The Thrill of Space Exploration

The Launch of a Space Shuttle in 2000.

The Launch of a Space Shuttle in 2000.

Several years ago I wrote the following essay on the meaning and excitement of spaceflight. I reprint it here for your enjoyment.

It all began with dreams. Throughout human history we have been constantly fascinated with our natural universe, leading to a desire to learn more about it. The early spaceflight pioneers relentlessly worked to make a reality their dreams of exploring the solar system. With the realization of spaceflight as something that could actually be accomplished, the United States went from its first orbital flights to the Moon within a decade. It followed with increasingly complex robotic missions to the planets and human operations in Earth orbit using the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. It did not end there, as mighty space telescopes have probed the depths of the universe and brought knowledge about its origins and evolution. The space age has brought us remarkable discoveries about our universe and new perspectives on our home planet, changes in the way in which we live and perceive, and broader visions of our place in the cosmos.

It has also seen the building of great machines totally under human control. The power of a big rocket’s launch is daunting. Impressive over the television, in person it is overwhelming, uniquely magical. Novelist Ray Bradbury once commented: “Too many of us have lost the passion and emotion of the remarkable things we’ve done in space. Let us not tear up the future, but rather again heed the creative metaphors that render space travel a religious experience. When the blast of a rocket launch slams you against the wall and all the rust is shaken off your body, you will hear the great shout of the universe and the joyful crying of people who have been changed by what they’ve seen.” No one leaves a Space Shuttle—or any other launch for that matter—unchanged. The experience is thrilling and transforming.

President John F. Kennedy captured this sense of wonder well in 1962 when he remarked at a speech given at Rice University: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” He commented that “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.” Spaceflight, for all of its technical minutiae, is a deeply spiritual experience that reaches into the depths of the human psyche.

From the beginning of the space age a little more than fifty years ago, the most eloquent advocates of space exploration have been a remarkably able set of American astronauts. Starting with the Mercury Seven astronauts, Americans built up these daring individuals as giants who strode the Earth as latter-day saviors whose purity coupled with noble deeds would purge this land of all evils. In large measure, they did not disappoint.

The Mercury 7 astronauts in spacesuits.

The Mercury 7 astronauts in spacesuits.

By the time of the unveiling of the Mercury Seven in April 1959, Americans had cast the astronauts as noble champions who would carry the nation’s manifest destiny beyond its shores and into space. James Reston of the New York Times, remarked that he felt profoundly moved by the statements of the astronauts. “What made them so exciting,” he wrote, “was not that they said anything new but that they said all the old things with such fierce convictions…They spoke of ‘duty’ and ‘faith’ and ‘country’ like Walt Whitman’s pioneers…This is a pretty cynical town, but nobody went away from these young men scoffing at their courage and idealism.”

Over the years, no one has been more eloquent on behalf of space exploration than John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, and after a long career in the Senate he made a second flight on the Space Shuttle in 1998. In 1986 he summoned images of the American heritage of pioneering when he commented that “Space represents the modern frontier for extending humanity’s research into the unknown. Our commitment to manned programs must remain strong even in the face of adversity and tragedy. This is our history and the legacy of all who fly.”

Legendary journalist Walter Cronkite captured this thrill of spaceflight in a remarkable reflection written at the turn of the twenty-first century. “Yes, indeed, we are the lucky generation,” He wrote. In this era we “first broke our earthly bonds and ventured into space. From our descendants’ perches on other planets or distant space cities, they will look back at our achievement with wonder at our courage and audacity and with appreciation at our accomplishments, which assured the future in which they live.”

Does the future include lunar bases?

The first fifty years of space exploration were motivated by fantastic images, and the thrill of this exploration fostered continued attention. Properly conducted, space exploration can provide a hopeful future. It can provide an important part of the means by which humans learn to live on a small and precious world and to leave it for another.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Economic Laws of Scientific Research”

The Economic Laws of Scientific ResearchThe Economic Laws of Scientific Research. By Terence Kealey. New York: Palgrave Macmillan/St. Martin’s Press, 1996. Illustrations, figures, notes, index. 382 pages. ISBN: 978-0312128470. $51.00 paperback.

Terence Kealey is a clinical biochemist, his profession at Cambridge University, who journeys out of his chosen discipline to offer a keen critique of the current structure of scientific research and development. His thesis is simple. He makes the case that scientific research is most effectively pursued through the free market.

Kealey challenges the idea that government support of scientific research is counterproductive to wealth-generating technology, and that private enterprise can supply most if not all of the funds required for both pure and applied research. This criticism is critical in any analysis of spaceflight in the United States, hence my reason for reviewing this book despite its publication date of 1996.

