The Declining Significance of the Frontier in Space History?

American Progress or Manifest Destiny, 1872, by John Gast

It began to be perceptible in the late 1960s, and was certainly recognized in the 1970s, that the intermix of frontier imagery, popular culture expectations, and Cold War concerns was beginning to break-down. This was true across broad swaths of American culture, but it was also very apparent when it came to understanding the history of spaceflight. First, the construct of the frontier as a positive image of national character and of the progress of democracy has been challenged on all quarters and virtually rejected as a useful ideal in American postmodern, multicultural society.

Western historian Patricia Nelson Limerick, for one, has argued that the frontier myth, used as a happy metaphor by many, should be seen as a pejorative reflection. She argued that it denotes conquest of place and peoples, exploitation without environmental concern, wastefulness, political corruption, executive misbehavior, shoddy construction, brutal labor relations, and financial inefficiency. Limerick suggested that when the old western American frontier is conjured as an image that NASA is seeking to advance into space that someone from the space agency should punch the speaker “for insulting the organization’s honor. It’s a wonder no one—no shuttle pilot, mission coordinator, mechanic, or technician—said, ‘Now cut that out–we may have our problems, but it’s nowhere near that bad’.”

Conservative politicians became the bearers of the frontier mythology increasingly used to justify the space program as the Cold War slipped away, while liberals grew increasingly restless with the exploitation and oppression that the frontier myth seemed to imply.

NASA leaders have largely ignored the negative images conjured up in an increasing number of Americans minds by the metaphor of the frontier. For all their hard-headed practicality, for all their understanding of science and technology, they have been caught up in frontier allusion even to the present. For instance, James C. Fletcher, NASA Administrator between 1971 and 1977 and again between 1986 and 1989 commented:

History teaches us that the process of pushing back frontiers on Earth begins with exploration and discovery is followed by permanent settlements and economic development. Space will be no different. . . . Americans have always moved toward new frontiers because we are, above all, a nation of pioneers with an insatiable urge to know the unknown. Space is no exception to that pioneering spirit.

A direct connection to the frontier experience, the Gemini V mission patch in 1965.

Astronaut, then senator, John Glenn captured some of this same tenor in 1983 when he summoned images of the American heritage of pioneering and argued that the next great frontier challenge was in space. “It represents the modern frontier for national adventure. Our spirit as a nation is reflected in our willingness to explore the unknown for the benefit of all humanity, and space is a prime medium in which to test our mettle.”

The image of the frontier, however, has been a less and less acceptable and effective metaphor as the twentieth century became the twenty-first century. Progressives have come to view the space program from a quite different perspective. To the extent that space represents a new frontier, it conjures up images of commercial exploitation and the subjugation of oppressed peoples. Implemented through a large aerospace industry, in their view, it appears to create the sort of governmental-corporate complexes of which liberals are increasingly wary.

Despite the promise that the Space Shuttle, like jet aircraft, would make space flight accessible to the “common man,” space travel remains the province of a favored few, perpetuating inequalities rather than leveling differences. They also assert that space exploration has also remained largely a male frontier, with room for few minorities.

In the eyes of progressives, space perpetuates the inequities that they have increasingly sought to abolish on Earth. As a consequence, it is not viewed favorably by those caught up in what political scientist Aaron Wildavsky has characterized as “the rise of radical egalitarianism.” The advent of this liberal philosophy coincides with the shift in ideological positions on the U.S. space program in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The frontier metaphor has continued to inform space policy to the present. “The compulsion to know the unknown built our nation,” one NASA official had said in 1982. “That instinct drove Lewis and Clark to press across the uncharted continent.” Fletcher accepted the argument of a Space Station as the next step in exploration. Like the image of the pioneer settlement or army post on the American frontier, the Space Station offered a haven from the rigors of the “wilderness” and a jumping off point for forays into the unknown. This same metaphor found ready expression in the present-day effort to develop the Space Exploration Initiative to return to the Moon—this time to establish a permanent colony—and to go on to Mars.

