn to dusk.

Sarah: If you’ve ever seen Star Trek, you know that the original series is essentially an extended allegory on the Cold War: the Federation represents the NATO countries, while the Klingons are the dangerous, chaotic, uncivilized Soviets. And if you know anything about the development of the United States program during the mid 20th century, you know that it was, in large part, sped along by the ‘space race’ against the Soviet Union. But it wasn’t a simple process. Dwight Eisenhower, hero of World War II and president in the 1950s, endorsed space travel, but wasn’t sold on sending humans into space for scientific exploration. First, he was worried about the continued growth of what he famously termed “the military industrial complex,” but he also worried that it was a waste of money and resources. Instead, he wanted the newly established National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to concentrate on satellite technology, especially after the Soviets launched Sputnik 1 in October of 1957. NASA did not focus exclusively on satellite technology as Eisenhower hoped, and continued to research what they called “manned” space travel, but also found that during this time of heightened national security concerns, it wasn’t good enough to sell the program using Disney magic. Now, space travel had to appear to be as key to winning the Cold War.

Averill: Space, and the moon in particular, suddenly became the “high ground” of the Cold War – this is referring to the law in military science that it’s tactically important to hold the ground.  In a 1946 issue of Collier’s, writer G. Edward Pendray wrote: “So far as sovereign power is concerned … control of the moon in the interplentary world of the atomic future could mean military control of our whole portion of the solar system. Its dominance could include not only the earth but also Mars and Venus, the two other possibly habitable planets.” Pendray went further, saying that “the Moon may be the fortress of the next conqueror of the Earth.” Soon, outlets were reporting that the moon was a potential launch site for nuclear weapons, stoking fears rather than exciting imaginations. Eisenhower was not excited about this, because it seemed to point the space program in the direction he most resisted – potential weaponization, and manned space flight – but in the end, it was his successor, John F. Kennedy, who shaped the American space program. By 1965, NASA’s budget had increased tenfold to a whopping $5.3 billion, with the goal a rocket with people in it to the moon.

Sarah: I want to come back to a quote that you mentioned, Averill, from science fiction writer G. Edward Pendray. Pendray explicitly referred to the conquest of space, which is a particularly telling word choice. Our series here is on frontiers, and as students of history, we know that often, the exploration of new lands and frontiers involves the conquest or colonization of those places and the peoples that inhabit them. And space boosters often linked space exploration with the “age of exploration,” or the period in roughly the 1400-1600s where Europeans were increasingly interested in ocean exploration. For example, a comic book made with the support of NASA to explain space flight to children explained that space exploration was basically the same thing as Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the “new world.” It read: “Just as Christopher dreamed about opening a new trade route to the Far East, we can dream about a clean and beautiful Earth, about other space routes to Mars and colonization of our neighbor, the Moon.” I think that quote’s even more telling, because not only does it invoke Columbus, but also refers to the colonization of the moon – because after all, the explorers weren’t exploring solely for the sake of science, but for the establishment of empires.

a painting depicting several astronauts looking into the distance as a rocket launches with the words "pioneering the space frontier" in the sky above them

“Pioneering the Space Frontier,” 1986 | Public Domain / The Internet Archive

Averill: Oh, but that’s not the only Columbus reference. In 1986, the National Commission on Space issued a report to describe the goals of space exploration in the 21st century, they opened with this: “Five centuries after Columbus opened access to “The New World” we can initiate the settlement of worlds beyond our plant of birth. The promise of virgin lands and the opportunity to live in freedom brought our ancestors to the shoes of North America. Now space technology has freed humankind to move outward from Earth as a species destined to expand to other worlds.” The same report featured an image of several astronaut in futuristic gear, watching in the distance as a rocket blasts of from what appears to be a space station. In the black space above the image are the words: “Pioneering the Space Frontier.” Of course, the word “pioneer” there is supposed to evoke something for Americans. Our pioneers were the men and women who courageously traveled across the great expanses of the Midwest to settle unknown territories – the heroes that we grew up with from Little House on the Prairie and Oregon Trail.