Furthermore, Kealey contends that command economies and totalitarian states do not achieve great success in science. He argues for a libertarian/neo-liberal perspective in which the free market would determine the direction of science, and of its practical application in technology. Indeed, he asserts that government funding of science is really a curse, inefficient and relatively ineffective.

The Economic Laws of Scientific Research is essentially a manifesto, making a case for a reordering of the scientific/technological apparatus of the modern world from one that has a mix of government/private sponsorship and funding to one that is largely if not entirely a private enterprise. Kealey claims that the current mix of funding/sponsorship is unhealthy and inefficient. As a society we could have much more in the way of useful outcomes, he insists, from a market-driven approach in which corporations and other private entities such as foundations and research centers invested in research with clearly understood objectives.

His libertarian argument is twofold. First, Kealey insists that government has for too long dominated scientific research and development and turned it to ends that are in too many cases counterproductive to society as a whole. At some level he is correct about this, for it has overwhelmingly been the sponsor of efforts to enhance military capabilities. It is in this context that much of the government sponsorship of aerospace R&D has been made over the years of the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. He is also right that this is a realm of activity that does not directly and immediately benefit citizens as a whole unless maintaining safety is a concern. He contends that these efforts are inefficient; they are, but they are also the types of R&D that few would question as an appropriate realm of heavy government involvement.

Second, Kealey insists that the private sector has been far more efficient in achieving recognizable scientific achievements than any government anywhere at any time. He deploys the argument that such states as the Soviet Union, which employed larger numbers of scientists and engineers than any other comparably-sized nation, including the United States, achieved far meager results than should have been the case. He would argue it was because of an ineffective sponsorship apparatus, one that stifled creativity and innovation. Kealey also uses such ideological constructs as Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union and its ideological bent that set back genetics in the Eastern bloc for decades.

There are several important implications for this study. Kealey is only partially correct with his criticisms of government supported scientific research. We can point to its many successes, whether in public laboratories or through contracts and grants to outside entities such as universities and corporations of outstanding success stories that would never have come to pass without that investment. For example, the United States led the world into the air age but by 1915 it had fallen so far behind the capabilities of other nations as to be both a major embarrassment and a national security risk. It took the creation of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics as a unique government entity to climb back out of that deep hole of technological backwardness. The same held true for the establishment of NASA in the 1950s, seeking to overcome a major military threat through investment in key space technologies. It took years of federal investment in these technologies to become the world leader and continued support to assure long-term success.

I also want to mention something about the historical episodes discussed in The Economic Laws of Scientific Research. Kealey demonstrates in this book that he is certainly no historian. His analyses might serve his thesis but it does not stand up to historical scrutiny. For example, his assertion that the Roman Empire’s collapse was brought on by too much government intervention into the economy is overdrawn and obtuse. So to, his discussion of the economy of what he persists in calling the “Dark Ages” while all historians have come to deride that term not only as biased but also as inelegant, inexact, and inaccurate. He claims that the less powerful nature of the emerging governments of that era enabled local innovation and more personal liberty. Really! Tell that to serfs! Those first seven chapters, with their ideologically driven historical accounts are really quite embarrassing when read by anyone with a modicum of understanding of the story.

The remainder of the book essentially deals with the twentieth century and is less history than a political tract. His arguments, while I find them a bit sophomoric and unconvincing, are worthy of consideration. His core point is that basic research contributes almost nothing to progress in industry and that industry should rely on itself to fund whatever research is needed.

If Kealey were to have his way, government investment in science would not take place and everything would be market driven. At some level this has been taking place as a broad neo-liberal experiment in the U.S. as government is viewed not just as a benign sponsor of research but a detriment to scientific advance. Beginning with the Reagan administration in 1981 private sector investment in scientific research in the U.S. surpassed government investment for the first time since World War II. It has been gaining ever since, so much so that by 2000 $170 billion was invested annually by private entities to $55 billion—in 1996 constant dollars—for the federal government. And of the increases of federal investment in the 1990s, and there were some, only the life sciences sustained a five percent increase for the decade. During that same period 63.2 percent of the aerospace industry’s R&D dollars came from federal sources; the remaining 36.8 percent came from the private sector. In contrast, pharmaceuticals financed 100 percent of its R&D from company funds; machinery, 93.4 percent; computers, 83.3 percent; non-air transportation, 95.3 percent; and information services, 96.8 percent.

This is the level of investment that has brought us to the world that we live in today. Kealey would extend the trends already present. The question to be considered; is this an acceptable place for the United States as it proceeds into the twenty-first century? If Kealey is right, the nation is moving in the right direction. But I doubt he is correct. Private sector investment works well for R&D with near term payoffs, but not so well on great ideas that need long gestation and incubation periods. All of the successful innovations of the recent era—computer technologies, the internet, and the sequencing of the human genome—required significant government investment to get the process of innovation started. Once the gains were understood and the path to profits clear many private sector firms entered the arena and ultimately put considerable investment into it, but not until the technologies were advanced enough to show marketability.

