Beyond Bureaucratic Policy:
The Spaceflight Movement

by William Sims Bainbridge
Pages 153-163 in People in Space, edited by James Everett Katz (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction, 1985).

The Spaceflight Movement
The German Case
The Current Malaise
New Initiatives Promoted
Money Problems and the Search for Life
Parallel Support from Science Fiction
The Military Provides a New Boost
Toward an Interstellar Civilization


The aim of the spaceflight movement - exploration and colonization of the universe - is so vast and revolutionary that it cannot be achieved by the ordinary operation of day-to-day social forces and institutions. Consequently, we must be prepared to think in imaginative ways if we are to understand how this "giant step" in human history may come about.

One critical fact to consider when examining the prospects for space colonization is that we are not in contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. Even if only one star in a million produces intelligent life, a hundred thousand civilizations would appear in our galaxy. Simple calculations suggest that a single colonizing species could fill the galaxy in a few million years, far less than the time since civilization probably began to appear.[1] Thus, either these calculations are wrong or interstellar colonization must be exceedingly difficult and unlikely.[2] Yet technology capable of achieving it can already be sketched. Therefore, the apparent lack of colonization may be due to social rather than technological considerations.[3]

As technology advances, we can better fulfill our needs by reengineering not only our environment but also our species itself. Birth control seems to solve population pressures better than does interplanetary colonization.[4] A static industrial base might be more satisfactory than the heroic mining of the asteroids. Direct intervention in human genetics and brain physiology can end crime and deviance, even to the point of reducing mankind to automatons.[5] Bread can be manufactured from sewage, and circuses can be simulated with computer graphics. Once a species has the power to transform itself to satisfy itself, it has no utilitarian need to explore and conquer the universe. The threat of self-annihilation, whether through nuclear war or some other miss-application of science, may be overcome. A species might establish an absolute cultural and political "freeze" in the service of its own preservation. Perhaps only highly unlikely and risky accidents, occurring just before a species arrives at such a stasis, can propel it out across the gulf of space to the stars.

The Spaceflight Movement

In the Issue of Time magazine marking the tenth anniversary of the first moon landing, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke gave additional support for a main finding of my 1976 study of the spaceflight movement: "Space travel is a technological mutation that should not really have arrived until the 21st century. But thanks to the ambition and genius of Wernher von Braun and Sergei Korolev, and their influence upon individuals as disparate as Kennedy and Khrushchev, the moon -- like the South Pole -- was reached half a century ahead of time."[6] A similar view was expressed by Bruce Murray, until recently head of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory: "I think Apollo was an anomaly -- we were lucky. It happened four decades too early, and Voyager and Viking and the rest were all spinoffs from that."[7] These leaders of the spaceflight movement express the faith that space travel is a natural development for humanity which was speeded up by the activism of their movement. But my research on the social history of rocketry suggests to me that the moon never would have been visited at all were it not for the perilous machinations of the movement. Interplanetary colonization and interstellar exploration demand similarly astonishing miracles.

But the spaceflight movement is now fractionated and not accomplishing very much, quite in contrast to the great milestones it achieved in the 1960s. The current malaise stems partly from the movement's success. What began as the parallel behavior of isolated intellectuals evolved through a phase of collective behavior as a minor fad and organized itself into a true social movement. But now it has been greatly absorbed into societal institutions.[8] To the extent that it has been captured by conventional bureaucracies, the spaceflight movement can no longer promote revolution.

It began almost simultaneously in four great nations: Germany, the Soviet Union, Britain, and the United States. First, individual theorists like Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, and Oberth developed the principles of space travel. This was the phase of parallel behavior -individuals doing essentially the same thing but without any communication among them. Then a cascade of books, articles, and lectures established networks of communication and a shared space culture. This was the phase of collective behavior - individuals influencing one another but without formal planning and organization. Soon the moderate level of organization that defines a social movement was achieved in the founding of amateur space travel clubs in Germany (1927), the United States (1930), the Soviet Union (1931), and Great Britain (1933). In most respects this was an elite rather than a mass movement. The founders were an intellectual elite but generally without much personal power or wealth.

