Mars: The Next Frontier I

On April 22, 2014, the NASA Administrator, retired Marine Corps General and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, gave the opening keynote lecture at the "Humans 2 Mars Summit 2014." During his comments, space policy blogger Marcia Smith tweeted this breathtaking statement:


This got almost no pickup--1 retweet, 1 comment, and 2 favorites. But it's an opportunity for me to dig up a paper I presented back in 2004 that has being gathering virtual dust on my laptop's hard drive ever since. I wrote it to provide some historico-political context for then-President George W. Bush's own "Vision for Space Exploration," as it was then called. The VSE, as it became known around NASA, involved returning to the Moon before sending expeditions off to colonize Mars. 

The whole paper is too long for a single blog post, so I'll serialize it. In Part I, I discuss the "Vision" in the context of Andrew Butrica's Conservative Space Revolution.


On 14 January 2004, President George W. Bush announced a “new” space exploration policy whose ultimate goal is colonization of the Moon and Mars.  He wants America to “extend a permanent human presence across the solar system” using existing technologies.  He hopes to find resources on the Moon or Mars that will “boggle the imagination.”  Mankind, he concluded, “is drawn to the heavens for the same reason we were once drawn into unknown lands and across the open sea.  We choose to explore space because doing so improves our lives and lifts our national spirit.”

 The president’s proposal is part of what historian Andrew Butrica has called the “conservative space revolution.”  The manned space program started under a Democratic, and relative to today’s radically conservative regime, very liberal, administration.  It was primarily a tool of political propaganda, intended to demonstrate to the world the superiority of American “capitalism” over Soviet “communism”—although both nations’ space programs were carried out essentially the same way, via government-run (and thus socialist in nature) programs.  President Kennedy’s goal in landing men on the Moon was not scientific research, but a victory in the Cold War. 

The Apollo program of the 1960s, having achieved its objective, was terminated by President Richard Nixon in 1970.  Nixon, then considered a conservative but who would now represent the “liberal” end of the political spectrum—he signed all of the major environmental laws and proposed universal health care and guaranteed minimum income bills—did not see any point in continuing it.  It was expensive, politically risky—if the Apollo 13 astronauts had died in space, Nixon would have taken the heat for it—and produced no return that he could foresee.  The public had largely lost interest immediately after Apollo 11 and gone back to watching game shows. 

But in canceling Apollo, Nixon made a mistake.  He had launched a mammoth political transformation in America by ardently pursuing the Southern, and very conservative, wing of the Democratic Party.  It was the Democratic Party’s southern wing that contained the vast anti-civil rights vote, and Nixon (and his very important challenger in the 1972 Presidential election, Ronald Reagan) had recognized that they were the root of a new political majority for the Republican Party—if they could be split off.  The Civil Rights Acts had revived a deep hatred of Federal power in the South and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the western states.  Nixon after 1972, and most famously Reagan in 1980, deployed an anti-government rhetoric in their campaigns designed to inflame this latent hate and transform it to serve their own political careers.

Nixon’s mistake in canceling Apollo came from not recognizing one of the logical conclusions of his own political revolution.  Englishmen settled the New World not because, as President Bush claimed, “it improves our lives and lifts our national spirit,” but because they were fleeing governments that they perceived as oppressive.  This was where Nixon’s error lay: he did not perceive that the manned space program offered the vision of a New Frontier, new worlds to which men could flee the horrible oppression that America had become.  Other members of the New Right, however, including Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, saw what Nixon had not.  They began the “conservative space revolution.”  

President Bush’s new space exploration policy is an extension of this space revolution, and it’s worth taking a look at how missions to Mars have been justified in the past to understand the background to his policy.  At its root, this proposal is aimed at promoting a vision of an ever-expanding America, opening new lands to which the malcontents of society can flee—and where capitalists can exploit them free of government interference.


  1. The Martian Frontier before Viking

Historian Steven Dick, wrote that by the beginning of the 20th century, citizens of the industrialized West had come to believe that the universe was full of life.  While medieval Christianity had depicted Earth as the only abode of life in all of the Lord’s Creation, this centrality of the Earth had been radically undermined, by Copernicus’ relocation of the Earth from center to fringe of the universe, by the 19th century discovery that the physical Earth evolved, and by Darwin’s near-simultaneous thesis that life itself evolved.  Within the scientific community, Dick argues, an evolutionary worldview took hold--life could be everywhere and anywhere in the Universe.