Kealey’s final statement is a call to arms: “If this book has a message, it is this: relax. Economic, technical and scientific growth are free lunches. Under laissez faire they just emerge, like grass after the rain, through the efforts of individual entrepreneurs and philanthropists. Once the State has initiated the rule of law and sensible commercial legislation, the goodies will flow—and laissez faire is morally superior to dirigism as it maximizes the freedoms and responsibilities of the individual.” Really? Where would the effort to explore space be in such an environment?

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Beginning Project Vanguard

Vanguard on launch pad (TV-3), Dec. 6, 1957.

It seems hard to believe but 60 years ago on Wednesday, on September 9, 1955, the U.S. Department of Defense chose Project Vanguard to carry out the American commitment to launch a scientific satellite into Earth orbit to support the International Geophysical Year. Vanguard was to be managed by the Naval Research Laboratory located just outside of Washington, D.C.

This effort actually originated in 1952 when the International Council of Scientific Unions established a committee to arrange an International Polar Year, the third in a series of scientific activities designed to study geophysical phenomena in remote reaches of the planet. The Council agreed that July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958, would be the period of emphasis in coordinated research about the Earth, in part because of a predicted expansion of solar activity; the previous such efforts had taken place in 1882-1883 and 1932-1933.

Late in 1952 this body expanded the scope of the scientific research effort to include studies that would be conducted using rockets with instrument packages in the upper atmosphere and changed the name to the International Geophysical Year (IGY) to reflect the larger scientific objectives. In October 1954 the Council, at a meeting in Rome, Italy, adopted another resolution calling for the launch of artificial satellites during the IGY to help map the earth’s surface, and both the Soviet Union and the United States accepted the challenge.

In response to these actions, on May 26, 1955, the National Security Council (NSC), the senior defense policy board in the U.S., approved a plan to orbit a scientific satellite as part of the IGY effort. The NSC’s endorsement was provisional: the effort could not interfere with the development of ballistic missiles, must emphasize the peaceful purposes of the endeavor, and had to contribute to establishing the principle of “freedom of space” in international law. Eisenhower supported this effort and on July 29 publicly announced plans for launching “small unmanned, Earth circling satellites as part of the U.S. participation in the International Geophysical Year.”

There followed a heady competition between the Naval Research Laboratory on the one hand and the Army’s Redstone Arsenal on the other for government support to develop the IGY satellite. Project Vanguard, proposed by the Navy, was chosen on September 9, 1955, to carry the standard in launching a non-military satellite for the IGY effort, over the Army’s “Explorer” proposal. The decision was made largely because the Naval Research Laboratory candidate did not interfere with high-priority ballistic missile programs–it used the non-military Viking rocket as its basis–while the Army’s bid was heavily involved in those activities and proposed adapting a ballistic missile launch vehicle. In addition, the Navy project seemed to have greater promise for scientific research because of a larger payload capacity.

The Viking launch vehicle was also a proven system; it had first flown in the late 1940s while the Army’s proposed rocket, the Redstone, had been launched for the first time in August 1953. Finally, the Naval Research Laboratory’s proposal was more acceptable because it came from a scientific organization rather than from a weapons developer, in this case the Redstone Arsenal.

This image from Life magazine depicts senior Project Vanguard leaders: Milton W. Rosen with John T. Mengel, Project Director J. P. Walsh, Lt. Cmdr. J. W. Salter. and Project Director John P. Hagen.

The architect of Project Vanguard, Naval Research Laboratory engineer Milton W. Rosen, called for the development and launching of six spacecraft for an estimated $20 million, a bargain price even for the 1950s. The proposed launch vehicle combined the Viking first stage, an Aerobee sounding rocket second stage, and a new third stage with a 3.5 pound scientific satellite payload. Project Vanguard enjoyed exceptional publicity throughout the second half of 1955 and all of 1956, but the technological demands upon the program were too great and the funding levels too small to foster much success.

Almost in desperation the laboratory launched the first Vanguard mission on December 8, 1956, a suborbital instrumentation test using a Viking rocket without the attendant second and third stages. Declared a successful flight, this mission nevertheless documented in graphic terms that the American IGY satellite effort was behind schedule; with the time left before the IGY there was little likelihood of orbiting a satellite unless resources approaching $100 million were applied to the program. Project Vanguard could not secure that kind of money from the parsimonious Department of Defense, which was supplying it from the secretary’s emergency fund.