In tandem with the metaphorical frontier of the nineteenth century, NASA also subscribed to an intellectual frontier that fostered scientific activities.

James Fletcher’s comparison of the Space Shuttle to the railroad of more than a century earlier was perhaps a more appropriate, and more negative, image of the frontier than he would have liked to admit. The western railroad and the Space Shuttle both engendered intense economic contests, lucrative contracts, and “no-holds barred” political struggles for primacy and perquisites. Indicative of this reality of the frontier experience in regard to the Shuttle, if not to the myth, Fletcher fell victim to the political pressures of individuals and groups who wanted him to use his office to further the economic well-being of his intermountain region and the people of his religion.

Fletcher, for example, tried unsuccessfully to keep regional politics out of the contract decision process for the solid rocket booster for the Space Shuttle. In 1973 he had to write a stinging rebuke to Utah Senator Frank E. Moss about improprieties in how a member of the Senator’s staff was trying to influence the contract decision in favor of a Utah firm. Eventually, Fletcher agreed to award the solid rocket booster contract to Utah’s Morton Thiokol, in no small part because of the political efforts of Frank Moss. It was modern playing of an old western story of political interests and western concerns.

A direct comparison to the frontier.

For the space program, as for the earlier experience, the frontier myth presents in a cyclical form the essence of what Americans want to believe about themselves. There are four basic stages of this cycle. The stages come together in the end to create a Panglossian “best of all possible worlds.” The first stage is a separation from civilization. In earlier eras colonists left Europe for America or departed the settled East for the “Wild West.” Now they will leave the Earth and move to a space station or a Moon base.

Second, there is a regression into a form of order that is something less than what had been known in the previous civilization. Frontiersmen had to learn to live in the new environment in which the ideas and even the tools they had mastered in civilization were no longer applicable. Like Jeremiah Johnson in the Robert Redford movie, the frontier taught hard lessons about life and death, survival and freedom. If these were not well received, there would be no success on the frontier. At the same time, the people who participated in the process were changed forever. The space program has a similar learning experience—how to stay alive in a vacuum, how to deal with weightlessness, etc.—and almost none of the lessons learned on earlier American frontiers are transferrable to the new environment of space. If we move outward, we will indeed evolve in the process. For instance, will humans born at a Moon colony, with its 1/6 gravity, be able to function on Earth any longer? An open question, to be sure, but one not unlike Europeans faced with the first settlements in America. Will some future Crevacour ask the question, “what is this new man” (or not to be sexist, this new person), this Lunatic (Moon dweller).

Third, conflict is a central and peculiar feature of frontiering, as Americans struggle against seemingly overwhelming forces seeking to wipe them out. The conflict in the American West was most often played out as humans against environment and as Euro-American against aborigines. In space it is humans against the environment, but it is certainly not at all unlikely that humans will encounter other life in space. The contact of cultures in the frontier was almost always bloody, and I suspect the same would be true in space as well.

The final stage is progress, a step toward some better future. In many instances these have been utopian in outlook. Many earlier Americans saw the frontier as a re-enactment and democratic renewal of the original “social contract,” together with the creation of personal virtue and collective good. This progress ultimately redeems the nation. Futurists view space exploration in the same way, and it has been played out in that way in many a space movie and science fiction novel. Whether this frontier experience actually holds such promise is an open question.

As a final point, I would like to suggest that the frontier myth is an incomplete but uniquely understandable way of looking at the space program. From the beginning of the space age the U.S. effort has been motivated by essentially three priorities. The first was Cold War rivalries with the Soviet Union and the desire to demonstrate the technological superiority of a democratic state over a communist dictatorship. The second was the lure of discovery of the unknown. The third was adventure. The first priority, oriented toward national security, has ceased to be important in this post-Cold War era. But the second and third priorities lie at the heart of the frontier myth and are still just as attractive as they were more than 40 years ago at the creation of NASA.