Percival Lowell is probably the most famous promoter of the idea of Martian life.  Indeed, he believed that Mars was the home of super-intelligent beings quite superior to us.  He was an astronomer, and he spent much of the 1890s and early 1900s popularizing his idea.  Mars, he said, displayed the signs of intelligent life.  It was crisscrossed by canals carrying water from the poles to the mid-latitudes, which showed an annual springtime “darkening” he interpreted as vegetation—the farms that sustained Martian life.  Such a vast set of public works represented an advanced civilization struggling to survive.  Perhaps, Lowell thought, it had nearly exhausted its natural resources through excessive exploitation and was in terminal decline.

While Lowell had critics—a lot of them, in fact—the public bought Lowell’s thesis of a great, dying Martian civilization so thoroughly that in 1938, a writer by the name of Orson Welles was able to create a minor panic with a radio play named “War of the Worlds.”  Welles’ radio play had Martians landing at Grovers Mill, New Jersey, terrifying and then killing the population while building up their forces to conquer the United States and eventually, the world.  People in the area—in the real world, not merely the radio play—flooded the roads to get out of the New York area before the Martians reached them, hid in cellars, and further away from the site of the invasion made runs on banks, grocery and hardware stores.  This subjected the believers to ridicule after the show was over, of course, but it demonstrated two important things: the growing power of the mass media to manipulate people into believing things that are not true; and it demonstrated that millions of Americans already believed in Martians.

By 1940, the public Martian frontier contained not only life, but an advanced civilization.  Astronomers were considerably more skeptical of this.  Many thought Lowell saw not what was there in his eyepiece but what he hoped was there, a common problem in research when one’s data is ambiguous.  While popular history of science focuses on singleton geniuses and individual heroic experiments, in reality scientific research frequently produces ambiguous data whose interpretation is fought over, often for decades.  This is one such case.  Yet the public Martian frontier, full of life, and possibly a threat to humanity itself, helped justify immediate explorations of Mars as soon as we had the technological capability.

Before the great robotics revolution that really started in World War II but was largely ignored for a decade or so, such explorations had to be carried out by humans.  Wernher von Braun and Willy Ley, the two principle promoters of space exploration in the 1950s, devised an expedition to the Red Planet that envisioned using giant liquid-fueled rockets to assemble a space station and a nuclear-powered Mars vehicle in Earth orbit.  From there, a dozen astronaut/explorers would set off on their grand Mars voyage.

Propelled both by the need for “Space Spectaculars” to compete with the Soviet space program and by the search for life on other planets, both the United States and Soviet Union sent missions to both Mars and Venus as soon as they could in a technological sense.  In 1965, the American robotic probe Mariner 4 sent back the first, rather depressing, close up images of Mars.  They showed a dry, barren, desert world that was cratered very much like the Moon.  Perhaps worse, Mariner 4 also demonstrated that Mars’ atmosphere was too thin to support life.  It would not provide sufficient protection against radiation to permit surface life to flourish.

Yet these bits of evidence for a dead Mars were not enough to completely overcome the living Martian frontier.  Famous astronomer Carl Sagan contended that images of the Earth from the same distance did not show life either, and hence these images should not be taken as the “last word” on Martian life.  And, of course, they weren’t.  NASA and the Soviet Union sent several more robots out in search of Martian life during the next decade.  The Soviet probes all failed—they had, for unexplained reasons, good luck with Venus but terrible luck with Mars—but the American ones mostly worked. 

The most damaging evidence to the Mars advocates came from the two Viking probes that arrived at Mars in 1976, and landed in July of that year.  The two landers, which were nuclear powered and functioned for more than four years, carried weather stations to capture the full variety of Martian climate and a biological instrument designed to test for soil-borne microorganisms.  They didn’t find any—although, once again, promoters of Mars settlement have attempted to depict these experiments as inconclusive to keep their hope of an inhabitable planet alive.  But combined with the detailed maps produced by the two Viking orbiters, most of the scientific community came to believe that Mars is truly dead.  There remained hope that it might once have held life—because life is everywhere on Earth, flourishing in the harshest conditions that exist here—scientists have actually expanded the range of conditions under which they expect to find life since Viking—but few believed that Martian life still existed by the end of the 1970s.

In part because of these disappointing results, NASA’s program of Mars exploration—both human and robotic—came to a screeching halt after Viking.  Its program after Apollo became increasingly science-driven, not exploration-driven, and the agency concentrated on probes to the outer planets.  These seemed much more interesting scientifically.  The rocky, inner ‘terrestrial’ planets held few obvious secrets to scientists from one of them, while the gas giants represented enigmas.  Further, they had moons, some of which were quite large. These became the new potential repositories of extra-terrestrial life. 

But the Conservative Space Revolution changed all that.  By the mid-1980s, Mars was all the rage in conservative circles, and new Expeditions to Mars flourished in the imagination.

 Thus ends Part I. In Part II, I'll discuss the ideological roots of the Conservative Space Revolution.

Posted on: May 2nd, 2014


© 2017 Erik M. Conway.