Human Spaceflight and the Positive Liberal State

Artist depiction of humans exploring the Martian system, after 2020, by Ren Wicks. Mars advocates would like to dispatch the first expedition before 2020, but the cost and technical complexity of the mission will likely delay it.

Could it be argued that the human dimension of spaceflight represents an expression of national power in the context of the “positive liberal state” by the United States? Could we further make the case that human spaceflight celebrates the use of state power for public good? Those are interesting questions that deserve serious consideration.

Human exploration of the solar system was always viewed as reasonable and forward-looking and led to “good” results for all concerned. Without perhaps seeking to do so, human space exploration, at least in its U.S. incarnation, offered an important perspective on a debate that has raged over the proper place of state power since the beginning of the republic. As only one example as to how this has played out over time, in the early nineteenth century the Whig Party sought an activist government that would accomplish important tasks for the benefit of all. In his book, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (University of Chicago Press, 1979), Daniel Walker Howe eloquently called the Whigs the champions of “the positive liberal state.” He wrote:

this ideal implied the belief that the state should actively seek ‘to promote the general welfare, raise the level of opportunity for all men, and aid all individuals to develop their full potentialities.’ The Democrats, by contrast, believed in a ‘negative liberal state,’ which left men free to pursue their own definition of happiness. A great advantage of this distinction between the parties is that it implies a connection between the economic and moral aspects of Whiggery. In both cases, the Whigs believed in asserting active control. They wanted ‘improvements,’ both economic and moral, and they did not believe in leaving others alone.

Perhaps the most persistent aspect of the Whig world view was the party’s resoluteness in using political power for the furtherance of those ideals that it believed were valuable.

Like the Whigs, the Democrats of the 1960s believed in activist government and the human spaceflight program represented one of its major accomplishments. Examples of governmental activism on the part of the Kennedy administration abound, and David Halberstam shrewdly observed of them in his book, The Best and the Brightest (Viking, 1973), : “if there was anything that bound the men, their followers, and their subordinates together, it was the belief that sheer intelligence and rationality could answer and solve anything.”

This translated into an ever-increasing commitment to the use of government authority to achieve “good ends.” The war on poverty, the Peace Corps, support for civil rights, the Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson, and a host of other initiatives are all examples. These all represented a broadening of governmental power for perceived positive purposes, at least as far the supporters all believed.

Absent the power sharing relations present on Earth—state to state, local to national, philosophy to philosophy—the regime above the Earth’s atmosphere has been ruled by concentrated state power, much of it U.S. power, often hidden behind beguiling masks of the positive liberal state. Most observers of human spaceflight have accepted at face value the benign nature of this power, even as they recognize that it rests with the military-industrial complex and the scientific-technological elite of the United States. They have ignored the subtle nature of strenuous and sometimes capricious governmental power in this experience.

At sum, Americans view this as an implementation of a grand visionary concept for human exploration that may be directly traced to the European voyages of discovery beginning in the fifteenth century. Given this observation, human spaceflight has been celebrated as an investment in technology, science, and knowledge that would enable humanity—or at least Americans—to do more than just dip its toes in the cosmic ocean, to become a truly spacefaring people. Accordingly, Americans have taken as a measure of the majesty of this vision the length of time, complexity, and expense of the program, and the linkage of the length of time, complexity, and expense of these efforts to earlier explorations. The Spanish exploration of the Americas proved time-consuming, complex, and expensive. So did the efforts of other European powers in the sweepstakes of exploration and imperialism that took place over long periods made possible by these explorations. The human exploration of space was much the same only more so, and this made it special and grand and visionary.

Advocates of an aggressive space exploration effort have argued that returns on investment in this age of exploration, which are only now beginning to be realized, involve the geophysical inventory of the planets and the exploitation of these new regions for all types of commercial ventures that have changed our lives. Remote sensing satellites have made life strikingly different from what it was only a generation ago as satellite images of weather patterns enable meteorologists to forecast storms, as communications satellites transform our ability to move information, and as global positioning satellites provide instantaneous reliable navigational information. The sum total of these efforts has informed our perspective on the world around us. It is also appropriate that by analogy we also question the peculiarity of exploration by civilizations. Ingrained as it became in Western culture beginning in the sixteenth century, it gave birth to the scientific revolution and the transformation of western beliefs and ideals in response to it.

President Bush announcing the "Vision for Space Exploration" at NASA Headquarters on January 14, 2004.

The power of the positive liberal state to explore space has become a symbol of modern America and numerous presidents have sought to use this set of beliefs in the last fifty years. For example, President George W. Bush acted on January 14, 2004, to announce that NASA should focus its energies on human exploration of the Moon and Mars because of this lament for a visionary space program, a lá the penultimate triumphs of the Moon landings in the 1960s and early 1970s. Bush moved to refocus the nation on the grand vision of exploration. He declared that America would return to the Moon between 2015 and 2020. With sufficient diligence and resources, of course, virtually anything humans can imagine in spaceflight may be achieved. His efforts represented only the most recent example of the invoking of spaceflight in the service of a positive liberal state. As such, it sought to conjure the earlier exciting experience of astronauts walking on the Moon. While there were setbacks, the experience of the eleven years of Apollo between 1961 and 1972 contained more triumph and tragedy, more heroic sacrifice, more strenuous effort than many wars and served as a reminder to all of the activism of the positive liberal state.

