Saturday, September 17, 2016

Part Four: So You Want to be a Space Advocate?

Why the Activism of the 1970's US Pro-Space Movement Didn't Work

                   By Chuck Black
An earlier version of this article was presented at the 65th International Astronautical Congress, which was held in Toronto, Ontario from September 29th - October 3rd, 2014.

Its thesis is that successful advocacy requires:
  • Strong media skills able to define the problem, craft a compelling narrative and define appropriate solutions
  • A mechanism to move the narrative forwards by solving the defined problem using those previously identified solutions.
  • A funding network willing to pay for the costs associated with the campaign.
The question of whether or not those three conditions apply in our current aerospace and space environment is open for debate.

One of the best places to learn about space activism is the 1970's US pro-space movement.

Might have been better titled "Reaching for the government funded and academic tenure track frontier." but still required reading for background on advocacy organizations such as the National Space Society (NSS), the Planetary Society and others. Michaud notes that most of those organizations grew out of the decline in US civil space spending after the Apollo Moon missions ended in the early 1970's, which sparked the creation of organizations advocating "space exploration" and science, tied to increased educational and government funding (often for a small series of specific projects) and which were mostly wrapped around university campuses, as a way to solve Earthbound problems. Many of the organizations ended up shrinking, collapsing or combining with others after the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. Others, such as the advocacy for multi-billion dollar space based solar power satellites as outlined in the April 6th, 2016 post, "More Space Based Solar Powered Shenanigans," continue to this day. Graphic c/o Amazon.

As outlined in "Reaching for the High Frontier: The American Pro-Space Movement, 1972-1984" by Michael A. G. Michaud [i], the era saw the wind-down of the Apollo program and the ramp up of the space shuttle amidst an increasingly tight budget and the beginnings of an advocacy community convinced that “space holds answers to such real-world problems such as economic growth, environmental degradation, international tension and the threat of nuclear war.” [ii]

The final preface of the book was put together just before the tragic explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. It therefore serves also as a last gasp of the optimism of the Apollo era and an endpoint for the childhood of those who considered themselves to be the “Children of Apollo.” [iii]

But the key activists of this era were essentially either “citizens,” or “rebels” as defined in part three of this document, who articulated a vision of the favored outcome and put the issue on the public agenda for discussion. Missing from this discussion were the “societal change agents” and the “reformers” who nurture any emerging cultural consensus and bring about real institutional change.

The social change agent and the reformer marching into real danger. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (third from left) with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (right) at the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march. Photo c/o  Hebrew Union College.

Most of the space activists from the 1970's were academics and artists interested in commercializing their ideas and obtaining tenure in the educational system. Their roles didn't require real change in order for them to be perceived as being historically successful. They included:
  • Chesley Bonestell (1888-1986), an American painter, designer and illustrator, whose paintings were a major influence on science fiction art and illustration and who helped inspire the American space program. [iv]
  • Freeman Dyson (1923 - ), a theoretical physicist and mathematician, famous for his work in quantum electrodynamics, solid-state physics, astronomy and nuclear engineering, who also worked on the Orion Project, which proposed the possibility of space-flight using nuclear pulse propulsion and advocated space exploration and colonization. [v] 
  • Mark Hopkins (1949 - ), active today as the chairman of the executive committee for the National Space Society (NSS), he began his career during this period by being responsible for most of the early economic studies of space settlements and has been called the "Father of the Space Movement." [vi]
  • Kathy Keeton (1939 - 1997), the president of Omni Publications who, along with Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione (1930 - 2010) created Omni Magazine, the first of a new generation of mass marketed general science magazines which openly supported space activities and served as a forum to popularize space related developments. [vii]
  • Gerard K. O'Neill (1927 - 1992), an American physicist and space activist who developed the idea of a space habitat design known as the O'Neill cylinder and founded the Space Studies Institute (SSI), an organization devoted to funding research into space manufacturing and colonization. [vii]
  • Carl Sagan (1934 - 1996), the American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, science popularizer and communicator who  hosted the 1980 television program “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” published more than 600 scientific papers and articles during his career and authored, co-authored or edited more than 20 books. In 1980, he helped to form the Planetary Society. [x]
But as “citizens” and “rebels,” the advocates of this era, while providing alternatives to the existing way of doing things, weren't really going out and building things or providing practical suggestions to those who were. They were academics and artists, fascinated with the concepts surrounding the new ideas and interested in promoting those concepts in the abstract, but without the skill-set to actually build something.

There were no “social change agents” to nurture the emerging public consensus and no “reformers” to take control of the agenda and move the big ideas towards action.

And that, in a nutshell, is why we never moved out into space. Even worse, the 1986 Challenger disaster essentially halted funding on many of the projects near and dear to the space community.

But all was not lost. The "social change agents" and "reformers" who built hardware and helped humanity move our next space age forward, along with a discussion of their historical antecedents, will be the subject of another article in this series, after a discussion of the Canadian landscape.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

[i] "Reaching for the High Frontier: The American Pro-Space Movement, 1972-1984" by Michael A. G. Michaud at Last accessed September 17th, 2016. 
[ii] Ibid. 
[iii] As outlined in the October 9th, 2001 Space Daily article, “The Children of Apollo & Visions for the Future,” by Eric Strobel, at,  the “Children of Apollo” are members of the generation growing up during the 1960’s and 1970’s which feel “vaguely cheated that the nation that went from Kitty Hawk to Tranquility Base in a single lifetime seems likely to go no further in their lifetimes.” Last accessed September 16th, 2016. 
[iv] “Chesley Bonestell Artist Biography.” The Nova Space Art website at Last accessed September 16th, 2016. 
[v] “Freeman Dyson: The Scientist as Rebel,” The Academy of Achievement website at Last accessed September 16th, 2016.  
[vi] “Mark Hopkin Biography,” The National Space Society website at Last accessed September 16th, 2016. 
[vii] “Bob Guccione Biography,” The “Biography” website at Last accessed September 16th, 2016.  
[viii] “Gerald K. O’Neill,” The Space Frontier Society website at Last accessed September 16th, 2016.   
[ix] “Space: The Crucial Frontier – Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy,” by Howard Gluckman. L5 News, April 1981 at Last accessed September 16th, 2016. 
[x] “The Carl Sagan Portal” at Last accessed September 16th, 2016.
Last WeekVarying the Characters and Narrative to Move the Story Forward in Part Three of "So You Want to be a Space Advocate."

Next: Measuring the Current Canadian Space Sector as Part Five of "So You Want to be a Space Advocate" continues!


  1. Chuck. We're still here. A journey of a billion miles requires a first step. We (not a metaphorical we, but us of L5, now NSS) took those steps. We pushed where we could push. Our people grew in their professionally lives and went off and founded New Space companies. They started other space organizations. Take almost any route you chose and follow the names. You will end up with that group of us who started it all. - Dale Amon

    1. I know that, Dale.

      Keep in mind my overall argument is that four specific types of individuals are required for any specific advocacy to move forward.

      The rebels and reformers like Musk (and before him, Von Braun) were insufficient to move anything forward on their own without the groundwork laid by organizations like the National Space Society or the German Rocket Society (which was discussed in the November 16th, 2015 post, "A Short History of the Verein für Raumschiffahrt," at

      We'll discuss this more in part 5 of "So You Want to be a Space Advocate?"


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