"...ordinary citizens elsewhere
delighted in the great space dream, and carried rocketry
during the late 1920s and into the 1930s through a
network of societies. They showed, at least for a
while, that a new technology could be forged by amateurs.
Like their counterparts in astronomy, archaeology,
and paleontology, they made notable discoveries..."
- William E. Burrows in This
Amateurs have been making significant contributions
to the development of space exploration from the time
it was first conceived. Konstantin
E. Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), for example, was not
a distinguished professor or famous scientist but a
high school teacher in a small town in Russia.
Considered by many as the father of modern
spaceflight, he worked on his own to develop many of
the basic concepts of spaceflight including multistage
rockets and gyroscopic attitude control.
In the period between WW1 and WW2, governments
and major scientific groups generally ignored rocketry
and the possibilities of spaceflight. Amateur rocket
and space clubs, however, sprang up in Europe and America
and made important contributions to these fields. (ref).
The American clubs, such as the American Rocket Society
(originally the American Interplanetary Society, the ARS
eventually became the prestigious American Institute of
Aeronautics and Astronautics - AIAA),
helped to train many of the engineers who later developed
the launch vehicles of the postwar space age. (See this
clipping about an early liquid-fueled rocket: American
Interplanetary Society ca 1932 - CTI.)
Interplanetary Society (BIS), founded in
the 1933, produced in 1939 the first
serious technical studies of lunar exploration,
over 30 years before Apollo 11 (ref).
The German club, Verein für Raumschiffart, was a very
active and productive club whose membership included
a young Wernher von Braun. Unfortunately, the club was
absorbed by the Nazis in the early 1930's. The Nazis
wanted to develop missiles to circumvent the Versailles
Treaty restrictions on German weapon development. Von
Braun and his collaborators went on to develop the V-2
rockets that fell on Britain in the final days of the
After the war, popular interest in space rose steadily,
at least partially because the V2 had given credibility
to the notion of large, powerful rockets. Popularizations
of spaceflight, such as von Braun's articles about space
in Colliers with illustrations by Bonestell,
reached a wide audience. During the 1950's the BIS reached
its highest membership level.
In turn there arose a big interest
in rocketry hobbies. Unfortunately, this brought about
a number of serious accidents due to poor understanding
and handling of explosive fuels. In response, Harry
Stine and others founded model
rocketry in the late 1950s with the development
of safe and inexpensive rocket motors.(The book Rocket
Boys by Homer Hickam describes how he and
some friends developed their own rockets from scratch
and barely escaped injury more than once.) They saw
model rocketry as a fun hobby but also as a way of nurturing
kids' interest in space.
Unfortunately, the gigantism of the Moon
race, which involved hundreds of thousands of workers
in industry and government, seems to have more or less
smothered amateur space activities during the 1960's.
The huge expense and complex technology of the space
program made amateur contributions appear rather pointless.
Even during this period, however, one
amateur group was not intimidated but excited and inspired
by the arrival of big-time space technology: Ham
radio enthusiasts. The development of amateur
satellites for Ham radio communications as been
one of the great, and generally unsung, triumphs of
amateur space enthusiasts.
As discussed in the Space
Radio and Satellite
Building sections, within just a few years
after Sputnik, Amsats began to go into space by piggybacking
on launches of government satellites. Amsats made, and
continue to make today, significant contributions to
spaceflight technologies such as digital packet and
store-and-forward space communications and in showing
the serious capabilities of micro-satellites.
By the end of the decade, the great social
turmoil of the time contributed to a disenchantment
with space activities and with science and technology
in general. High school achievement test scores in science
and math, which had peaked in the early 60's after the
great post-Sputnik surge in public attention to these
subjects, plummeted to new lows.
Popular interest in space and science
eventually hit bottom in the early 1970's. This resulted
not only in big cutbacks in space and science funding
but a nadir in public space activism.
Space activism was resurrected, at least
in part, by Wernher von Braun when he founded the National
Space Institute after he retired from NASA. (See this
history of the NSI/NSS.)
Von Braun had been very disheartened by
the catastrophic collapse of enthusiasm for further
space exploration after the initial moon landings.
He realized that raising the interest
and involvement of the general public in space was necessary
before progress could continue. His suggestion for a
summer camp of space activities for kids also inspired
Camp in Huntsville, Ala.
At about the same time a Princeton physics
K. O'Neill, published a paper in a refereed physics
journal proposing huge space stations, or space
habitats, for the colonization of space.
The background of Dr. O'Neill, who had
made significant contributions to the development of
electron accelerators and colliders, brought considerable
credibility to these proposals. While most people nevertheless
dismissed them out of hand, pointing out the enormous
costs just to put a few guys on the Moon, many were
electrified by his ideas.