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6 Responses to Human Spaceflight and the Positive Liberal State

  1. Interesting post. I wonder though if we overstate the positive liberal state’s influence in exploration prior to the space age. I think the historical precedents of the positive liberal state show that exploration was very often a public-private collaboration rather than a pure state enterprise. The British and American Polar expeditions, European exploration of the African interior, and Heroic Age expeditions of Antarctica were usually hybrid endeavors. I guess you could say the same of expeditions in the pre-liberal state era too: Discovery Age expeditions of the British, Spanish, French, and Dutch mostly involved private firms with a state imprimatur, that is, a state-given monopoly status (e.g. the Hudson Bay Company, East India Company, etc).


  2. Roger:

    Awesome post. Oddly enough, I find a lot of self-identified conservatives among my readers on my Beyond Apollo blog. Most would say liberals are anti-space, I think. I’ve never been quite sure what to make of that. Perhaps the space-military angle appeals to people who call themselves conservative? More likely, perhaps, this is because the old labels have been re-purposed to suit present-day politics. It’s difficult to reconcile with reality the view that Republicans (who seem to have a lock on the conservative label, though these days they tend toward radical policies) are good for space. Since Nixon they seem to have viewed space mainly as an election-year ploy or a flag-waving exercise, except perhaps for the elder Bush.

    In many ways, I’m conservative, though not in the ways that seem to appeal to present-day Republicans.



  3. mike shupp says:

    I’m not in agreement with the notion of Apollo as an accompllishment of a “positive liberal state” — in my view, support for spaceflight in this country owes more to the myths of westward expansion than to popular taste for activist government, and I suspect similar expansionist tendencies affected spaceflight enthusiasts in Germany and Russia.

    However, “While there were setbacks, the experience of the eleven years of Apollo between 1961 and 1972 contained more triumph and tragedy, more heroic sacrifice, more strenuous effort than many wars ” is an extraordinary perception and a magnificent line. I think you could write a marvelous history with that theme.


    • Mike:

      It’s interesting that spaceflight is often sold through allusions to past imagined frontiers when it is so very different from any frontier we have so far explored. The American West was a place to which a determined person could walk barefoot; space requires an immense technological infrastructure to enable even a very short visit by a handful of highly-trained humans.



    • Mike:

      It’s interesting that space is often sold through allusions to past imagined frontiers when it is so very different from any frontier we have so far explored. The American West was a place to which a determined person could walk barefoot; space requires an immense technological infrastructure to enable even a very short visit by a handful of highly-trained humans.



  4. mike (IANAH) shupp says:

    I don’t think we’re seeing “space being sold,” per se. Most (just about all) cultures have a history remembered at the popular level in terms of individual heroes (St. George, Joan of Arc, Bolivar) or heroic movements (Vikings, the American Civil War, the Boer War). Not infrequently, these involve national expansions and mass population movements (the Reconquest in Iberia, expansion into the Caucusus and Siberia in Russia, Teutonic Knights against the Slavs in Germany, the rise and fall of central state dynasties in China, etc.).

    By and large these are somewhat selective remembrances, perhaps better thought of “National Myths” rather than pure history. In the US, for example, most children are taught about the Pilgrims and the Jamestown settlers, not so much about Andy Jackson and the expulsion of the Cherokee, and quite a lot of romance about Cowboys and Indians; the arrival of tens of millions of immigrants and their transformation into citizens –the actual historical background of a huge chunk of our current population — seems almost purposefully neglected.

    At any rate, it’s not surprising that people steeped in such traditions will look at contemporary events through … somehat tinted spectacles, let’s say. And thus, we find a lot of American science fiction — in particular a lot of juvenile science fiction –rather explictly modeling human expansion into the solar system as analogous to the westward movement of American pioneers, complete with Heroic Teenagers, struggles against Harsh Elements and Corrupt Politicians, Friendly and Hostile Aliens, etc. Good stories, filled with inspiration! Biographies of professional agronomists, sociological musings of cranky economists, the politics behind building railroads and universities, and other Important Stuff almost inevitably gets slighted.

    Still… It’s reasonable to suspect the space colonists of say 2080 will be better educated on average than people in 2012; their technology will be better developed, but the Conestoga wagon and draft animals of the 1840’s probably looked like magic by the standards of say 1620. Perhaps we overstate the “ordinary but heroic” nature of our pioneering ancestors, looking backwards; perhaps we under imagine the “exceptional but bureaucratic” nature of our spacefaring descendents. Overall, we can live with this — we can’t expect all the populace to be historians!


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