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18 Responses to The Declining Significance of the Frontier in Space History?

  1. mike shupp says:

    Good points, very good. Worth emphasizing that when NASA began “the Frontier” was a lot closer to peoples’ memories than today — I can recall people of my grandparents’ ages in the early1950’s reminiscing about their grandparents movements across the country as the nation
    expanded. So the Frontier was officially “closed” in 1890. and NASA was founded in 1958 — that’s about one human life in length, and 54 years have passed since then, almost another lifespan. So yeah, it recedes, yea unto the point at which Hollywood demurs at the idea of filming Westerns.

    On the bright side of things, if the burnish is off the the Frontier Myth, enough time has passed that the Age of De-burnishing is over. Wyatt Earp and Matt Dillon and the Brothers Maverick aren’t around to remind us of the Olde Weste anymore, but we also don’t hear so much about the infamous greed of railroad men, and the sites where Whites and Indians once warred with each other have plowed under and made into shopping malls. So, it perhaps seems …. quaint …
    to hear a NASA executive talk about the importance of moving into frontiers; modern day listeners may be emotionally unmoved, but I doubt they’d be outraged. And at any rate the importance of the Frontier was never the only factor that shaped public perception of the agency.

    Interesting to note as well that Germany had a pioneering mythos of its own, based on Prussia’s expansion into eastern Europe in the late Middle Ages (and, not to forget, a cowboy-and-Indian fictional mythology about as extensive as our own). So did Russia, with its great expansions into Central Europe (17th Century), Siberia (18th), and the Caucasus (19th). Plenty of inspirational material to pull from that,if one’s inclined! I wonder if in time the Chinese will choose to link their space program to remembered bits of imperial (or communist) expansion — memory says their first satellite broadcast “The East Is Red” to the waiting world, and that was not perceived as a weather report.

    Leaving Britain and France as problematical space powers who have done less than would have been expected a century ago. Nations with histories of exploration certainly, but it’s been long long centuries since “pioneers” moved over the desolate plains of Yorkshire and the trackless wastes of Normandy. These are nations with _imperial_ histories but, in general, their colonists went forth and died abroad; they built up other lands than those of their birth, and their homelands became filled with those who deliberately chose not to be pioneers. (Too simple an explanation, I’m sure, but how can one resist silly philosophizing near the end sof a post — It’s ONLY a paragraph…)


  2. These are interesting thoughts. I know my personal history of involvement in the space field shows my independent, democratically oriented personality in interesting ways. I first got interested in space exploration when I was a child back in the 1950s. That strong interest even got me to earn a physics degree in the 1960s. Then things started changing. I was drafted immediately after getting that physics degree in 1967. Because of said degree, I spent two years in northern California. To say I had conflicts with the authoritarian culture in the Army is putting it mildly. After the Army I returned to IBM in New York. Guess what? More conflicts with an authoritarian corporate culture ensued. Then I did two years of grad work in physics. The first, at Vassar College, went well. The second, at SUNY-Albany, did not. By December 1972 — the date of the last Apollo mission — I was so fed up that I decided to leave physics and try pursuing psychology as a professional choice. I was still getting Physics Today as someone who had been a member of Society of Physics Students. The last issue I got had an article by Gerard K. O’Neill about human colonies in space.

    The grad work in social psychology helped me to understand people and cultures better. I eventually left that field as well — at least as a full time professional. Independent thinking was not encouraged in the program I entered.

    What got me interested again in space? In 1977 I saw O’Neill’s book The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space. His vision was not of a few heroes flying in space but of large communities of humans doing things (think solar power satellites) for the benefit of humans on earth. That got my attention. I found out about the L5 Society and joined it. I even became an active leader for some years.

    In 1990 I was able to combine my now profession of IT with my interest in space by taking a job at Goddard’s supercomputer center. I liked the work and most of the people. Management, though, was very bad — and it got worse. I was forced out by very authoritarian management in 1999.

    Since Columbia I have gotten involved in space again — this time as a reformer. Once again I am having conflicts with the powers that currently be.

