Visionaries Of The Open Frontier

By Frank White

Copyright © 1995, Frank White, All Rights Reserved

The frontier has called to humanity for millennia. However, in the past two hundred years or so, a few humans have come to realize that the next real frontier is no longer on this planet, but in outer space. A few of these “visionaries of the open frontier” have seen that future human evolution will accelerate in the unbounded ecological range offered by the universe. Transformations in thought, behavior and social institutions will begin in the solar system beyond Earth, and continue as we move out into nearby star systems and the galaxy beyond.

In this series, we look at four of these visionaries, beginning with Konstantine Tsiolkovsky.


Konstantin Tsiolkovsky: Prophet of the Frontier

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s place in the annals of human thought regarding space exploration is unique, because he so clearly understood that the primary issue was one of human evolution, and he saw it so early. It is becoming increasingly clear to us today that the universe is a near-infinite environment, the exploration of which will almost inevitably generate fundamental changes in human beings. Indeed, “homo sapiens ” may well evolve into a new species, “homo spaciens,” which is more suited to life on the frontier than on Earth.

Tsiolkovsky was an unlikely philosopher of the space movement, working, as he did, as a schoolteacher in rural nineteenth century Russia. However, he anticipated many of the technological elements of human expansion into space. Even more important is the fact that he also foresaw the philosophical issues raised by space exploration.

He had been influenced by another obscure philosopher of space, Nikolai Fyodorov, chief cataloger in the Moscow library. Fyodorov viewed human beings as fulfilling an important purpose within the universe as a whole, functioning as a kind of balancing mechanism of cosmic energies.

Tsiolkovsky turned Fyodorov’s insights, and his own, into the first “space program” of modern times. He laid out fourteen steps that humanity might take into the universe, which included convincing descriptions of multi-staged spacecraft and orbiting space stations. In addition, however, he asserted that the final, fourteenth, step would be the “perfection of mankind.” This link between space exploration and human progress is often implicit in the thinking of today’s space philosophers, but rarely is it as explicit has Tsiolkovsky made it. It’s hard to argue against the proposition that living on the Frontier, with high levels of radiation, reduced gravity, and other unknown environmental variables, will change humanity’s physical makeup over time. Insofar as the brain is physical, it will transform thought processes as well. Will it, however, change humanity’s ethical and moral architecture? Konstantin Tsiolkovsky argued that it will, while many opponents space exploration argue that it will not.

Human thought has already undergone significant shifts because of our initial forays onto the Frontier. “The Overview Effect,” or experience of seeing the planet as a whole from Earth orbit and the moon, is rendering old ideas of human identity obsolete, for example. However, this is only the beginning. As humans continue to explore, we will see ourselves in new relationships with the solar system, galaxy and universe as a whole. Moreover, we may begin to see ourselves through the evolved, and even “alien” eyes of “homo spaciens”.

Will we become better beings, or worse? Perhaps evolution does not hold the key to humanity’s perfection, but only a simple return, in our current form, to a better relationship with Divine Will. There is, of course, one sure way to find out, and that is to explore the Frontier, as Tsiolkovsky advocated.


Wernher von Braun: Rocket Man

What are we to make of Werner von Braun, the prototypical “rocket scientist” whose determination and genius were embodied in both the V-2 rockets that brought death and destruction to Britain during World War II, and the Saturn V that took the first humans to the moon some twenty-five years later?

Like much of the early space programs in both the US and the USSR, we find that an effort that could contribute to peace is also inextricably intertwined with suffering and war.

Perhaps we must simply leave it at that, and note that if von Braun and his colleagues had been captured by the Red Army instead of American soldiers in the waning days of WWII, history would have been quite different. Indeed, the present era would not have the same shape and substance because the Soviets would have been far more likely to have won the space race with von Braun in their camp.

In the late 1950’s, von Braun and his team were working with the US Army at Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Alabama. In 1957, the US was shocked into action by the successful launching of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. The initial efforts by the US to catch up, embodied in the Vanguard program, failed. It was only when the job was turned over to the von Braun team that the first American satellite made it into orbit.

