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In this more-or-less weekly feature, I will explore the applicability of Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer — Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements to space exploration and the space advocacy community in particular. I will follow the format of the book, with a summary of Hoffer’s arguments in yellow highlight followed by my comments on their applicability to space advocacy. [Note: updated 1/19/03 | 12:37pm]

Part 1a — "The Appeal of Mass Movements: The Desire for Change"

There are three generic forms of mass movement: the revolutionary, the religious, and the nationalist. Each form attracts adherents in part through the promise of a rapid and significant change in their conditions of life. Mass movements offer the opportunity of change, but are not the only means by which this change may be realized — one alternative is an environment in which there are plentiful opportunities for self-advancement. The key to change is not the method by which it is realized but "a widespread enthusiasm or excitement" within the populace. Where self-advancement is not possible, this enthusiasm requires other sources, and throughout history the various forms of mass movement have been the sources of this motivating enthusiasm.

The early history of space centered primarily on individual efforts. From Tsiolkovskii to Goddard, from Verne to Heinlein, work on space access and the accounts of it in fiction were individualist in character: lone thinkers laboring to make space access a reality on their own means, lone characters exploring extraterrestrial realms in their own spaceships. Among the pioneers of space exploration, there was the shared notion that space would be the next frontier of human activity, much like the sea had been for the preceding five centuries. The expense and complexity of this goal, however, meant the lone scientist could only make so much progress towards creating the spaceships that would in turn create the lone explorer. Self-advancement thus precluded, a different mechanism was needed.

Enter the mass movement.

In the past, the most common form of mass-movement was the religious — periodic surges of faith or reformist zeal left in their wake profound changes in the social order. In modern times, the nationalist mass-movement has been more common. A real-world mass-movement will incorporate aspects of all three types, their proportions in the mix changing over time with the changing fortunes of the movement itself. The mass-movement is a means to create and sustain public enthusiasm for change, and as such must follow the shifting winds of public interest — without the enthusiastic desire for change, no meaningful change is possible.

A national space program is, as the term suggests, nationalistic in character. At its creation, NASA’s space program was sold to the public as a nationalist mass-movement in the arena of space, one designed to promote the nationalist goal of proving American technology and industry superior to that of the Communist bloc, and implemented through the WWII-like mobilization of a large portion of American industry to a common nationalism-imbued task. Kennedy’s Rice Stadium speech is a clear articulation of the nationalist spirit behind the Apollo program.

Following Kennedy’s assassination, the Apollo program took on a religious tone, in that the slain President who proposed and was identified with it became transformed into a martyr — not a martyr to the space program, but to the nation, whose greatness the space program was intended to demonstrate. The name of the primary spaceport for the effort was changed in his honor, and thus recalled his memory and "sacrifice" in the public mind whenever the Apollo program was discussed. The Rice Stadium speech took on the significance of a new Sermon on the Mount, putting forth a vision of how the world could be and exhorting the faithful to bring it into being.

Following Apollo 11, however, the program’s balance of these three forms slipped, and fell out of step with public interest. The public attitude had shifted away from displays of nationalism in favor of a spirit of revolutionary social reform, and the space program failed to reinvent itself to maintain public enthusiasm. Despite programs with seemingly nationalistic titles (National Space Transportation System, National Aerospace Plane, Space Station Freedom, National Launch System), NASA has seemingly eschewed the exploitation of any of the three forms of mass movement — the Kennedy religiosity was retired with Apollo, nationalism is (even after 9/11) regarded with suspicion in an era of "international cooperation in space", and the routine has been promoted over the revolutionary for nearly a quarter-century.

As a result, public enthusiasm for the agency’s efforts has flagged. While the space program is still regarded favorably by many Americans who bother to notice its existence, the bulk of its support comes from die-hard space fans and those whose jobs are dependent on its continuation (and even among the latter, there is less enthusiasm for the space program than one would expect). So long as the agency fails to prime the pump of public enthusiasm — through a revolutionary new program, a new "grand vision", or a renewed nationalistic "space race" — it will fail to reap the benefits of public support for its goals. In the post-9/11 world, resurgent public nationalism offers an opportunity for NASA to renew public enthusiasm for space exploration via the nationalist movement, either through dazzling demonstrations of the capabilities of Western and especially American technological prowess (the triumph of reason over superstition), or by riding the coattails of an increased military presence in space supporting national security and homeland defense.

The space activism community is in effect a collection of different mass movements with parallel goals, each movement differing in the specifics of its goals (most clearly the desired destination) and in the mixture of the three forms. The Mars Society, for example, is primarily a religious movement with a strong revolutionary component. The religion takes the form of a vision of Mars as the Promised Land, a new Western Frontier awaiting settlers escaping the bondage of an increasingly sclerotic and anti-intellectual Earth. Bob Zubrin’s call for Mars settlement as a means of resurrecting the pioneer spirit of the American West can be seen in this context as a form of “revivalism”, a call to reject a flawed present for a return to the idealized and sometimes mythical “old ways” of our forebears. The revolutionary element is expressed in the theme of opportunities for social experimentation and technological developments, which will be exported back to the home planet much as new institutions and technologies where exported from America back to the Old World, reinvigorating civilization and expanding freedom, prosperity, and opportunity for everyone.

There is also a smaller but sizeable nationalist element to the Society, which takes two primary strains: a “civilizational nationalism” and a nationalism-by-proxy. In its “civilizational” strain, Mars Society nationalism consists of the promotion of Western Civilization as the proper basis for the settlement of a new world. The rule of law, protection of property rights and civil liberties, a science- and reason-based worldview, etc. are generally accepted as the requirements for settlement of Mars, and in some cases even as institutional prerequisites for any attempt at manned exploration. Mars is viewed as the next target for the expansion of Western values and social models. In its proxy strain the direction of nationalism is reversed, with members regarding themselves — in effect — as Martian nationals in exile. Rather than new territory for expansion of Western ideals, Martian proxy-nationalism (like revolutionism) views Mars as a laboratory in which an entirely new civilization will be created. The key difference between proxy-nationalism and revolutionism is that proxy-nationalism sees a newborn Martian civilization expressing a uniquely “Martian” character linked to the “essence” of the planet itself — the motivation is chauvinism rather than a desire for social progress.

(To be continued next week…)

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