The German Case

The German club experimented with simple liquid fuel rockets and grew to include a thousand members.[9] But all attempts to find sufficient resources to build a real spaceship seemed doomed to failure. Corporations put in a little money, then lost interest. Where was the profit to be made in space? True, corporations are interested in near-Earth space today, but only because a start-up investment of $100 billion has already been made by government to develop the technology. And the general public will not even support modern charities adequately, a job largely taken over by government, let alone raise through voluntary contributions the immense sums required for spaceflight. But as it died in the deepening economic collapse of the Great Depression, the club found a strategy that would work: a military detour.

During the Nazi era, a young aristocrat, Wernher von Braun, persuaded the German military to build the V-2 rocket; Apollo's Saturn V booster, which took a man to the moon, was its direct descendent. Again and again, von Braun and other leaders of the movement essentially succeeded with trickery as the tactic to get societal leaders to invest in space technology. The precondition for success was a powerful patron locked in combat with an opponent who had just achieved an advantage over the patron. The spaceman, a movement leader like von Braun, went to the patron offering his rocket technology as a way of outflanking the opponent to gain a counter-advantage. The patron had to be sufficiently ignorant of the proposal's technological difficulties, and hold sufficient independent power, that his pressing needs could drive him to sponsor the spaceman's project. Whether the new technology would really help the patron or not - and often it could not - it would further the cause of space.

Consider the German army between the wars. Defeated by the Allies and severely restricted by treaty, it could not defend its own nation from the French invasion of the Ruhr in 1923. The agreements ending World War I restricted German artillery but said nothing about rockets. Thus, the army allowed itself to be convinced by von Braun to develop long-range liquid fuel rockets as a way of redressing the great disadvantage it suffered with respect to the Allies. This was a conscious trick by von Braun. The right technology for most military purposes involves solid fuels, requiring solution of a very different set of technical problems. While von Braun's V-2 did kill more than 4,000 persons, I believe that these resources would have served the Nazis much better if they had been invested in the Me-262 jet interceptor, the crude V-1 buzz bomb, or even in ordinary armaments. It was not until the 1950s, when Soviet and U.S. versions of the V-2 could carry nuclear warheads, that a cost effective weapon emerged. Today most U.S. missiles use solid fuels, which are poorly adapted for space purposes.

After the war, von Braun and others performed similar maneuvers to gain the support of Kennedy and Johnson, as did the Soviet branch of the movement in exploiting the fears and military weaknesses of Stalin and Khrushchev.[10] It is noteworthy that the man who led the Russian space program that developed the Sputnik launcher was Sergei Korolev, president of the entirely amateur Soviet space club in the early 1930s.

The spaceflight movement exploited military and political tensions, in far more cases than I could list here, to move toward its goal of interplanetary flight and colonization. This was a tightrope walk across a moral abyss. It would be nice if social and cultural progress resulted from clear, consensual decisions openly and freely made by all people of the world in an atmosphere of good will. But that is not how history works.

The Current Malaise

The successes that led to a lunar landing have not been matched in the post-Apollo period. Neil Armstrong garbled his great words about his "one small step..." as if the present confused situation of spaceflight demanded a confused prophecy. For the past fifteen years, unlike earlier years, there have not been good opportunities to exploit and it is hard to see how they will come again.

In great measure, the movement has become institutionalized, an adjunct to the military-industrial complex. There is no free amateur club left in the Soviet Union, and the U.S. club has evolved into the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), the paramount aerospace technical society, two-thirds of whose members are from the government or corporations. But the movement lives, in a swarm of small, marginal organizations. In 1953, space enthusiasts dissatisfied with the increasing conservatism of the AIAA founded the American Astronautical Society. In 1981, Trudy E. Bell was able to tabulate 11 trade or professional space groups, 39 independent space-boosting groups, and a further 9 space-sympathetic groups. By 1984 this total was even larger. Bell intentionally excluded from consideration the less respectable mystical, religious, or counter-cultural wings of the movement, and did not count foreign space societies. Although the citizen groups mainly do inexpensive volunteer space-boosting, their aggregate annual budget had by 1980 already passed $4 million.