Von Braun and his people continued to play a major role in the US manned space program, through Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. They were key to developing the Saturn V rocket that powered the lunar missions, a feat that we would be hard-pressed to match even today. In terms of the physical achievements of space exploration, then, we have to give credit to von Braun for taking humanity to the moon. However, his work also had a philosophical impact, which we will now consider.

Von Braun, like many of his contemporaries, had a vision of human exploration of the solar system, which he laid out for American audiences in the early 1950’s. He saw a space station in Low Earth Orbit, and a presence on the moon, but Mars was his ultimate goal. In a very real sense, he gave reality to the whole concept of a “space program” as a logical series of steps out from the home planet and into the solar system.

With hindsight, we can see that in addition to his practical contributions to Apollo’s landing on the moon, von Braun helped to set a specific image of human space exploration in our minds, i.e., the massive government-supported space venture. As we move away from that paradigm, we may well be able to re-think and re-evaluate von Braun’s true contribution to the opening of the frontier.

Today, we are slowly but surely convincing policymakers that, while government may have a role on the frontier, it should be that of opening the frontier for everyone, not monopolizing the entire exploration effort. If Apollo had begun a process of establishing a moon base, it would have been more consistent with not only today’s open frontier vision, but perhaps with von Braun’s as well.

Even if the overall paradigm shifts, there will still be major missions, such as going to Mars, that might require an Apollo-type program. If so, we should bear in mind that the program is intended to support a process, not to serve as an end in itself.


John F. Kennedy: Architect of Apollo

The role of John F. Kennedy, President of the United States from 1961 to 1963, in the human movement onto the frontier, has been a matter of some debate within the space movement. In our consideration of former President Kennedy’s contribution, we will look at the critical side of the equation and then at the positive view. Later, we will try to reconcile these two perspectives.

On the one hand, then, there are those who see the Apollo program as a distraction that took us away from a more incremental movement off-planet, beginning with a presence in Low Earth Orbit or at one of the libration points, and then moving outward to the moon, Mars and beyond. These critics would also argue that Apollo forever inscribed in the minds of humanity a false image of what space exploration ought to be, i.e., a big, expensive, government program designed to serve terrestrial political purposes alone. The final rap against President Kennedy is that he didn’t care particularly about opening the frontier. He was really interested in finding something spectacular that the United States could do to show American superiority to the Soviet Union. Apollo turned out to fit the bill, but it could have been something else, and the President would have been satisfied.

On the other hand, there are those who see Apollo as the crowning achievement of human space activity on the frontier, a benchmark, a standard against which all other efforts can be measured. These proponents of the Kennedy legacy would argue that Apollo gave us the view of the Earth from space, (which I have called “The Overview Effect”) and that the value of the resulting shift in consciousness is itself worth all the money spent on Apollo. The program also showed what humans can do on the frontier when they are provided with a vision and clear goal, such as, “Put a man on the moon and bring him safely back to Earth by the end of the decade.”

Finally, supporters of Kennedy’s contribution might well note that he must have had some understanding of the meaning of space exploration, having dubbed his entire Administration “The New Frontier.”

Over thirty years after his untimely death, we must acknowledge, with the brilliance born of hindsight, that everything said about President Kennedy’s contribution to our movement is at least partially true. The Apollo program was a detour and a benchmark, a distraction and a triumph. When Apollo 8 turned its cameras back and showed us the whole Earth, we knew, without a doubt, that we were all riding through the universe on a beautiful blue and white spaceship. When Apollo 11 landed on the moon, we knew, for the first time ever, what it felt like to be a multi-planet species. When Gene Cernan, the last human to walk on the moon, climbed into the lunar module and said good-bye, some of us felt that something unique was coming to an end. Thus, Apollo inspired us and left us feeling let down. Perhaps most of all, it filled us with a longing for what might have been — if we had simply continued.