Sarah: Side note: after I had my first baby, several doctors and nurses and pediatricians told my husband that both me and our baby were “pioneer stock” because I was apparently good at having babies? And Ainsley was super healthy and learned how to nurse really fast, I guess. James still says I’m “upstate New York farm stock”

Sarah: It wasn’t just Columbus. NASA administrator James Begs said that Americans had always been driven to “chart new paths.” “That instinct,” he said, “drove Lewis and Clark to press across the uncharted continent. It guided Admirals Peary and Byrd to the icy wastes of the poles. It drove Lindbergh alone non-stop across the Atlantic and sustained twelve Americans as they walked on the moon. If we ever lose this urge to know the unknown, we would no longer be a great nation.” I find this last phrase absolutely fascinating, because it sounds like a space-age version of something that all American historians are familiar with: the work of Frederick Jackson Turner. Frederick Jackson Turner (historical hottie, btw) was a American historian working at during the Gilded Age/Progressive Era. He earned a PhD from Johns Hopkins, then went on to work and teach at the University of Wisconsin and later, Harvard University. Turner is most remembered now for a lecture that he gave at the meeting of the American Historical Association at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The paper he delivered was called The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” and it argued that the existence of a frontier was critical to the development of the American character. The shortest version is that as American pioneers moved across the continent, they became less and less European in their character and more democratic. Part of this theory is that the further they got from the ‘civilization’ of the East Coast, the more that American character intensified, to the point where people in the far west were wild, more violent, more individualistic, and generally more ‘savage.’ But the core of Turner’s thesis, and the part that stuck in the American imagination, was the idea that frontiers were critical to the exceptional American character. Without a frontier, what would set Americans apart? When James Begs said that without the urge to explore the unknown, “we would no longer be a great nation,” he was applying the Turner thesis to space exploration.

a sepia toned photograph of a young Frederick Jackson Turner

Frederick Jackson Turner c. 1890 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: There’s another part of Turner’s thesis that sunk into the popular mindset: Turner argued that the frontier closed in 1890. The 1890 census showed that most large tracts of land, or what constituted the ‘frontier’ according to Turner, had been broken up – by what, you ask? Why, barbed wire. Barbed wire allowed ranchers to divide their land, meaning that the ‘frontier’ was broken up into individual plots rather than open space. Turner’s theory was not only that frontier had been critical to the creation of the American character, but that the lack of a frontier was foreboding for America’s future. What would become a people forged by frontier when the frontier disappeared? Turner wasn’t alone in his worries about this – Teddy Roosevelt had his own, similar, theory about the frontier and the American character, except his was a bit more violent. He believed that it wasn’t just moving West, but conquering the west. Americans had become a powerful, masterful (read: masculine) society by taking the western lands from Native Americans by force. Now that the frontier was closed, and the major conflicts with tribes like the Lakota and Cheyenne were over, there was no one left to conquer in the United States, and Roosevelt worried that the American character would become soft and effeminate. He does suggest that maybe we can solve this problem with football and hunting, but eventually suggests, in his famous Strenuous Life speech, that what we need is to conquer other lands and peoples – in other words, join European nations in establishing an empire. Roosevelt, of course, had his eye on places like Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. In other words, the essence of the American character that needs to frontier to remain vital can be saved as long as we keep finding new places to explore and conquer.

Sarah: So this is what is so fascinating to me about the use of Turner’s thesis in space boosterism is that is often includes this second idea – that Americans were made to conquer. G. Edward Pendray’s warning that the moon could potentially be the launch site of “the next conqueror of Earth” has really strong parallels to the rhetoric of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era language about colonization. If we don’t act now to get involved in Cuba, Teddy Roosevelt was saying in 1899, some other European nation is going to outstrip us. In the 1950s, the implication was that if Americans didn’t act fast to control the moon, someone else was going to get there first, with potentially devastating consequences. It also translates into increasing discussion of not just exploring space, or traveling through space, but colonizing space using moon bases. In the 1960s, NASA organized several studies on the creation of Moon bases. The Apollo program (the NASA initiative to put a man on the moon) was seen as sort of the first step in what would, inevitably for some, be a project to establish a permanent presence on the moon. One suggestion was to place a module on the moon with enough supplies for astronauts to live for about 90 days, with more permanent shelters following. By the late 1980s, NASA theorized, there could be a permanent colony living on the moon. This never happened, of course – but we’ll get to why toward the end of the episode.