During the next several months the Eisenhower Administration became increasingly concerned with the tendency for Project Vanguard to get bogged down. Eisenhower was especially concerned about the probability that the scientific instruments were slowing it down. About five months before the Soviet orbiting of Sputnik 1, the president forcefully reminded his top advisers that “Such costly instrumentation had not been envisaged” and “stressed that the element of national prestige…depended on getting a satellite into its orbit, and not on the instrumentation of the scientific satellite.” Eisenhower’s perception of the budgetary growth of the Vanguard program, transforming it from the simple task of putting any type of satellite into orbit into a project to launch a satellite with “considerable instrumentation” reminded him of the worst type of technological inflation, as every scientist seemingly wanted to hang another piece of equipment on the vehicle.

Thus, less than a year before the launch of Sputnik 1, the United States was involved in two modest space programs that were moving ahead slowly and staying within strict budgetary constraints. One was the highly visible scientific program, Vanguard, in honor of the IGY, and the other was a highly classified program to orbit a military reconnaissance satellite.

They shared two attributes. They each were removed from the ballistic missile program underway in the Department of Defense, but they shared in the fruits of its research and adapted some of its launch vehicles. They also were oriented toward satisfying the national goal of establishing “freedom of space” for all orbiting satellites. The IGY scientific effort could help establish the precedent of overflight of other nations with space vehicles, while a military satellite might excite other nations to press for closure.

Because of this goal a military satellite, in which the Eisenhower Administration was most interested, could not under any circumstances precede scientific satellites into orbit. The IGY satellite program, therefore, was partly a means of securing the larger goal of open access to space. Eisenhower was willing to place the military effort on simmer to ensure that scientific satellites led the way, hence his pressure on Vanguard. What became clear later was that he was not so concerned about orbiting the first satellite as he was about securing the precedent of free access to space for the U.S.

Sputnik 1 changed the direction of space policy in the United States after its launch on October 4, 1957.

He never accomplished that task of “freedom of space” with Vanguard. Before it could fly the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, and its overflight of other nations indirectly accomplished this geopolitical objective. Had the U.S. launched first, it raises the fascinating question of whether or not the Soviets would have protested overflight and thereby set up a problem for the use of reconnaissance and other types of satellites that might pass overhead in space.

The Vanguard explosion on the launch pad, December 6, 1957.

Sputnik 1 both changed the nature of space science and the Vanguard program. Within weeks accelerated efforts for American spaceflight had been placed in motion and Vanguard tried to launch its own satellite on December 6, 1957. The media was invited to witness the launch in the hope that it could help restore public confidence after the Soviet success, but it was a disaster of the first order. During the ignition sequence the rocket rose about three feet above the platform, shook briefly, and disintegrated in flames. The next test was little better. On February 5, 1958, the Vanguard launch vehicle reached an altitude of four miles and then broke apart. Public perceptions of American technological capabilities were extremely low after these two failures.

A video of this launch attempt and explosion is available on YouTube at:

Vanguard finally was successful in putting a satellite into orbit on March 17, 1958. Vanguard 1 and its successor satellites conducted geodetic studies of the Earth, explored further the Van Allen Radiation Belt, and discovered the Earth’s slightly “pear” shape. Despite its later success, that first failure has forever tarnished the record of the program.

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Pretty Blue Planet

04 The Earth with the International Space Statio in the lower foreground, from STS-118.

This is a stunning collection of images from space: PrettyBluePlanet. Enjoy.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Race and Reunion”

race-and-reunion2Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. By David W. Blight. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

One of the most powerful elements of historical study in the last thirty years is the nature of memory. The analysis of how stories about the past become a master narrative, and what lessons they teach those interested in the subject, has been a growing area of concern in American history. This memory is constructed gradually over time as people reflect on the meaning of what has transpired, and much of what emerges is not so much a fable or falsehood as it is a kind of poetry about events and situations that have great significance for the people involved.

The memories over time become more significant than the cold, hard facts of the past, insofar as they are recoverable at all, and become the essential truths of the past for the members of a cultural group who hold them, enact them, or perceive them. But what does it say about a society in which the falsification of memory is overt, as David Blight suggests in this elegant depiction of the past?

David Blight’s Race and Reunion is a stunning analysis of the manner in which a specific master narrative about the Civil War was constructed through its memory in American consciousness. He starts his book with a discussion of the fiftieth anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg in 1913, and how the theme of reconciliation and shared valor were emphasized rather than the divisive issues of slavery, human rights, and treason that the war was really about. He asked the pointed question: “What had the 50 years since the battle meant?” (p. 11). The answer, Blight finds, is that the reasons for the war—the prohibition of slavery beyond the borders where it already existed, the morality of owning another human being, and the nature of human dignity and rights, treason, and armed rebellion—had been consciously recast as a “war between the states” in which the fundamental divisions were over fine points of constitutional law.

In the process the welfare of former slaves had been abandoned, restrictive laws had emerged to control the African American population, and the race issue in the United States—still one of the most difficult issues of the nation—was ignored in favor of white reconciliation and sectional harmony.