His proposals actually grew out of an
undergraduate physics course. He wanted to offer the
students a term project subject that would inspire their
interest and creativity. He decided to ask the students
whether planetary surfaces, such as that on Mars, were
the optimum locations to develop an expanding civilization.
They would examine the alternative route of colonizing
the Solar System with artificially created worlds.
He was quite surprised when the studies
showed that not only were these giant space stations,
or habitats, feasible with current technology, they
offered many advantages over planet based settlements.
He continued developing and refining the concepts and
published his first article in the journal Physics
Today in 1974, bringing them to a broad professional
audience. His book The
High Frontier set out a detailed agenda for
space habitat development.
The habitats, typically in a cylindrical
design, would rotate to provide artificial gravity on
the inside surface. To reduce transportation costs,
they would be constructed primarily of lunar materials.
Although the stations would be many kilometers
in circumference and length, O'Neill and his students
showed that the material strengths and engineering techniques
required were no more advanced than those routinely
used for suspension bridges and other large structures.
The delivery of power from space solar
satellites, first proposed by Peter Glaser, via low
intensity microwave beams to earth would pay the bills.
Society (see also Brief
history of the L5 Society at L5
News archive), organized by Keith and Carolyn Henson
in Tuscon, Arizona, grew out of a summer study of O'Neill's
ideas in 1975 at Princeton and MIT (ref. 5,6). L5 refers
to a Lagrange
stability point where the gravitational pulls of
the earth, moon and sun are balanced and a body stationed
there can remain indefinitely.
The L5 Society, which built a very active
local chapter base, pushed the O'Neill space colony
concepts for many years. The Society's greatest accomplishment,
in retrospect, was in arousing enough opposition to
stop the approval of the Moon Treaty by the US
Congress. The treaty would have put a severe restraint
on space development since it would set the precedent
of preventing private ownership of space resources.
The momentum behind the space colony movement
slowed in the 1980's after NASA dropped its development
work and the Department of Energy lost its funding for
studies of space based solar power. The Space
Studies Institute, however, which was founded by
Prof. O'Neill in 1977, continues to this day to fund
research into the technologies needed for space settlements.
Most of the L5 chapters later merged
with the National Space Institute in 1987 to create
the National Space Society.
Several important trends in space
activism, especially in the U.S., emerged in the 1990's.
The NSS and many new groups ( see the
section) have shown increasing dynamism in
this decade. As discussed in the Space
Advocacy section, the US space activist movement
became deeply involved in influencing the making of
space policy in Congress and in the White House, especially
in the fights over the Space Station and the creation
of programs to develop reusable launchers.
Another trend was the increasing realization
by space activists that the cost of space access
must be drastically reduced before any of their grand
schemes could be realized. Cheap access to space, or
CATS, has become the key technology needed for
The partially reusable Space Shuttle had
been sold as the vehicle to reduce launch costs. Unfortunately,
the many compromises, i.e. camel is a horse designed
by a committee, resulted in a launcher that was
actually more expensive that the expendables it was
meant to replace.
The costs of each fuel tank and the refurbishment
of the solid rocket boosters cost nearly $100m. Two
months and the labor of several thousand technicians
and engineers are needed to ready an orbiter for a new
launch. So the cost of a kilogram (2.2lbs) to low earth
orbit via the Shuttle is around US$20k.
This brings up another major trend: a
about NASA and its ability to bring about
the kind of major space development that most activists
desire. While many space activists worked hard to keep
funded, there was increasing disenchantment
with NASA. This has led to strong efforts to change
NASA and push it into areas it had a reluctance to go,
such as the creation of programs to develop new fully
emphasis on activities independent of NASA has occurred
as well. These activities included the DC-X
program by the Air Force, which occurred largely because
of activist influence on Vice President Dan Quayle's
space advisory committee (ref 7,8). This successful
program (it fell and burned on its 9th flight due to
a faulty landing leg but it had accomplished most of
its primary goals by then) had a major impact on NASA
and its decision to begin several new RLV development
projects such as the X-33
The offering of prizes
for rocket competitions, patterned after the aviation
prizes of the 1920s and 30s, is also a new trend that
lies outside of government entirely. The most famous
competition is the X-Prize.
Just as the aviation prizes of
the early part of the 20th century motivated competitors,
such as Charles Lindbergh, to push back the limits to
flying, space activists hope that this $10 million
prize will encourage private companies to develop
rockets practical for low cost human access to space.
While efforts continue on the CATS front,
many space activist were focusing on Mars. Robert
Zubrin stood out as a leader in promoting human
exploration and development of Mars.
