Since Fred Ordway and I led a panel discussion on “How the Space Movement Began” during the 2010 ISDC, it has become apparent that there is general interest in this topic.
From 1967 to 1971, I was an undergraduate at the California Institute of Technology. At that time, the American Space Program was collapsing as Apollo wound down, and the strength of social movements was obvious. The Anti Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movements were at their peaks. Why not harness the power of a social movement to support the space program? Why not a Space Movement?
I began to study the history of movements, the nature of movements, and the methods for starting movements. After I reached Harvard for graduate school, this led to the formation in 1972 by Paul Werbos, myself, and two others of the Harvard Radcliffe Committee for a Space Economy. This was important, but not enough. To start a movement, a strong ideological rationale with widespread appeal was needed.
In 1974, Gerard O’Neill published his classic first article on space settlements in Physics Today. This was the spark I was looking for. The needed ideological rationale developed rapidly. Human civilization could expand into space on a massive scale and tap the vast resources that awaited us. This may or may not occur in a fashion that had much to do with what came to be known as O’Neill Space Settlements, but it could be done. Indeed, further thought led to the conclusion that it is virtually inevitable (see my column on “The Inevitability of Space Settlement”). Space provides the means for a hopeful prosperous future for all.
In the spring of 1975, I met Keith and Carolyn Henson. We compared notes. They were excited about O’Neill’s ideas and had practical experience in various movements. I date the beginning of the Space Movement as the formation of the L-5 Society, which was founded by the Hensons in the fall of 1975.
L-5 began with approximately 30 members. Initial funding consisted of the dues from these members at $20 each ($81 today). Despite these extremely modest beginnings, L-5 grew. It grew virally. Why? Because of its ideas. These were very much out of the mainstream of contemporary thought, but they were powerful — the kind of ideas from which movements are built.
Soon L-5 was deliberately modeling its organizational structure after the Sierra Club. This is the organization which led to the creation of the Environmental Movement. Like the Sierra Club, L-5 became democratic and established a strong chapter system. We wanted to duplicate the Sierra Club’s success by building a movement — the Space Movement.
In 1987, L-5 merged with the National Space Institute (NSI) to create the National Space Society (NSS). This was a huge leap forward for the Space Movement.
NSI was founded in 1974 by Werner von Braun. It was always a mainstream organization with excellent connections to NASA and the aerospace industry. NSI brought to the merger financial resources, connections, and most important of all, key people such as Hugh Downs, Lori Garver, and Fred Ordway. Garver was employed by NSI for five years and by NSS for nine. Today she is number two at NASA.
Other organizations provided important threads to the evolution of the Space Movement, but it was L-5 and later, NSS, which has always formed its core.
Despite its humble beginnings, the Space Movement has prospered. Today its ideas enjoy widespread support. The Augustine Report, which provided the foundation for Obama’s human space policies, states: “The ultimate goal of human exploration is … human expansion into the solar system.” Mike Griffin, former NASA administrator under Bush and a ferocious critic of Obama’s policies, also agrees with our goals: “One day … there will be more humans living off Earth than on it.”
It pays to be on the right side of history.
This article was written by Mark Hopkins, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the National Space Society. The article originally appeared in Ad Astra, Winter, 2010.