Averill: Others had even more ambitious plans. Gerard O’Neill, a physics professor, started brainstorming space colonization with his students at Princeton University in the early 1970s. Eventually, he published his ideas in an article for Physics Today. His plan included long tubes, 16 miles long and 4 miles in diameter, that would replicate Earth’s environment but floating in the emptiness of space. Animals and humans would live together, just like on Earth – just without bugs. Within a few decades, he argued, these colonies could house up to 1.2 billion people. O’Neil’s visions led to the creation of a new wave of space booster organizations like the L-5 Society. The L-5 society took its name from the location in between the Earth and the moon L-5 (or Langragian 5) where, if a small object existed, would stay put on that orbital path, kept stable by the gravitational pull of the two larger bodies (the Earth and the moon). The group was devoted to O’Neill’s vision of space colonization, and actually had a little bit of political influence in the late 1970s when, to make a long story short, they helped to convince the United States Senate not to ratify the so-called Moon Treaty, which would have made the moon an internationally recognized neutral entity … in other words, it would have made it illegal under international law for one state to colonize the moon or the moon’s orbit. L5 wanted to see O’Neil’s floating space colony become a reality, so they did not want the Moon Treaty to be ratified – if it did, it would make space colonization much less likely. The L5 society wasn’t alone, though: McCurdy argues that actually the cancellation of Star Trek in 1969, which had help to stoke the space-imaginations of thousands of Americans, made people flood into space-booster organizations to help their space fantasies become reality. By 1980, there were about 40 organizations all devoted to space exploration or colonization, all ready to help be ‘space boosters.’ They actually had some clout, too – in the late 1970s, a letter writing campaign from Trekkies helped to convince Gerald Ford to name a test shuttle Enterprise.

a color photograph of the shuttle Enterprise

The shuttle Enterprise | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: The Turnerian vision of space as frontier took a different form in the mind of Carl Sagan, the famous scientist and writer. Sagan was immensely talented on a number of levels, but he was particularly talented at translating complex scientific principles into ideas that average people could understand – much in the same way that I think Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye is today. In 1980, Sagan hosted the 13 part PBS series Cosmos, which (much like those Disney films of the 1950s) blended scientific instruction with animation to explain outer space and space exploration to average people. Because of Cosmos, Sagan really became a public intellectual with an incredible following. In 1994, he published his second-to-last book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. In Pale Blue Dot, Sagan made a very Turnerian argument: that humans were, at their core, wanders. Humans had been wandering when they cross the Bering Strait to populate North America, and they’d been wandering when they crossed the Atlantic for the first time, and they’d been wandering when the pioneers crossed the American plains in covered wagons. But in recent human history, he argued, we lost our wandering spirit. He wrote: “For all its material advantages, “the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled” while “the open road still softly calls, like a forgotten song.”

Averill: As Sagan builds this theory, he sounds more and more like a science fiction Frederick Jackson Turner. This urge to explore is a survival instinct, he suggests, something that we’re compelled to do as a part of our Darwinian nature. So, he says, we’ve hemmed ourselves in, and all the while, something inside of us is aching to get back out on the road and wander. At the same time, Sagan also muses that humanity is suffering from something like growing pains, or maybe ‘maturing’ pains. For most of human existence humans created cosmologies to explain the universe to themselves, and to give them comfort that all of this added up to something, or had a large meaning – to use a Christian interpretation, that God created all of what we know and see, and each of us in his image and for a particular purpose. Science, Sagan says, has blown this out of the water, causing humanity real anxiety. We’re all just … sort of random chemistry accidents. Sagan suggests that “humans cannot live with such a revelation,” and that that reality has bred a sense of hopelessness. What could cure this discontent? Well, space exploration, of course. He offers this suggestion: “Once we overcome our fear of being tiny, we find ourselves on the threshold of a vast and awesome Universe that utterly dwarfs – in time, in space, and in potential – the tidy anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors.” In other words, once we get over ourselves and start to explore this vast universe, we’ll fix both problems. We’ll get back our wandering nature, and fill ourselves with renewed awe.

