Mars: The Next Frontier II

In part 2 of this 2004 essay, I looked at the roots of the American conservative space revolution and connected it to enthusiasm for Mars colonization.

Mars Enthusiasm and the Conservative Space Revolution

The early space age brought to prominence a new political movement known as ‘environmentalism.’  Environmentalists looked at NASA’s beautiful images of the Earth and saw a world that was finite and delicate.  It had, they perceived, limited resources that had to be preserved.  They initiated demands that the government protect its citizens from industrial waste and air and water pollution, regulate growth, and promote a “sustainable future” all based on their belief in a world of limited extent.

Yet American capitalism, as an economic ideology, is based upon a fundamentally opposed belief:  in unlimited growth.  Hence NASA’s images of the finite Earth scared the daylights out of American capitalists.  They refused to accept what was obvious to environmentalists, that growth itself would eventually end.  Yet they had to acknowledge that this was true—one cannot insist that the Earth has unlimited resources when it’s bloody obvious to everyone that this isn’t true. 

Colonization of the Moon, of Mars, of the asteroids, and of interplanetary space itself became the conservatives’ way out.  The universe possess the unlimited resources that Earth lacks, and therefore saving capitalism through pioneering the space frontier became their agenda. 

One early promoter of the Space Frontier was former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who published a book in 1984 titled “Window of Opportunity.”  In it he detailed the construction of a Conservative Opportunity Society based upon three prongs: rejection of this horrible idea of limits to growth; rejection of what he called “lowered expectations;” and rejection of government regulation.  To get around the obviousness of Earth’s limits, he called for a vast expansion of the Space Frontier.  He advocated expansion of NASA’s budget, telling reporter Elizabeth Drew at one point that he’d like to see NASA receive a budget the size of the Defense Department’s, in order to expedite Moon and Mars colonization.  He wanted a permanent moon base by the turn of the century, and colonization of Mars early in the 2000s.

Gingrich was not alone in advocating the space frontier.  He had drawn heavily on the earlier works of a group of conservative science fiction writers, including Jerry Pournelle.  He may also have drawn on one of the more famous environmentalist publications of the 1970s, the Whole Earth Catalogue, whose founder had in some ways gone “renegade” from the movement to promote space colonization—in his case, because he expected capitalists to destroy the Earth and the only way for the species to survive was exodus.  And there were yet others—there’s a long, long list.

Because Gingrich was politically well-connected, his ideas were heard at the very top of the American government, and they found resonance there.  The romantic notion of exploring and settling new frontiers is inescapable in America.  What us boring old historians refer to as the Frontier Thesis was posited by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893.  Turner had argued that what made American society distinct from its European forebears could be traced to the influence of “free land across an open frontier.”  Inquisitiveness, inventiveness, and individualism, he claimed, were rooted in the frontier experience.  Americans of the 19th century had the ability to be continually reborn, in a sense, by moving to new lands, thus leaving their old lives behind. 

Generations, now, of my historian colleagues have railed against Turner, and from all sorts of different directions.  Turner is just wrong in some of his claims—inquisitiveness is hardly distinctly American, after all.  The discoverer of gravity was a Brit, the inventor of the steam engine was too, and thermodynamics is French.  Liberty is a French word, not an American one.  Turner greatly romanticized the Frontier, ignoring the great droughts of the later 19th century that drove tens of thousands off the land and further ignoring the reality that men went to the Frontier to reinvent themselves were often fleeing responsibilities: debts and families, to name the most common.

Even the notion of freedom inherent in the Turner doctrine doesn’t stand the test of history.  As Western historian Donald Worster has argued, as the frontier began to fail in the wake of repeated, severe droughts, first capitalists, then state governments, and finally the Federal government, intervened to try to save it with increasingly large-scale water projects.  Water projects represented vast wealth transfers from East to West, and the billions of dollars necessary to make the arid West bloom despite its harsh climate did not come without strings attached. The frontier to Jackson Turner was about freedom; to Donald Worster the frontier was about the expansion of capitalist control.  It is precisely the reality that the Federal government owns most of the land in the West, and controls most of the water too, that is at the root of late 20th century Western anti-government ideology. 

Yet Turnerism remains the single most influential historical statement about America, and it is the one space enthusiasts—including the Conservative Space Revolutionaries—rely on in their efforts to advance space exploration.  Robert Zubrin, for example, who founded the Mars Society in 1998, has been one of the leading voices in promoting settlement of the space frontier.  In a book titled “The Case For Mars,” Zubrin argued that a free, egalitarian, democratic society was impossible without a frontier.  He saw all around him “ an ever more apparent loss of vigor in American society.”  A “cancerous proliferation of regulation” was spreading across the land, people were becoming unwilling to think for themselves, and they were beginning to reject the idea of progress itself.  “Without a frontier from which to breathe life, the spirit that gave rise to the progressive humanistic culture that America for the past several centuries has offered to the world is fading.”  America was ceasing to be America, and the only salvation was the opening of a new frontier:  Mars.

Thus ends Part 2. In Part 3, I'll connect Mars enthusiasm to George H. W. Bush's Space Exploration Initiative and George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration.

Posted on: May 28th, 2014

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© 2017 Erik M. Conway.