Future Tense

We Need to Stop Talking About Space as a “Frontier”

The language we use matters, especially when it’s deployed in the service of envisioning possible futures.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by NASA and Thinkstock.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by NASA and Thinkstock.

On Sept. 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy addressed an audience of 35,000 people at Rice University in Houston and put forth his vision for sending an American to the moon before the end of the decade. Houston was NASA’s newly established center for human space flight, and Kennedy described how an infusion of science and engineering jobs would revitalize and make significant this region: “What was once the furthest outpost on the old frontier of the West will be the furthest outpost on the new frontier of science and space.”

A few weeks ago, sitting in a much smaller lecture hall at Rice University, I listened as NewSpace entrepreneur Rick Tumlinson articulated his vision for humanity’s future in space, a future that many have determined must be accomplished outside of the government. (“NewSpace” describes the individuals and companies advocating for and developing private, commercial space flight.) Even as Tumlinson claimed a radically different approach from the slow plodding of government-sponsored exploration, he relied on the same language and imagery of the frontier. Drawing from his “Manifesto for the Space Frontier,” he emphasized the need for governments that understand “the idea of an open and expanding human frontier in space, by, of and for the people.”

Comparing outer space to the frontier is so prevalent that it’s sometimes hard to remember that it is a metaphor, not an accurate portrayal of what lies beyond Earth. The commercial space industry prides itself on newness and novelty, and yet the reliance on the same old metaphor both limits the imagination of humans in space and glosses over the social and historical problems of imagining a frontier that is empty and beckoning. Further, given the changing geopolitics of the new space race and the necessity of international cooperation, couldn’t this specifically American metaphor hinder cooperation?

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner cemented the frontier as deeply American when, in his famous “Frontier Thesis” of 1893, he argued that American democracy is a product of the frontier. In Turner’s telling, the frontier was the wild space beyond settled cities of the East Coast—a proving ground for what Turner called the “vital forces” of uniquely American institutions. The image of the tough, grizzly settler became associated with the frontier, but so too was the frontier a space to experiment with governance and freedoms. Of course, the frontier wasn’t a place of unbridled progress. Turner briefly touched upon the dangers of “democracy born of free land.” He mentioned economic pitfalls, specifically currency inflation, and in a footnoted aside he acknowledged the gamblers and desperado “scum,” also a product of the frontier.

Turner was compelled to examine the historical significance of the frontier in light of the 1890 census, in which the frontier was declared “closed.” If, as Turner wrote, “frontier individualism has from the beginning promoted democracy,” what would happen to the nation’s future without a frontier to explore?

Thus began a long tradition (still being practiced) of declaring new American frontiers. In 1945, Vannevar Bush expanded on Franklin Roosevelt’s charge to set forth a vision of government investment in “new frontiers of the mind.” Bush described science as “the endless frontier” and wrote to the president, “The pioneer spirit is still vigorous within this nation. Science offers a largely unexplored hinterland for the pioneer.” As with the Western frontier, taming science promised a stronger, more secure nation and even ensured “cultural progress.”

Kennedy built on this imagination of mental frontiers, naming his political platform the “New Frontier” and including space exploration alongside other scientific and social challenges. Of all these new frontiers, outer space was the most literal: It was the final frontier, as Star Trek’s Captain Kirk would intone in 1966. Astronauts became the new cowboys, training for trips to the moon in the deserts of the American West. Space was their dueling ground, where NASA sought to outshoot Soviet communism with American democracy.

The frontier language challenged the government to make a sustained push toward settlement and exploration ever farther from Earth. But following the end of the Apollo program in 1972, it became clear that the government was not going to fulfill the promise of the frontier metaphor. Eugene Shoemaker, who was involved in astronaut training, described in an oral history interview how he once tried to compare the American West with Apollo to encourage NASA not to retreat from the new frontier. In the end, Shoemaker reflected, “the early exploration of the American west led to evolving, continuing, growing scientific enterprise. The Apollo program didn’t.”