Some of these groups have developed elaborate, technically detailed plans for future space projects, notably the L-5 Society, which wants us to build floating cities at the vertex of an equilateral triangle based on the Earth and moon. Perhaps because of the vast cost of such an undertaking, L-5 has been unable to provide a reasonable economic prospectus or a workable political plan to bring its dreams to realization.

Far more realistic, but unlimited in its ultimate aims, is the Planetary Society, founded by scientists Carl Sagan and Bruce Murray, with now over a hundred thousand members. The introductory brochure says, "The Planetary Society is devoted to encouraging, supporting and participating in the greatest adventure the human species may ever know-the exploration of the solar system, the search for planets around other stars and the quest for extraterrestrial life and intelligence." Through continual media events and by sponsoring modest technical projects, the society believes it can inch humankind along the long road to the society's goals.

Some groups even attempt to develop their own space technology. A few years ago, the Committee for the Future tried to buy a surplus Saturn V launch vehicle and plant a scale-model colony on the moon. Although the patrons of the committee were wealthy, the project fell through, and it has become apparent that no private group can currently garner enough resources for spaceflight. But perhaps smaller contributions can be made. The Independent Space Research Group is preparing an amateur space telescope for launch by the Space Shuttle. Ham radio enthusiasts have participated in the space program since the beginning, not only monitoring artificial satellites but even getting some modest ones of their own into orbit when larger payloads were being launched.

New Initiatives Promoted

In 1981, the World Space Foundation unveiled - or more accurately, unfolded - the world's first prototype solar-sail space vehicle. Partly financed by the Charles A. Lindbergh Fund, this project falls short of providing a functioning interplanetary probe, but it does demonstrate a direction engineers might go to develop a cheap means of propulsion.

Several of the more sober organizations collect money for astronomical research projects modest enough to be funded privately yet capable of deepening our understanding of the universe and providing the information necessary for an interplanetary civilization. For example, astronomers at the University of Arizona have a series of projects to find, catalogue, and study asteroids, the small rocky worlds that orbit in several groups outward from Earth in the solar system. They have sought support from the Planetary Society and the Space Studies Institute. The World Space Foundation also contributes to asteroid studies.

Money Problems and the Search for Life

Perhaps more exciting is the project at the University of Pittsburgh to renovate an existing telescope so that it can make the precise measurements of star positions required to deduce the existence of planets in other solar systems. This is difficult work, and prior reports of such discoveries, published over the past forty years, are currently discounted by astronomers. But the University of Pittsburgh project has a good chance of discovering several sets of planets, thus providing not only data for testing scientific theories but also a great boost to public enthusiasm for deep-space research. Because the cost involved is only about $200,000, private funding is quite feasible. Important contributions have come from the Extrasolar Planetary Foundation, established in 1980 especially to garner public support for such research.

Other projects to detect extrasolar planets are being carried forth by observatories and astronomers funded by more ordinary means. In August 1983, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite detected cool material in orbit around the star Vega, but the fact that Vega is a relatively young star means that the radiation may be from a large number of small objects, rather than from fully formed planets. This astronomical satellite, funded by the governments of Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States, is also capable of detecting previously undiscovered asteroids in our own solar system. Still, money collected by public subscription may be wasted if invested in private research projects that are not coordinated with research in the same fields conducted by NASA and the leading observatories. Indeed, public donations of only a few thousand dollars could provide the computer time and technicians' salaries required to complete analysis of vast quantities of untouched data from past space missions, going back to the Lunar Orbiter project of the 1960s. NASA prefers to spend its money on new missions, so private funds to complete analysis of already-collected data could help move other projects forward, as well as tidy up the loose ends of old research.