Sarah: One very interesting addendum to Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot is that historian Howard McCurdy argues that his assessment of humanity’s general discontent was pretty accurate – although his explanation of it might have been a little embellished. Although Pale Blue Dot is published in 1994, Sagan seems to be responding the very real “malaise” that affected the United States during the 1970s, which Jimmy Carter famously pointed out in a televised speech given on July 15, 1979 in which he stated that America was “lacking confidence and a sense of community,” and was suffering from a sense of malaise. The malaise was actually caused by period of economic stagnation, exacerbated by political fatigue after Watergate, frustration with foreign relations, and a sort of come-down from the wackiness of the 1960s. Now, by the time Sagan wrote his theory, the economy had recovered (at least for rich people!) in the 1980s and early 1990s, so the ‘malaise’ had lifted, but also our dependence on consumer comforts had increased even more, causing a new wave of anxieties about softening of American culture, etc. etc. etc. All of this to say that Sagan’s theories were very much informed by the culture that he himself lived in, moreso than some deeply researched sociological or anthropological study of human nature or something.

Averill: Which actually brings us to where the historians come into all this. Hopefully, as you’ve been listening to all these references to Christopher Columbus, and the brave American pioneers, and the glories of exploration, you’ve been shouting at your phone or radio or whatever. Because as historians, we should immediately be critical of oversimplified references to human nature, or to the American ‘character,’ or what-have-you. To state the obvious: it’s not actually a great thing to compare space exploration to Christopher Columbus, and it’s ahistorical to say that there is a monolithic American ‘character’ that was developed through the process of pioneering westward. Is Christopher Columbus really the way you want to sell the possibilities of space exploration – a man who at the very least kickstarted the deaths, oppression, and colonization of American peoples? Frederick Jackson Turner’s description of American moving westward is also super reductive. I mean, the first thing we should as historians is who does he consider Americans? Because there were already Americans on the so-called frontier, right – Native Americans! And as I’m sure Elizabeth would remind us, the growth of the United States into what we recognize today didn’t just happen from East-West. It involved a significant amount of South-North migration and, of course, border changes, as we discussed in our episode on the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, as people who had previously been “Mexican” became Americans overnight as the “border crossed them.”

Sarah: Right, not to mention the immigration that happened from West to East, as Asian immigrants arrived in California and moved in the opposite direction. And of course, we also need to remember that much of this ‘brave pioneering’ involved enormous violence. White Americans didn’t just move across the landscape of the United States in iconic wagon trains and Little House on the Prairie bonnets. The story of westward migration is a story of settler colonialism, where Native Americans were forcibly displaced, murdered in massacres like Sand Creek, Colorado, Mankato, Minnesota, and Wounded Knee, South Dakota, tribes and tribal lands broken up by the Dawes Act, and children ripped from parents and re-educated in boarding schools. Then, of course is the issue that what the frontier meant or represented meant vastly different things to different groups of Americans and at different times across our history. There was a time, for instance, when the open space of the American west represented to many people from the South an opportunity for extending the slave kingdom, to a chance to further retrench and profit off of human bondage. What to one group is simply recalling the lost glories of the ‘exploratory spirit’ is from another perspective a call for oppression and domination. The call to explore space like Columbus explored the New World replicates a particular kind of white, American worldview, one that completely disregards the fact that there might be more than one way of thinking about the actions and legacy of Christopher Columbus.

a screenshot of Neil DeGrasse Tyson's tweet quoted in text

Neil DeGrasse Tyson on Twitter

Averill: I mean, this is what historians (and lots of folks in the humanities) do: we problematizes shit. This happens often on Twitter when Neil DeGrasse Tyson will say something that he thinks is incredibly insightful that actually could be easily answered or solved by taking a humanities class. For instance, in Sept 2017, he tweeted “In school, rarely do we learn how data become facts, how facts become knowledge, and how knowledge becomes wisdom.” And every historian’s head exploded, especially all the history of science and history of medicine folks, because that’s literally what they teach in school. I mean, this is easily dismissed as NGT just being self-centered, but it also demonstrates how hyper-focused the sciences can be. And we can’t really blame him, in a way – after all, we’re living in a moment where the STEM fields are treated like the solution to all the world’s problems, including the economy, right? In fact, there was just a study on NPR that found that more students are majoring in the STEM fields even though they would rather major in a humanities field, and then aren’t finding the jobs and salaries that are often promised in college marketing materials. In other words, they’re majoring in STEM fields because they feel like it’s the better economic choice, but then aren’t getting those economic benefits. Anyway, this is the goal of the humanities: to show that you can’t make these sweeping generalizations about human nature. Carl Sagan was a straight up genius, but even he made these broad claims about human nature – that humankind has this innate urge to wander – that just aren’t supported by historical knowledge, or at least rely on very out-of-date historical theories, like the Turner thesis. It’s more complicated than that.