At a recent Space Frontier Foundation meeting, Rick Tumlinson dubbed us “Apollo’s Children,” a phrase which also gave the event its name. In a way, he’s right. For many of us who came of age in the 1960’s, it was President Kennedy and Apollo that gave us the vision we still carry, no matter how it has altered and transformed itself with time.

Kennedy said that space was a sea on which we must sail, and he was right; because we can’t stay in home port (on home planet) forever. He said we would do it not because it was easy, but because it was hard, and he was right, because that is the true spirit of the frontier. He also said that the price of freedom is high, but Americans have always been willing to pay it, and he was right, because ensuring human freedom is what opening the frontier is all about, and the price will, eventually, be paid.

In the end, opening the frontier will not be the story of any one person’s contribution, but of the small and large contributions of thousands, even millions of people. Each of our stories will probably contain many of the ambiguities we find in the Kennedy legacy. With the brilliance born of hindsight, what will our descendants say of us?


Gerard K. O’Neill: Father of Space Settlements

Not long after the Apollo 11 landing on the moon, a Princeton physics professor asked his class to think about the best place to construct large-scale human settlements beyond the planet Earth. Up until that moment, most people, working under the influence of generations of science fiction writers, had assumed that humans who moved off the Earth would live on the surface of the moon or on Mars.

The professor, Gerard K. O’Neill, and his students, may have started with those same preconceptions, but they concluded their analysis with a startling series of insights that has transformed our thinking about human evolution into the universe.

O’Neill and the class determined that a planetary surface would not be the optimum site for space settlements, largely because of the energy required to land on and take off from such a surface. They also realized that the best way to build a space settlement would be to “live off the land” like earlier terrestrial pioneers, using extraterrestrial materials for construction, rather than dragging those materials out from Earth.

What emerged was the visionary concept of space settlements built in free space, housing up to 10,000 people, powered by the unlimited and non-polluting energy of the sun. The libration points between the Earth and the Moon were found to be the most stable places for such communities, and the fifth of these, L5, the best spot of all.

O’Neill and his students had transformed the paradigm of space settlement thinking.

While many observers would say that O’Neill’s most important conceptual breakthroughs came in the distinctions between living in free space and on planetary surfaces, the most significant transformation in thinking was really the idea of the frontier as a place where all human beings could go and realize their full potential. O’Neill articulated his vision in a book, The High Frontier, which immediately became a popular antidote to the “limits to growth” thinking that came to permeate the 1970s.

O’Neill and his class spawned a movement that is likely to turn into a revolution.

Consistent with his vision that the high frontier (a phrase he coined and popularized in his first book) should be an environment of opportunity for all, Gerard K. O’Neill founded the Space Studies Institute(SSI) in the 1970’s. SSI soon became a rallying point for those interested in a space movement rather than a space program. It was privately supported by memberships, and took little or no government money.

O’Neill and SSI originally focused on the technical side of space settlements, i.e., how to mine extraterrestrial materials, transport them to Lagrange points and build space habitats. Soon, however, the Institute became a magnet for those interested in the human implications of opening up the frontier. Doctors, lawyers, management consultants, philosophers and sociologists all found a home under the large umbrella that had been opened up by O’Neill and SSI.

O’Neill himself was unique in that, from the beginning, he made a connection between space settlements and the betterment of humanity. The High Frontier is replete with analyses of the benefits of moving polluting industries into space, and the advantages of creating small human communities beyond Earth orbit.

During his lifetime, Gerard O’Neill rarely received the credit that was due him, but he always worked to have a positive impact, in whatever role came his way. Appointed to be a member of the President’s National Commission on Space in 1985, he helped move that group toward his vision of an open frontier, and partly through his efforts, the commission’s report, Pioneering the Space Frontier, advocated a vigorous and visionary US space program that may yet come into being.

As our world approaches the beginning of a new century and a new millennium, we are the keepers of the flame that was lit by Gerard O’Neill and his class nearly thirty years ago. It is our choice whether it becomes a beacon of hope throughout the universe or sputters and dies on a small planet at the edge of a spiral galaxy.

The High Frontier project is a joint effort of the Space Studies Institute and the Space Frontier Foundation.