With considerable eloquence and not a little bitterness Blight goes on to trace the rise of a pro-Southern master narrative that ignored racism, and its manifestation in slavery, as the REASON behind the war. As he does so his anger manifests itself, and I found his indignation a moving force in Race and Reunion. He rightly concludes that this stolen memory of the reasons for this “strange, sad war” represents a true malignancy on the soul of America. Notwithstanding some, such as Frederick Douglass, William Tecumseh Sherman, and U.S. Grant, who sought to keep alive the spirit of reform that the war bespoke, a wellspring of pro-Southern sentiment calculated to alter the memory of the war among most Americans reinterpreted this great reform effort.

Virtually the opening salvo of this “revisionism” came with the 1870 publication of Jefferson Davis’s memoir and its emphasis on constitutional issues and property rights. The legend of the “Lost Cause” soon followed. Blight asserts five major components of this pro-southern argument that found expression in the latter nineteenth century:

  1. The valor of the southern soldier.
  2. The stability and tranquility of the culture of the Old South with happy and fulfilled participants whether slave or free.
  3. The Southern past must be defended and celebrated against all alternative constructions that were by definition prejudiced and malevolent.
  4. The causes of the war revolved around constitutional issues and northern harassment of those legal positions, violating Southern states’ autonomy. Moreover, the war had virtually nothing to do with the institution of slavery.
  5. Slavery may have existed in the Old South, but it had been a benign institution in which those who participated in it lived fulfilling and peaceful lives.

Throughout Race and Reunion Blight notes the consistent theme of white supremacy that motivated the creation of this memory of the Civil War. Perhaps it is not difficult to believe that former Confederates would assert these arguments to justify their actions. What is perplexing, however, is the ease with which Northerners, including many participants in the war, accepted this as the master narrative of the war. Most were motivated by self-interest in commerce and industrialization, never questioning that some things might be more important and that not to understand and act on them make us less than we should ever allow ourselves to become.

In the end, Northerners easily pardoned themselves for abandoning the freed slaves by noting that the ending of chattel slavery was enough; never mind its replacement with restrictive Jim Crow laws and forms of economic slavery. Reunion and reconciliation at any price was better than on-going conflict.

Moreover, and Blight suggests as much, did the North capitulate to the “Lost Cause” reinterpretation of the Civil War because it was as racist as the South? Did the people recollecting the war miss the point of it all, and if so was it intentional? No question, racism is still with us in this country, and manifestations of it appear to be on the upsurge. Attitudes of disdain and calls for curbing of civil liberties based on little more than race and ethnicity abound in the America of the early twenty-first century. What does the unfinished journey somberly chronicled in David Blight’s Race and Reunion signal for the future?

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Announcing the Space Policy and History Forum #17, September 14, 2015

Artist’s conception of lunar mining, after 2020, artwork by Pat Rawlings. Many believe that the resource rich Moon may one day sustain human efforts to remain in space indefinitely.

Artist’s conception of lunar mining, after 2020, artwork by Pat Rawlings. Many believe that the resource rich Moon may one day sustain human efforts to remain in space indefinitely.

Announcing the Space Policy and History Forum #17

If NASA can put a man on the Moon, why can’t NASA put a man on the Moon?

by Charles Miller, NexGen Space

Charles Miller of NexGen Space will report the results of a NASA-funded study that provides evidence that disproves the widely-held opinion that an American-led human return to the Moon must cost taxpayers $100 Billion or more and that a permanent base on the Moon must cost hundreds-of-billions-of-dollars.

NexGen assembled a team of former NASA executives and engineers who assessed the economic and technical viability of an “Evolvable Lunar Architecture” that leverages commercial capabilities and services that are existing or likely to emerge in the near-term.

The NexGen team evaluated the technical feasibility and economic affordability of a concept that was designed as an incremental, low-cost, and low-risk method for returning humans to the Moon.  The ELA strategic focus was commercial mining of propellant from lunar poles where it will be transported to lunar orbit to be used by NASA to send humans to Mars.  The study assumed A) that the United States is willing to lead an international partnership of countries that leverages private industry capabilities, and B) broad adoption of public-private-partnership models proven in recent years by NASA and other government agencies.  The study included an independent review by a team that included many former senior NASA executives (such as Joe Rothenberg, Chris Kraft, and Tom Moser), former astronauts, and space policy professionals.