In this leadership void, other individuals and groups picked up the frontier mantle. Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill repeatedly tried to get NASA and the broader public interested in long-term, off-planet human space settlement. The first book in which he outlined this vision was The High Frontier, published in 1976. O’Neill’s research engendered a fierce following, and in 1988, a few of these acolytes (including Tumlinson) founded the Space Frontier Foundation intent on pursuing this vision of space colonization outside of the traditional, government-funded route.

Today, Tumlinson continues to advocate for human space settlement and places himself in the company (though not the net worth) of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson, who are all entrepreneurial pioneers of the space frontier. During his talk at Rice, Tumlinson explained his current initiative of asteroid mining. He framed it against a very specific lesson from the frontier: the importance of living off the land. The asteroids will not be mined for precious minerals to return to Earth but rather for water to be used in space. “Water,” Tumlinson explained, extending the frontier metaphor, “is the gold of space for us.” Water can be used as a propellant and, if mined in space, can cut down on a major expense of spaceflight. If reading about mining asteroids makes you a bit nervous that human space settlement is bound to repeat environmental mistakes of the past, you are not alone. The frontier metaphor sets up outer space as a passive landscape with no purpose other than human sustenance.

I am not the first to point out the problems inherent in this metaphor, both in terms of its ideology of imperial expansion as well as its failure to account for the fact that Native Americans very much already occupied the frontier. In fact, even Tumlinson, who unabashedly uses this metaphor, is aware that it is imperfect. During his talk he took the time to address those who would urge him to find new language. Following slides showing images of exploring and settling the American West (of Lewis and Clark, of settlers on horseback pulling covered wagons), Tumlinson assured his audience that in drawing on the frontier metaphor, he is not condoning the destruction of Native American communities or the spread of small pox. If you ignore these bad historical associations, Tumlinson argued, you’re left with an otherwise compelling model of space settlement. As if one can take the good parts of a metaphor, setting the unseemly ones aside.

But mobilizations of the frontier metaphor from Turner to today don’t just ignore the historical reality of war, disease, and environmental destruction. The Americanness of the frontier metaphor is also at odds with the need for international cooperation in the new era of space exploration. While the frontier might inspire Tumlinson and his fellow American baby boomers, does it have salience more broadly? As we try and move from a model of space competition to space cooperation, does the frontier, which necessarily pits “us” against “them,” undermine the peaceful expansion many imagine?

One might be inclined to agree with Tumlinson that referencing the frontier is simply meant to garner interest and we should neither get hung up on its historical problems nor read too much into its Americanness: Just as the bad parts of the metaphor can be dismissed, non-Americans can find inspiration in the bigger vision that the frontier stands for.

But the language we use matters, especially when it’s deployed in the service of envisioning possible futures. How we describe space can both expand and constrict our imagination. When we lean too hard on nationalistic language of the frontier and settlement, we imagine a far too narrow set of possibilities for being in space. What if, instead, we were to extend James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis’ “Gaia hypothesis” as a metaphor for NewSpace endeavors. In the early 1970s, they offered a way of thinking about Earth (humans included) as an interdependent, self-correcting ecosystem. So can we apply that same thinking to the stuff beyond Earth? Instead of asteroids lying in wait as resources on the frontier, they can be imagined as part of a delicately balanced ecosystem. Anthropologist Valerie Olson has already been investigating how such “systems thinking” informs much of NASA’s contemporary human space flight research, and perhaps this offers a new, if less romantic, language of exploration. Or what if we undermined the very emptiness that the phrase outer space suggests by referring instead to the cosmos as outer place? We need language that holistically frames our studies and endeavors to live beyond Earth, language that doesn’t have deep roots in nationalistic and imperial thinking.

Even as NewSpace declares its mission in service of all humanity, the insistence of understanding space as a frontier might not resonate with all of humanity. As NewSpace companies launch more rockets, raise more money, forge new partnerships, I hope they also start crafting new, varied language that will help us expand our thinking beyond the singular frontier to a plurality of extraterrestrial opportunity.

This article is part of the new space race installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.