Announcing a Special Issue of “Astropolitics” on the Power of Analogies for Advancing Space Scientific Knowledge

fast20_v012_i02-03_coverI have just edited a special issue of Astropolitics: The International Journal of Space Politics & Policy 12:2-3 (2014) has just appeared. It is available on-line here. I must mention that a subscription to the journal is required, or access through a subscribing institution, to download the articles.

This special issue began with a session on the “The Power of Analogies for Advancing Scientific Knowledge” at the History of Science Society Annual Meeting in 2013. Two of the authors in this issue delivered papers at the session, which upon revision were included here. To those papers were added four more that covered a range of possibilities for investigating the role of analogy in relation to spaceflight.

The articles include:

This special issue began with a session on the “The Power of Analogies for Advancing Scientific Knowledge” at the History of Science Society Annual Meeting in 2013. Two of the authors in this issue delivered papers at the session, which upon revision were included here. To those papers were added four more that covered a range of possibilities for investigating the role of analogy in relation to spaceflight.

Howard E. McCurdy, Professor of Public Affairs at the American University in Washington, D.C., and a longtime space policy analyst, leads this issue by analyzing the manner in which mountaineers conquered the tallest peaks in the world and how that might relate to space exploration. He finds that mountaineering, like spaceflight, began with a relatively small group of individuals seeking to demonstrate the feasibility of their vision. Those first efforts were technologically complex and expensive relative to national wealth. Advocates sought financial support from societies, philanthropists, and governmental bodies.  Private financing was difficult to get. Over time innovation reduced the average and marginal cost of the activity. These cost reductions attracted venture capital and permitted commercialization, accelerating as time progressed and economies of scale emerged. This pattern in mountaineering history may take place in spaceflight; studious investment may allow innovation to occur.

The second article, by Catherine L. Newell of the Departments of English and Religious Studies at the University of Miami, Coral Gables, used literature, film, and other statements from the advocates of spaceflight to analyze the close relationship between memory of the American frontier of the nineteenth century and the space program of the middle part of the twentieth century. She especially emphasized the roles of popularizers, such as artist Chesley Bonestell, rocketeer Wernher von Braun, and writer Willy Ley to draw these rich parallels.

My contribution explored the manner in which the railroad might serve as a useful analog for spaceflight in the more recent past. While the theme is not a new one, this contribution suggests that the experience of the government encouraging the nineteenth century transcontinental railroad remains valid to some degree for orbital space operations. The government offered the following six inducements for private development: land grants as a means of offering potential future revenue, tied to success in creating the railroad system; direct government appropriations to the company involved in the endeavor; waivers and modifications to taxes and other regulatory requirements; contracts for services once capability is demonstrated; government endorsement and backing of corporate bonds and assets; and direct support for related but supplemental elements of the railroad transportation system.

In every case, these government initiatives were intended to leverage, and not replace, existing private funding, especially additional industry and venture capital. To those six, we might add the following: private financing supplemented with government loans; property and patent rights granted to participating firms; and broadly construed revenues produced from transportation and other fees. Regardless, one must ask these critical questions in the context of developing new space transportation structures: how important, in the final analysis, is cheaper access to space; and is it really the key to future growth of space activities? This seems to be at the cusp of what will go into any stimulation of private space transportation efforts.

James Spiller, Assistant Provost for Research and Scholarship at the State University of New York at Brockport, drew on his special knowledge of Antarctic science to draw parallels between the two places beginning in the 1960s. In 1957, the United States established the first permanent U.S. scientific stations in Antarctica—McMurdo Station and Little America at the South Pole—as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a broad-based scientific effort to understand the geophysical properties of the Earth.

The next year the United States established NASA, in direct response to the Soviet Union’s success in engaging in space science undertaken also as a part of the IGY. Over time the sponsorship of Antarctic stations to establish a geopolitical presence and advance scientific efforts in Antarctica became less and less inherently governmental and more privately funded and operated. At the same time the space activities pursued by NASA have remained governmental activities. There is almost no corresponding private sector involvement in space operations. Spiller explores the lessons learned in these two endeavors.

Lisa Messeri, assistant professor of Science, Technology, and Society at the University of Virginia, presented the story of Apollo training—first how geology became a dominant scientific activity on the Moon and then how astronauts underwent analog training on Earth to prepare themselves for lunar geology. The astronauts had no way to train for geological activity on the Moon other than to use similar terrains on Earth. Messeri investigates how the Earth itself became an analog for understanding the Moon.

The search for life beyond Earth has been with us since before the origins of the space age, but now efforts are underway to seek out that life—the scientific discipline is called Astrobiology—and thousands of individuals are working in the arena. Yet, there is no evidence of extraterrestrial life as yet and so all research is analogous to what exists on Earth. This final article in this issue of Astropolitics took on this broad and fascinating topic. Steven J. Dick, former NASA Chief Historian and current Chair of Astrobiology at the Library of Congress, contributed to our understanding of this inviting topic and “argues that just as scientists have profitably employed analogies throughout the history of science, just as historians have investigated analogies to the impact of spaceflight and other human endeavors, and at a time when cognitive scientists have come to see analogy as the ‘fire and fuel of thinking,’ so may we cautiously deploy analogy in order to illuminate the impact of discovering extraterrestrial life, even as fundamentally novel aspects may also exist.”

Collectively these six essays explore various aspects of the role of analogies in the history of spaceflight. Some of them are oriented toward solving very practical problems, such as the work of McCurdy and myself, in seeking to apply lessons from other endeavors to the advancement of commercial enterprises in space. One, Newell, emphasized the connection between nineteenth century ideas of the frontier and twentieth century conceptions of space exploration with space advocates seeking to justify the space adventures with historical metaphors. Another one by Spiller offers a comparison between to activities that emerged at near the same time in space and Antarctica.

Finally, two articles—by Dick and Messeri—showed how scientists have used Earth analogs to study extraterrestrial phenomena without actually being able view the subject firsthand. Each of these essays contribute to the use of analogs in scientific and technical enterprises. I hope you will explore these individual articles.


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3 Responses to Announcing a Special Issue of “Astropolitics” on the Power of Analogies for Advancing Space Scientific Knowledge

  1. Such analogies are always flawed because space is not like Earth. No one lives there and there are no physical commodities that can yield a profit. We know that geology training and time-and-motion studies using Earth terrains – including human-made terrains, such as nuclear blast sites and the Cinder Lakes crater field – works to a degree, for that was demonstrated during Apollo. The rest of it, though, is a big stretch, particularly when it comes to the odd phenomenon we sometimes call “commercial space.” It seems unlikely that we will ever see a 21st- or 22nd-century Horace Greeley declare, “go outward, young person.”

    Such exercises retard our progress in space by promoting false analogies with people seize upon to justify ultimately pointless space projects. They prevent us from coming to grips with how we might *actually* move outward into space. I believe that we will need to witness societal changes on a scale unseen since the late medieval/early modern transition before we move into space. A core theme of these changes will be that space is worth doing for what it is by itself.



  2. Oops – in first sentence of second paragraph “with” should be “which.”

    Just got out of bed here in chilly Flagstaff, Arizona, 7000 feet up the side of the San Francisco stratovolcano and scene of many analog studies during Apollo and since the late 1990s,



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