    Space is very different from Earth. It will be a long time, if ever, that those dreams I had as a young man will come true. I think, though, that if they do come true in some fashion, it will be along lines more open and democratic than the contemporary aerospace culture.


  3. K. Montgomery says:

    Ok, so the frontier was associated with exploitation and corruption. How about today, where arguably there is no frontier. We’re still beset with exploitation and corruption.

    Perhaps exploitation and corruption are part of the negative side of humanity. The frontier ideal is part of the positive side; individuals or small groups of people exhibiting courage in the face of danger, taking on the task of exploration, facing hazards, dealing with setbacks and overcoming them. What’s so negative about that?

    Wherever we go, we’ll carry along human nature, in both its negative and positive aspects.

    Sometimes I think that progressives/liberals/whatever need to undermine or destroy what already exists in order to remake things in their own fashion.


  4. Myth or not, the frontier is alive and well in the sciences, where it is routinely invoked to justify extravagant expenses. Ever since “Science, the Endless Frontier” was used as the blueprint for the National Science Foundation, scientific research has provided Americans with something to throw money at, for better or for worse! Scientific research satisfies all the criteria you set forth, Roger, and even when doing work on napalm etc., it has a handy whitewash built into it that science is allegedly neutral, relieving scientists of moral responsibility. Now that’s truly “the best of all possible worlds.”


  5. DFC says:

    Sorry, K. Montgomery, but when someone like you defends the “frontier” in this fashion, it suggests to me that you’ve never been there.

    Conservatives exhibit great pride in the achievements of explorers, frontiersmen and path-makers, while simultaneously displaying curiosity, lassitude, and an unwillingness to make any sacrifices–all traits that have no place on the actual frontier. You’re welcome to hate progressives/liberals/whatever if it pleases you, but keep in mind that frontiers are explored by explorers, not by the people who stay home and stick to what they know. As a mere platitude, ‘Wherever we go, we’ll carry along human nature, in both its negative and positive aspects” is so; however, it’s going in the first place that pushes back frontiers, takes the risks and encounters the hazards. This generation of conservatives shows no willingness to explore intellectually or geographically; they deny the findings of explorers and pioneers they happen to dislike; they embrace incuriosity and intellectual complacency in clinging to beliefs regardless of the evidence; and the show dismissiveness and contempt for the very spirit of exploration when they feel it threatens their worldview.

    By all means defend the ones “exhibiting courage in the face of danger, taking on the task of exploration, facing hazards, dealing with setbacks and overcoming them.”

    What’s so negative about that?

    You aren’t one of them, that’s what.


  6. Excellent discussion of NASA’s attempt to resurrect the frontier as an argument to sway the public to support space exploration. As you mention, that argument might have had some success in the 1960, but it was certainly overshadowed by the Cold War as the true motivation for the ramping-up of the space program.

    Now that the romance of the space race has worn away, proponents of space as the next frontier to be conquered must grapple with the historical reasons people explored and settled frontiers. It was not for the romance of exploration (although that might have motivated a few individuals.) It was for economic gain and political advantage that governments gave the money to explorers. (I could go into a long digression on the reasons the Pirate Queen, Elizabeth 1, supported her explorers, but I will take pity here.) The economic gain and political advantage is not obvious – and may be next to non-existent – in the current world. The romance of the frontier cannot make up for that lack.

    Then there’s the problem that any frontier on Earth – even the bottom of the ocean – is an Eden compared with anywhere we know of in space. Robots are able to survive for decades in space (Go, Voyagers!), but humans have to take little imitations of Earth with them wherever they go. Oxygen, water, food, shelter and gravity can be found everywhere on Earth, but will have to be found or manufactured in space at considerable cost – and danger, if any one of those requirements suddenly goes lacking. There is such a HUGE difference between terrestrial frontiers and any in space that making an argument based on equivalence is doomed to break apart.