During the Moon Race days, NASA often
cited Mars as the next goal after the Moon. But the
big funding cutbacks afterwards left the agency so gun-shy
that agency officials often appeared afraid even to
mention Mars and humans in the same sentence lest it
anger Congress into making further cuts.
During the 1980's there rose increasing
efforts among space scientists and activists to resurrect
both manned and unmanned exploration of Mars. In the
(first) Bush administration, there was even a brief
period of presidential interest in starting a long term
Mars program. However, after NASA's Space
Exploration Initiative study group came back with
a $200+ billion dollar price tag on a manned mission,
interest quickly died.
However, since then, Zubrin and others
have demonstrated that the costs can be greatly reduced
by using materials found on Mars to produce fuel and
oxygen, rather than taking everything from earth.
Society was formed in 1998 to develop further these
ideas. These activities include not just political actions
but real hardware demonstrations such as the Flashline
Mars Arctic Research Station. Here Mars technology
and techniques will be tested in a Mars-like environment
on an Arctic island in northern Canada.
This type of hands-on development indicates
the future of space activism. While political action
and educational programs will continue, there will be
more and more involvement with genuine space development.
Space activists with work closely with both research
groups, such as universities, and with commercial companies,
bringing new ideas and funding to help bring space exploration
and development to fruition.
Space tourism was long considered a wild
fantasy by most people, including most aerospace engineers.
Dennis Tito's flight to the ISS in 2001 was truly a
paradigm shattering event and it happened because of
the efforts of space activists like Rick Tumlinson of
Frontier Foundation and Eric Anderson of Space
Adventures. In fact, NASA actively opposed the mission.
See the Space
Tourism section for more about the history and current
status of Space Tourism.
Several promising private space transport
companies in the 1990s faded away by 2000 because the
big LEO constellation projects - Iridium, GlobalStar,
Teledesic - went bankrupt or were shut down. The rocket
companies had expected a big market in providing launches
for the continual replacement of LEO satellites as they
broke down or as next generation spacecraft came online.
When this market promise disappeared, so did investment
in the rocket companies.
This left many space advocates extremely
disappointed because they had expected the new commercial
space transports would significantly lower the cost
of access to space. However, just as things seemed the
most bleak, the X-PRIZE started to heat up as the full
$10M price money was raised and several serious projects
started to go after it. Burt Rutan eventually won the
prize with the SpaceShipOne and the effort received
Spurred by the success of the X-PRIZE
and the plans by companies like Virgin Galactic to offer
suborbital spaceflight rides to the public, space advocates
successfully campaigned Congress to pass the (CSLAA), which clarified
the regulatory framework for suborbital space tourism.
It is hoped that the development of a
commercial suborbital spaceflight industry will provide
a big step towards lower cost orbital spaceflight. Though
reaching 100km requires many times less energy than
getting to orbit, there are nevertheless a number of
hardware and operational techniques and technologies
that can be advanced via suborbital spaceflight. See
for a discussion.
The influence of space advocacy has not
yet reached the level of other activist movements such
as those for various environmental and social causes.
But it definitely has grown far beyond a mere novelty
and has had siginificant impact in certain cases such
as passage of the CSLAA.
Space activists in no way dictated President
for Space Initiative, but they did have some input
on its formulation. Michael Griffin at least appears
to listen to space activists as he attempts to implement
the Vision. (Much of the plan he chose for the Exploration
Architecture was actually formulated during a Planetary
Society sponsored study (pdf).) For example, Griffin
often emphasizes the high importance he gives to the
development of commercial ISS Crew/Cargo resupply, a
top priority for many space advocates.
It has also become common for many space
activists to initiate or to join startup space companies
of various sorts. This will probably become an increasingly
common route for space enthusiasts as more opportunities
for private space development appear.
- Greg Worden, Lunar Prospector, Spacecause
News, June/July 1995,
- Byron Rogers, Doorway To The Stars, Oct.1997,
of the National Space Society of Australia, NSSA
- History of the National Space Institute (link
dead) - HAL5
(Huntsville, Alabama L5 Society)
History of the National Space Society by Richard Godwin
- SPACE.com - Nov.16.05
of the L5 Society - NSS
Society - Wikipedia
- G. Harry Stine, Halfway to Anywhere, ...
Advisory Council on National Space Policy -Jerry
- Special Report: Space Activism, Final
Frontier, Feb. 1998.
- Mark Prado, Economic, legal and political history
and issues, 1997.
- William E. Burrows, This New
Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age, 1998, Random
Prospector Team - Houston
Space Frontier Foundation - History
High Frontier by Gerard K. O'Neill - Space Frontier
Moon Rocket: In the 1930s, Arthur C. Clarke and friends
designed their own lunar mission - Air & Space
Magazine - Mar.1.1997