Sarah: And this is sort of the irony of the space boosters using the image of the frontier to sell the space program. As they’re trying to convince Americans that space is the “final frontier,” with the hopes that Americans will understand what they mean by ‘frontier,’ historians were trying desperately to correct the record on the Turner thesis. Waves of revisionist history (which, fyi, is not actually a bad thing) were starting to publish new Western histories, for instance, that showed that actually Turner was wrong, and that his thesis. (Our good friend and editor in chief at Nursing Clio, Jacqueline Antonovich, is a historian of the American west, and I am having nightmares that I’m going to interpret this ALL WRONG and she will judge me)For instance, some historians asked what exactly Turner meant by frontier. If it’s vanishing, what is it? Open space, a border, a moving zone? Other historians argued that as Americans moved westward, they replicated the culture and governance of the East coast, and were, as historian William Cronon has stated, “were models less of individualism than of dull conformity.” Like, for instance, how does Turner explain cities? Where do women or African Americans or Asian Americans fit into this? You can’t really argue that they were given increased freedom or access to democracy just because they moved to the West! All of these new histories were being written and published at the same time that those in the space world were trying to sell a static and simple idea of ‘frontier’ to market space exploration.

Averill: As Howard McCurdy states very simply, “The image of the frontier is America’s creation myth.” It’s a story we tell ourselves, but not the reality of how our country was settled or how our “national character,” if there is such a thing, was forged. And historians weren’t willing to sit around and let this myth be perpetuated. For instance, in 1982, when the Space Shuttle Columbia successfully landed, President Ronald Reagan stated that the successful end of this flight was “the historical equivalent to the driving of the golden spike which completed the first transcontinental railroad,’ historian Patty Limerick called bullshit. I’m just going to quote here from Howard McCurdy: “To meet the 1869 deadline, railroad workers laid the track so quickly that much of it had ripped up and replaced. Leland Stanford, representing Central Pacific, proved so unfamiliar with the elementary details of railroad construction that he could not drive the golden spike into the ground. The Union Pacific Railroad, half-sponsor to the transcontinental enterprise, went bankrupt twenty-five years later, and the Central Pacific tried to avoid payments on its government loads. Says Limerick, “A reference to the Golden Spike, to anyone who is serious about history, is also a reference to enterprises done with too much haste and grandstanding, and with too little care for detail.” Not exactly what Reagan was going for when he compared the Columbia landing to that golden spike, huh?

Sarah: Maybe – and I’m just spit-balling here – but maybe scientists should be required to take a few history classes. I’ll make one last point: Just because we know that Turner’s thesis was wrong, doesn’t mean that people didn’t really believe it. There’s a reason that Gene Roddenberry used the phrase “space the final frontier” in the original series. We like to believe that Americans, and humans, too, maybe, have an innate need to explore, and that we should explore outer space as an extension of that. We like to believe that it’s inevitable, the natural next step in an ongoing human story. The mythological frontier is really entrenched in the American psyche, so all this makes perfect sense. It’s not as though these space boosters were maliciously lying to encourage exploration, but rather that they didn’t know what they didn’t know.


William Cronon, “Revisiting the Vanishing Frontier: The Legacy of Frederick Jackson Turner,” Western Historical Quarterly 18 (1987): 157-176.

Howard McCurdy, Space and the American Imagination (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997).

Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1920).

The Final Frontier: History, Science, and Space Exploration. Is space the new frontier? What are the links between the so-called “age of exploration,” and the conquering of the American West, and the United States space program? We will be covering those questions and others in today's podcast, The Final Frontier: History, Science, and Space Exploration. #history #space #science #spacerace #nasa #historyofscience #startrek #disney


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