    Finally, there is the point, to my mind, should put to rest any more arguments that it is human destiny that drives us to explore the space frontier: It just doesn’t work. The American public is caught up in economic problems, social conflicts, and a string of wars — hard realities. Countless stories have been spun of how the attempt to conquer the new frontier of space will alleviate all these intractable problems, but people no longer buy it. If space proponents want to move exploration forward, they need to drop the ineffective appeal to the frontier.


    • K. Montgomery says:

      A question, Charlene. Do the explorers “game the system” in order to explore, or are they active participants in the potential exploits. My very limited history knowledge suggests that it is a combination of both; i.e. the explorers knew that they had to appeal to the territorial and/or commercial interests of their patrons.

      Did Columbus “game the system” in the same way that Von Braun did? Do we have to do the same kind of thing to advance space exploration?


  7. Martin E. says:

    The real story of the American West is not just of hardy pioneers heading off into the unknown. Lewis & Clark were sent to explore the newly purchased Louisiana Territory by President Jefferson. They were the first of many many government financed expeditions that mapped out the territory enough to bring down the risk for pioneers from reckless to reasonable. I’ve argued (in “After Apollo”, in the Harvard International Review: that US government policy on space should follow this model. Our goal would be to enable the commercial harnessing of space resources. If we can make space resources profitable, as Planetary Resources hopes to do, then the cost of space missions will plummet and all our space colony dreams will become plausible at last. True human exploration of the Solar System can begin. Buying down the risk, technically and legally, is something the government has a good track record on. In this more historically correct sense, the Frontier is a good analogy for space.


  8. I’m sure most of the explorers we remember today did “game the system.” But, to use your examples, both Columbus and Von Braun promoted their voyages at times when the sponsoring nations were actively competing against other nations to seize the “unexplored territory.” That sort of competition has faded markedly today, and I don’t think we’ll see it return unless China does build a base on the Moon. But right now, when people are arguing for things like missions to Mars, the same sort of justifications – like pushing back the frontier – won’t be effective.


    • mike shupp says:

      Something’s being missed here, which sort of drives in Dr. Launius’ point: people don’t really grasp the concept of a frontier any more.

      Let’s consider — to you and Mr. Montogomery, the notion of a frontier seems to be excitement and daring adventures among colorful natives and (maybe) escape from an all-to-controlling central government (“… individuals or small groups of people exhibiting courage in the face of danger, taking on the task of exploration, facing hazards, dealing with setbacks and overcoming them…”). A Disney film, in other words.

      To me, “frontier” means one of my elderly great-aunts back about 1955 in Cleveland talking about one of her great-aunts, who had ventured to Kansas with her husband and young sons in the 1840’s with the idea of establishing themselves as farmers and voting against slavery when the statehood resolution came up … and who returned a few years later with her husband and two large pickle barrels containing her childrens’ bodies in brine to be properly buried in Ohio. That’s the “romance” of the frontier, that’s the “excitement” and the “glamor.” A realy charming, wonderful story isn’t it?

      Not to argue against frontiers, actually. But if “adventure” was what it’s all about, NASA executives would have eye patches and bandanas on their shaved heads and Congress would be fostering schemes to hijack other nations’ satellites. It’d be Talk-Like-A-Pirate Day everday at NASA. Sadly, we’ve chosen not to have such fun.

      The point is, “adventure” isn’t the part of living on a frontier that shapes lives there. A frontier is a _transitional_ place; one observes changes in the landscape and civic architecture as one ages; the social atmosphere and level of cosmopolitanism alters over time; there is scope for social mobility and the re-invention of personal identity that is impossible in more settled regions; above all, one can actually look at flourishing cropland and suddenly paved roads and handsome municipal buildings going up (schools and courthouses and churchess and banks and parks and cemetaries bound by brick walls) and understand deep in your guts what you and other human beings have accomplished with your effort. It builds a certain quality of character into people, I’d suggest — endurence, the capability to change, the intelligent anticipation of change, appreciation for others — virtues not so inculcated in more developed and longer settled urban societies, Which makes pioneering kind of worth doing, or emulating today in a high tech fashion, even if it takes some government funds and wouldn’t make a good Disney movie.