Public fund drives played a major role in building the great U.S. astronomical observatories of the nineteenth century. The 1856 report of the Harvard Observatory lists contributions from over a hundred of Boston's elite, sums ranging from $20 to $100,000. The Cincinnati Observatory was funded primarily by the middle class in a drive to which about 800 persons contributed. The August 1846 issue of The Siderial Messenger, a popular newsletter of astronomy, gave the occupations of 535 contributors. There were 45 in the legal professions, 29 in financial institutions, 30 teachers and clergymen, 41 physicians and druggists, 34 persons living from rents, 16 in publishing, and 117 miscellaneous merchants among those who donated cash; but there were also 43 in metalworking, 36 in woodworking, 9 masons and plasterers, 25 hardware and lumber merchants, and 44 miscellaneous makers and manufacturers, many of whom donated their labor and products rather than money. Thus, over a century ago, Americans in significant number were prepared to support astronomical projects through public subscription. What has been done before can be done again.

In recent years, government funding of modest projects to search the sky for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations has switched on and off unpredictably, but the public shows sustained interest.[11] Even mere detection of another civilization out across the stars, before any decipherment of the message, would shock a drowsy and unimaginative world into a wholly new perspective on the meaning of life and the proper future course of civilization. In 1983, with funding from the Planetary Society, physicist Paul Horowitz of Harvard embarked on a search using a 128,000-channel receiver he developed, that is attached to the university's 84-foot radio telescope. If another civilization is intentionally directing high-power radio signals at Earth, Horowitz has a chance of finding it. But his radio telescope is not sensitive enough to "eavesdrop" on the ordinary radio communications of even a nearby extraterrestrial society. Thus, his project may produce unjust discouragement if it fails to detect signals over the next few years; there is good reason to doubt the wisdom of insufficiently funded marginal searches which might ultimately do more to block interstellar contact than to achieve it.

Frank Drake of Cornell University has estimated that a seven-year program costing only $2 million a year stands a good chance of success using the most modern detection methods, but some of the projects that have been sketched would be far more expensive than this.[12] Through mass media programs like Carl Sagan's science television series Cosmos, and Steven Spielberg's films Close Encounters and E.T., the public has been led to believe that extraterrestrial societies may not be difficult to find. But serious estimates of the number of habitable planets involve great uncertainties,[13] and the apparent absence of extraterrestrial visitors on Earth has led some scientists to conclude that humanity may be alone in the galaxy.[14] From the same facts, Schwartzman has derived the opinion that expensive attempts to communicate with extraterrestrials by radio are unnecessary because they are already watching us.[15] Furthermore, it is not clear that successful communication with an advanced civilization would be good for us. Space research might degenerate to a passive scholasticism, cataloging and interpreting the signals of extraterrestrials rather than also launching an aggressive program to explore and colonize the universe ourselves.[16]

Parallel Support from Science Fiction

Since before the beginning of the spaceflight movement, public enthusiasm has been encouraged by the parallel cultural movement, science fiction. Quantitative research I carried out on science fiction (SF) literature indicated that it really promulgates three competing ideologies about the future, only one of them enthusiastically supportive of the physical sciences and technology in general. But the field achieves a high level of consensus in favor of space travel. While the SF subculture is escapist, and does not directly launch effective campaigns for action, it instills favorable attitudes toward spaceflight and suggests that mankind can find among the stars a fulfillment of all the hopes and desires frustrated in the mundane world of ordinary society.

The youth counterculture that resisted militarism and promoted psychedelics in the 1960s has contributed a "hippie wing" to the movement. For a time, drug guru Timothy Leary expressed a poetic philosophy of outer space consciousness. A California organization that represents this uninhibited brand of activism is United For Our Expanded Space Program. Its initials of course spell out "UFO-ESP," and members describe themselves as "radical politically-active spacers." Among the other causes of this group is legalization of marijuana.