Charles Miller is the President of NexGen Space LLC, which provides client-based services at the intersection of commercial space, civil space, national security space, and public policy.  His clients include NASA, DARPA and many private commercial space firms.  He also serves as a senior advisor for Renaissance Strategic Advisors, as the Executive Coordinator of the Alliance for Space Development, and teaches an online course on commercial space for HeatSpring. Mr. Miller is co-founder Nanoracks LLC, a disruptive venture that has delivered more than 250 customer payloads to the ISS. Miller served as NASA Senior Advisor for Commercial Space from 2009 to 2012, where he advised senior NASA leaders on commercial space options and strategies. He is also the co-founder and former President and CEO of Constellation Services International, Inc., which was a leading competitor for commercial ISS cargo delivery in the early 2000s. In the 1990s, Miller was the founder and President of ProSpace, known as “The Citizens’ Space Lobby”.  Under Miller, ProSpace was instrumental in the passage of space-related legislative initiatives, including the Commercial Space Act of 1998, and funding for NASA’s X-33 and X-37 projects, and the U.S. Air Force’s RLV Technology Development program.

Date and Time

September 14  (Monday), 4:00-5:00 P.M.

Location, Parking, and Acces

The presentation will be held at the National Air and Space Museum, 600 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, D.C., 4:00-5:00 p.m. Space is limited to 50 attendees, so please RSVP to Roger Launius,,to get your name on the list. This will be for for access to the 3rd floor of the Museum, where we will be meeting in the Director’s Conference Room. You may check in and obtain a badge for access to the building at the guard desk just to the right as you enter the Independence Ave. doors. If you have any questions regarding access, please contact Roger. Parking is not available in NASM, and is limited elsewhere; we recommend using the Metro system for travel to the National Air and Space Museum—the Smithsonian and L’Enfant Plaza stops are close by.

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Perceptions of Belief in a Flat Earth

This is a wood engraving by an unknown artist that first appeared in Camille Flammarion's "L'atmosphère: météorologie populaire" (1888). The image depicts a man crawling under the edge of the sky, showiing it as a solid hemisphere, to look at the mysterious Empyrean beyond. The caption underneath the engraving (not shown here) translates to "A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet."

This is a wood engraving by an unknown artist that first appeared in Camille Flammarion’s “L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire” (1888). The image depicts a man crawling under the edge of the sky, showiing it as a solid hemisphere, to look at the mysterious Empyrean beyond. The caption underneath the engraving (not shown here) translates to “A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet.”

It’s a wonderful thing, the imagination of humankind. It has brought us the wonders of science and technology, the ideals of freedom and democracy, the inspiration to question, and the desire to help others, to name only a few positive attributes of the human imagination. It also fosters sometimes weird, esoteric, and just plain wrongheaded ideas.

One of those, at least in the current world in which evidence to the contrary abounds, is the persistent belief that the Earth is flat. The idea of a flat Earth has always been with humanity, and evidence to the contrary has not always been persuasive for those with a desire to believe the Earth is flat.

While this might have been an easily accepted concept from the perspective of humans limited to the surface of this planet this is not so much a rational perspective in the modern world. As recently as 1945 this belief was listed as the second of “twenty critical errors in history” in relation to the idea that Columbus proved that the world was round. He didn’t, anyone educated knew differently, so did sailors and travelers around the globe.

Still the belief persist. There are fascinating individuals such as Samuel Birley Rowbotham (1816-1884), who took the pseudonym “Parallax,” and began what he called “Zetetic astronomy” to promote a flat Earth theory. This “Zetetic” theory has fueled the modern concept of the flat Earth and it persists with formally organized groups to the present. Sometimes those adopting this belief, such as Wilbur Glenn Voliva and his followers in the utopian community of Zion, Illinois, were motivated by biblical fundamentalism.

Leo Ferrari, the philosophy professor who co-founded the Flat Earth Society in 1970.

Leo Ferrari, the philosophy professor who co-founded the Flat Earth Society in 1970.

Others, not so much. One of the most interesting organizations in this arena was the Flat Earth Society of Canada, organized in 1970 by Professor Leo Ferrari, St. Thomas Aquinas University. Ferrari took a decidedly post-modern approach to this subject and argued for personal decisions about the nature of the Earth. He asked everyone to overturn the authority of experts in favor of their own observations, and asked if individual perceptions were that the Earth was round or flat. It represented a fascinating and cockeyed perspective on modern society, made all the more so by outrageous street theater from Ferrari’s group.

At some level, this insistance on a belief that is clearly disprovable represents one of the most interesting aspects of our post-modern society. Who is to say what is true? does one decide for oneself, or does one trust in the authority of others, presumably specialists who know more about the subject.

A fascinating issue to be considered when thinking about such things as belief in a flat Earth, it seems to me, revolves around issues of scientific versus other types of authority. A hallmark of the scientific revolution was the privileging of scientific knowledge over other types—political, religious, economic, social, or cultural. Deference to this authority reached a zenith in the middle twentieth century, as it embedded intrinsically into the philosophy of Progressivism at the turn of the twentieth century emphasizing professionalism and scientific and technological expertise over politics in the solving of national problems.