  9. Guillaume says:

    It’s interesting to see where the parallels with the frontier myth work out and don’t. Thanks for posting this. I do wonder, though, about the lack of a physical boundary. In the initial realm, there was exploration/adventure/exploitation/etc… But it was all within a conceptually defined limit, no? Here, we are unable to agree even on a moon base vs. mars mission, vs. both, vs. ISS… Furthermore, I am struck by the occasional lowering of the shields of the old astronaut guard in a few written and filmed interviews. The more cerebral ones admit implicitly that they lost the frontier ideal once up there, or once back. You see this in such statements as the awareness that there was nothing to see or encounter. Danger impersonal (endless vacuum) is far more oppressive than a defined threat. I will keep on using the frontier analogy and have students read this post, but I think that frontier as a concept in space is for us who have not been there, or for the happy (?) few who have, and not questioned themselves beyond the defined engineering and scientific assignments.


  10. Dan Lester says:

    Roger, this is a thoughtful essay. I think the point that needs to be addressed is that the frontier can be viewed either as a physically challenging place for humans to visit and perhaps conquer, or a site that challenges our awareness and understanding. The “frontier myth” is, in this respect, a parallel to the “exploration myth”. In fact, as a result of our technological advancements, exploration of frontiers now looks very different than it used to look. The historical model for frontiers and exploration of them, with grizzled men putting their boots on rough shores, no longer cleanly applies. If Thomas Jefferson had earth resource satellites, he would never have chartered the Lewis and Clark expedition. It’s hard not to look at Mars as a standout frontier, even though our footsteps on that planet are made by increasingly capable wheeled surrogates. We can put our eyes, hands, and to the extent we need them, ears and noses, on other worlds without putting people there.

    So if the word “frontier” is based on human bootprints, and it’s declining significance is judged as coming from less reliance on those human bootprints, that’s just a historically based misreading of the word. I’d like to believe that frontiers remain very significant to our culture, but the way we explore them has changed dramatically. In fact, our technological advances have very simply changed the meaning of the word “exploration”. With regard to space, the historical exploration metaphor of boots-on-the-ground struggles to remain palatable.

    We can see this very clearly from a science perspective. Scientific exploration of frontiers no longer requires human bootprints. It most certainly did, even just a few decades ago. Such bootprints may help, but are increasingly unnecessary. Scientific exploration can still have pioneers, but the telerobotic minimization of personal risk perhaps obviates the identification of heroes. To the extent that a frontier is historically defined as something that makes pioneers and heroes out of human experience, the significance of it is indeed probably being lost.

    Again, thanks for bringing up this very important topic.


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  12. Bob Steinke says:

    I’m struck by the similarity of your model of the frontier:

    “The first stage is a separation from civilization.
    Second, there is a regression into a form of order that is something less than what had been known in the previous civilization.
    Third, conflict is a central and peculiar feature of frontiering
    The final stage is progress, a step toward some better future.”

    With Kurt Lewin’s model of organizational change: unfreeze-change-refreeze

    It’s not an exact match, but you could say that your second and third steps are both in Lewin’s change step, or you could say that in Lewin’s model conflict isn’t a separate step, it’s a likely feature of unfreezing and change.

    I think that unfreezing is the primary value of a frontier. It is a really hard thing to do in existing organizations and societies. So hard that failing organizations often do not change and instead are eliminated by new upstarts that grew up with a superior organizational culture (or at least one that is better suited for the current circumstances) from their beginning.


  13. An analogy is a similarity not an identical re-occurence. It is close enough to engage in discussion on the similarities and pitfalls of previous experience. It is not about direct comparison of the train to the shuttle or even SpaceX Falcon 9 and Heavy but about the process of government initially developing the transportation system, the government exploring and identifying profitable resources and licensing and taxing them.


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