Far out from the military-industrial core of the original spaceflight movement is the fully cultic fringe, a large collection of flying saucer groups and extraterrestrial visitation cults which are an embarrassment to the rocket engineers and astronomers but which nonetheless may be of great social significance in the distant future. The most aggressive of these, Scientology, stands a good chance of becoming an influential, large denomination in the next century, following the trajectory of Mormonism, which was launched a hundred twenty years earlier.[17] At present, there are at least thirteen flying saucer religious cults in the United States,[18] but none seems destined for success. Ours is an age of religious innovation, however, and several utterly new religions of consequence will emerge from the tangle of little cults.[19] Perhaps Scientology will not be the only one of them to place conquest of the universe among its ultimate values.

The Military Provides a New Boost

Some of the most important fragments of the spaceflight movement operate unnamed and unseen inside the military-industrial complex. Among these is a strong "star wars" movement to develop high-power lasers and other beam weapons capable of knocking out reconnaissance satellites and perhaps even ICBMs. The magazine Aviation Week has continually urged development of orbiting battle stations since May 1977, when a long article warned that the Soviets' beam-weapon defenses against U.S. missiles would give them absolute freedom to undertake political expansion. A countermovement, seeking to halt development of beam weapons, finds its expression through the pages of Science and Scientific American. But without the right security clearance and connections, one can only guess what momentous decisions are being made behind closed doors.

Thus, the spaceflight movement may be on the verge of another successful military detour, as engineers interested in fulfilling their own career ambitions and personal dreams exploit the military's and political leaders' concerns about national security to the advantage of astronautics. The result may further world peace, this time, rather than war. Years ago, the Austrian space pioneer Eugen Saenger suggested that orbiting beam-weapon defenses might be the only means for ending the threat of nuclear destruction because they could stop attacking missiles or bombers without being capable of damaging civilian targets.[20] In March 1983, President Reagan announced his support of a similar idea, and in September an independent space group, High Frontier, established a political action committee to lobby for it.

One purpose of governments is to establish standardized means for settling disputes between powerful groups in society. But they are ill designed to deal with the great philosophical issues faced by the individual and by the human species, and cannot in the course of their ordinary operations plan and carry out cultural evolution to an entirely new level of existence. While radical social movements are extremely dangerous in this age of impending Armageddon, I think it is only they that can drive Earth to develop an interstellar civilization.

At present, the public spaceflight organizations are inoffensive and practically impotent. The profusion of activist groups does much to keep the universe in the public eye, and they may accomplish modest technical projects of some value to the future. Social conditions do not currently seem to exist which these groups could exploit to achieve further great leaps in space. Progressive militarization may produce the large orbital launch fleet required to support a system of beam-weapon battle stations. Colonization of the planets and exploration of the galaxy require the mobilization of extraordinary social forces. Barring some utterly unexpected technical breakthrough, conquest of the universe would require Earth to invest perhaps $100 trillion without a significant economic return. Only a mighty upheaval of the human spirit can accomplish this.

Toward an Interstellar Civilization

Interstellar civilization would represent a level of organization and culture immeasurably beyond anything yet achieved on our tiny planet. We may be incapable of imagining the stages of societal evolution that would bridge the immense gap from the present to that distant future. If interstellar civilization were easy, then the Earth would long since have been colonized from outside. But this does not appear to be the case. I suspect most intelligent species kill themselves or merely fade away, dying with a bang or a whimper. Maybe one in a thousand (or a million) bursts out of the confines of its solar system, driven by a radical religion, political movement, or internal conflict, to colonize a whole galaxy. Although the power to voyage across the stars implies the power of self-annihilation, a rare postindustrial society may somehow sail the tight course between quick immolation and slow decay.

We generally assume the current international balance of terror is a bad thing. The chance of sudden species death is all too real. But if we take seriously the conjecture that most technical civilizations that avoid violent suicide achieve the same thing more slowly through stasis, another perspective becomes plausible. Ours may be the best of all possible worlds, after all - or at least the best this side of Andromeda. Today's dire atomic threat may be historically necessary as a precondition for ultimate success. Perhaps the military phase of astronautics must proceed until large launch systems have been developed, and a transcendent social movement can take charge of colonization of the solar system, in turn providing the economic and technical base for interstellar travel. This must happen quickly, if the fall into stasis is to be avoided, so the course of history must run very close to Armageddon until the planets and their moons are won.