A backlash occurred through several avenues, epitomized by one critic, Ralph E. Lapp, who characterized the rise of the scientific and technical elite as The New Priesthood, stated in his 1965 book. He urged Americans not to abdicate their political power to these elites, whom he believed were no better prepared to give answers than anyone else. “Like any other group in our society, science has its full share of personalities—wide-gauge and narrow-track minds, sages and scoundrels, trail-blazers and path-followers, altruists and connivers,” he wrote. “To say that science seeks the truth does not endow scientists as a group with special wisdom of what is good for society” (pp. 227-28).

A representation, with tongue firmly in cheek, of a flat Earth.

A representation, with tongue firmly in cheek, of a flat Earth.

In addition, the juxtaposition of the forces of modernity in relation to the concept of a flat Earth and the emergence of postmodernity, might also affect understandings. Historian of science Paul Forman suggests that trends from modernity, with its emphasis on the authority of experts, to postmodernity, with a tendency toward rejection of rule-following and questioning of what constitutes both knowledge and the authority to decide it, have been profound in the last few decades of the twentieth century.

Such an alteration of perspectives may have affected significantly the manner in which ideas about the flat Earth have been accepted or not in Western Civilization.

At some point I hope to do more with this subject. I am pursuing research for a book entitled “Envisioning the Earth: Conceptions of this Planet from the Flat Earth to Gaia.” I hope to do more with the flat Earth concept there. Ideas are welcome.

Posted in History, Lunar Exploration, Personal, Religion, Science | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Scientific Legacy of Fred Hoyle”

The Scientific Legacy of Fred HoyleThe Scientific Legacy of Fred Hoyle. Edited by Douglas Gough. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Fred Hoyle was the astronomer nobody knows. One of the most interesting and provocative scientists in his field in the twentieth century, Hoyle made important discoveries in astronomy, astrophysics, and astrobiology. In particular, he broke ground in such areas as the evolution of the universe, the accretion of stars, and modern cosmology. Sir Fred died in 2001 at the age of 86 and this book is the result of a conference held in celebration of his life and work in 2002. Edited by Douglas Gough, a colleague of Hoyle’s at the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, the twelve chapters of this book was written by colleagues and friends.

In the first chapter, dealing with Hoyle’s scientific legacy, Wallace Sargent attributes much of the current state of knowledge about the universe to the mind of Fred Hoyle while noting that his scientific work involved considerable creative thought, especially his efforts in nucleosynthesis, stellar evolution, and cosmology. This overview introduces several other chapters on individual areas explored by Fred Hoyle, all written by other scientists rather than historians.

Had historians been represented in this book, it might have turned out quite differently. For example, a full review and analysis of Hoyle’s insistence on the legitimacy of the “Steady State” thesis of the universe versus the “Big Bang” is not to be found here except in the most general terms. Hoyle’s persistence in the “Steady State Universe” in the face of building and eventually overwhelming evidence supporting the “Big Bang” is one of the most fascinating episodes of his career. While The Scientific Legacy of Fred Hoyle represents a useful tribute to the life of an esteemed colleague, it leaves open more questions than it answers.

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What Might a Global History of Space Exploration Look Like?

The International Space Station in 2012.

The International Space Station in 2012.

I would like to know the answer to this question. I would also very much like to hear what others think about the answers to this question. I have been contemplating this issue. Here are my thoughts thus far.

By its very nature space exploration has a resonance beyond national borders; at a fundamental level it is an activity that transcends national claims and appeals to global sensibilities. For centuries before Sputnik humanity has engaged in a virtual exploration of space through astronomical observation aided by astounding scientific and technological advances. In the more than fifty years since the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, moreover, more than 6,000 functioning satellites have been launched into Earth orbit and beyond—some to the farthest reaches of the Solar System—and more than 540 people have traveled in space.

Space exploration is intrinsically transnational; circumscription by national borders is a meaningless concept when faced with the realities of the longue durée of the endeavor. Regardless, our understanding of space exploration has been largely rooted in the framework of national(ist) narratives and geopolitical prerogatives; this has largely been because nation-states have dominated the historical conceptions of the undertaking. It is time to move past this limited, national historical framework.

For too many individuals the perceived apotheosis of space exploration remains the heady days after Sputnik, when the United States and the Soviet Union competed to trump the other in a series of progressively more complex feats in space. The Cold War space race retains its mystique, either as a benchmark that subsequent accomplishments could never equal or as an anomaly never to be repeated.

It has, in fact, become virtually impossible to think of space exploration without allusion to the halcyon days of the 1950s and 1960s and equally inconceivable for historians to interpret the exploration of space without regard to this nationalistic emphasis. But if we focus on a longer duration since about 1800—and view space exploration as something greater than a part of geopolitical rivalry—it takes on a more complex trans- and internationalist hue, as well as offers an opportunity to focus on more engaging economic, business, public/private, and international efforts.