Ordinary bureaucratic policy will never take us to the stars. Perhaps a new religious denomination will appear, marching to the faith that the gods dwell somewhere across the universe waiting for us to visit them. Or perhaps the hope that will focus our energies skyward will be the belief that other civilizations have solved the problems which threaten to destroy us, and that they will give us guidance if only we can contact them.

The first phase of space progress was achieved by a social movement operating outside the ordinary institutions of society, but exploiting them whenever possible. Future revolutionary progress may follow the same course. In the end, the earthbound governments that currently set modest space policies may have to be transcended or abandoned. At present, the movement is biding its time, rallying public support and achieving small gains, waiting for those cataclysmic social conditions which might be exploited in a new rush forward.


1. Eric M. Jones, "Colonization of the Galaxy," Icarus 28 (1976): 421-22; Michael H. Hart, "An Explanation for the Absence of Extraterrestrials on Earth," Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 16 (1975): 128-35; J. N. Clarke, "Extraterrestrial Intelligence and Galactic Nuclear Activity," Icarus 46 (1981): 94-96.

2. Fred Hoyle, Of Men and Galaxies (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1964).

3. Peter M. Molton, ''On the Likelihood of a Human Interstellar Civilization," Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 31 (1978): 203-208; William Sims Bainbridge, "Computer Simulation of Cultural Drift: Limitations on Interstellar Colonization," Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, 37 (1984) :420-429..

4. Sebastian von Hoerner, "Population Explosion and Interstellar Expansion," Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 28 (1975): 691-712.

5. Jose M. R. Delgado, Physical Control of the Mind (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).

6. Arthur C. Clarke, "The Best Is Yet to Come," Time, 16 July 1979, p. 27.

7. Vane R. Kane, "Interview with Bruce Murray," Astronomy 10 (September 1982): 24-28.

8. William Sims Bainbridge, "Collective Behavior and Social Movements," in Sociology, ed. Rodney Stark (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1984).

9. Willy Ley, Rockets, Missiles, and Men in Space (New York: Signet, 1969).

10. Vernon Van Dyke, Pride and Power: The Rationale of the Space Program (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1964); Frank Gibney and George J. Feldman, The Reluctant Space-Farers (New York: New American Library, 1965); John M. Logsdon, The Decision to Go to the Moon (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1970); William Sims Bainbridge, "Public Support for the Space Program," Astronautics and Aeronautics 16 (June 1978): 60-61, 76.

11. William Sims Bainbridge, "Attitudes Towards Interstellar Communication: An Empirical Study," Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 36 (1983): 298304.

12. Bernard M. Oliver et al., Project Cyclops: A Design Study for Detecting Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life, NASA CR- 114445 (1972).

13. Alan Bond and Anthony R. Martin, "A Conservative Estimate of the Number of Habitable Planets in the Galaxy-Part 2," Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 33 (1980): 101-6; Anthony R. Martin, ed., Project Daedalus: The Final Report of the British Interplanetary Society Starship Study. Supplement to the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (1978).

14. Frank J. Tipler, "Extraterrestrial Intelligent Beings Do Not Exist," Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 21 (1980): 267-81; J. N. Clarke, "Extraterrestrial Intelligence and Galactic Nuclear Activity," Icarus 46 (1981): 94-96.

15. David W. Schwartzman, "The Absence of Extraterrestrials on Earth and the Prospects for CETI," Icarus 32 (1977): 473-75.

16. Tong B. Tang, "Fermi Paradox and C.E.T.I.," Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 35 (1982): 236-40.

17. William Sims Bainbridge, "Religions for a Galactic Civilization," in Science Fiction and Space Futures, ed. Eugene M. Emme, pp. 187-201 (San Diego: American Astronautical Society, 1982).

18. J. Gordon Melton, Encyclopedia of American Religions. 2 vols. (Wilmington. N.C.: McGrath [A Consortium Book], 1978).

19. Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, The Future of Religion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

20. Eugen Saenger, Raumfahrt -- Technische Ueberwindung des Krieges (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1958).