I would like to undertake a study of this subject. My goal would be to develop a fully-rounded concept of a global history of space exploration in the longue durée of the last two centuries, offering perspectives on the way in which the relationship between national identity and space exploration has affected understanding of the history of space exploration; in fact, how it has been fundamental to it. This discussion would be intended as a starting point to revisit both the history and the historiography of space exploration and suggest some new avenues of investigation that move beyond formulations rooted in the Cold War space race.

This would require the exploration of various aspects of this theme and could possibly result in a fully developed work that might serve as a catalyst for future studies moving beyond current knowledge to a global history of the subject. In my estimation we would nee to characterize the story in a fundamentally different manner. It requires mastery of several broad subjects: scientific and technological innovation; financing and economics; business, corporations, and broad organizational interactions; cooperative ventures of all types; space exploration as a global phenomenon; and the characteristics and evolution of transnational arrangements. There may also be several other themes explored that are yet to be defined.

So, what would a global history of space exploration look like?

Posted in Cold War Competition, International Space Station, Space | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

A Typology of Empires throughout History

Istanbul; for centuries it was the crossroads of empire.

Istanbul, crossroads of empire.

I have been studying quite a lot about empires of late; their commonalities, differences, and circumstances. They may all look different, but a remarkably similar in perception. Merriam-Webster defines an empire as:

a (1): a major political unit having a territory of great extent or a number of territories or peoples under a single sovereign authority; especially: one having an emperor as chief of state (2):  the territory of such a political unit.

b:  something resembling a political empire; especially:  an extensive territory or enterprise under single domination or control.

Despite this seeming commonality, empires have had various types of governments, economies, religions, cultures, etc. They have existed in different times, divergent locations, and with strikingly disparate ambitions. While the people living within those empires believed that encompassed all of the power worth considering, today most of them look surprising small, challenged, and fragile. Even the most successful of the world’s empires were less than omnipotent, even at their most powerful.

When one peels back the layers, furthermore, I would suggest that there may have been only four types of empires in recorded human history. These four types I believe encapsulate all of the empires about which we have any knowledge. This typology may be satisfactory only to myself but let me outline my four types.

The Roman Empire at its height in 117 CE.

The Roman Empire at its height in 117 CE.

First, there are the “classical” empires of Western Civilization. Some of the most well-known in this category include the Roman Empire, the Ming dynasty of China, and the Ottoman Empire. The type of empire was built on the control of land, especially continuous land, and the bounty that came from it. There might be some divergences between empires of the type; especially the Mediterranean empire of Rome with its huge “lake” in its center and the enormous land mass of China; but the critical aspect of the empire was its ability to control land from outside threat and internal dissension. Its bureaucracy, justice system, economics and trade all made the sustaining of the empire possible, sometimes for very long periods. Usually a combination of internal dissent and external threat eventually took these empires down.

Second, the “mercantile” empires established by Europe after 1500 were distinguished from the “classical” type by the maritime emphasis they possessed. These empires relied on trade. Especially in Asia and Africa, European activities were limited to seizing labor, maintaining bases and depots but not much in the way of colonial settlements, and the extraction of wealth. They may have supplanted the local elites, but more often than not they incorporated local leaders into the power structure and together overcame the solidity of tribes or other local political and economic systems. In reality, however, the true power of these “mercantile” empires rested on the oceans and seas, were corporate in structure, and had very few outposts such as Bombay and Calcutta, Batavia and Macao, Madras and Goa.

Third, at the same time “settler” empires emerged under European suzerainty especially in the Americas. Spanish, French, English, and Dutch settlers established first slave labor societies in the Caribbean and then on the American continents. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many of these colonies gained their independence, establishing a separate type of governmental, economic, social, and political structure modeled on the former mother country’s system. They may have then gone on to establish their own form of empire.

The British empire at its height.

The British empire at its height.

In other parts of the world, which had been dominated by “mercantile” empires from Europe, furthermore, also transformed in some cases into “settler” empires. The British in Africa, Australia, and parts of Asia offer an especially good example of this transformation. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, perhaps the high point of empire for that island nation, the British dominated every aspect of global economics and politics. It took two world wars, economic recession, and the rise of pro-democracy movements in the latter half of the twentieth century that led to the demise of the British empire.

Fourth, an age dominated by “ideological” empires emerged in the Cold War era based less on the occupation of land than on the ideological influence of other rulers and nations. The United States was the best example of this new imperial structure. It spent enormous effort influencing other nations to side with them in their rivalry with the Soviet Union. It also formed alliances, built bases world-wide, and deployed troops around the globe to ensure its hegemony.

Does this typology make sense to readers. What am I missing?

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