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A Brief History of Space Activism

Latest Revision: November 16, 2005

"...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 New Ocean

Early efforts:

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.)

The British 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 war.

Postwar Period:

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.

1960s: Space goes Big Time:

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.

1970s-1980s: Space Colonies & Space Societies

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 the Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala.

At about the same time a Princeton physics professor, Gerard 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.

The L5 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.

1990s: How to Access Space Cheaply

Several important trends in space activism, especially in the U.S., emerged in the 1990's.

The NSS and many new groups ( see the Activism 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 space development.

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 strong skepticism 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 the ISS 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 reusable launchers.

Greater 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 & X-34.

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.

+ Mars Push

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.

The Mars 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.

2000-2005 Space Tourism & Suborbital Spaceflight

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 the Space 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 enormous publicity.

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 Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act (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 this article for a discussion.

Space Activism - Now and the Future

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 Bush's Vision 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.


  1. Greg Worden, Lunar Prospector, Spacecause News, June/July 1995,
    Num. 95-4.
  2. Byron Rogers, Doorway To The Stars, Oct.1997, Saga Magazine. 
  3. History of the National Space Society of Australia, NSSA web site.
  4. History of the National Space Institute (link dead) - HAL5 (Huntsville, Alabama L5 Society)
  5. The History of the National Space Society by Richard Godwin - SPACE.com - Nov.16.05
  6. History of the L5 Society - NSS
  7. NSS/L5 News archive
  8. L5 Society - Wikipedia
  9. G. Harry Stine, Halfway to Anywhere, ...
  10. Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy -Jerry Pournelle
  11. Special Report: Space Activism, Final Frontier, Feb. 1998.
  12. Mark Prado, Economic, legal and political history and issues, 1997.
  13. William E. Burrows, This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age, 1998, Random House, ISBN:0-679-44521-8.
  14. Lunar Prospector Team - Houston Space Society
  15. The Space Frontier Foundation - History
  16. The High Frontier by Gerard K. O'Neill - Space Frontier Foundation
  17. H.M.S. Moon Rocket: In the 1930s, Arthur C. Clarke and friends designed their own lunar mission - Air & Space Magazine - Mar.1.1997


The Art of C. Sergent Lindsey





Space Activism
Book List

in association with

The Dream of Spaceflight : Essays on the Near Edge of Infinity
Wyn Wachhorst, Buzz Aldrin (Fwd) - 2000
Amazon: US UK
Halfway to Anywhere: Achieving America's Destiny in Space
G. Harry Stine - 1998
Amazon: US UK
The Case for Space : Who Benefits from Explorations of the Last Frontier?
Paul S. Hardersen - 1996
Amazon: US UK
Case for Mars
R. Zubrin &
R. Wagner - 1997
Amazon: US UK
Islands in the Sky
S. Schmidt (Edt) & R. Zubrin(Edt), 1996
Amazon: US UK
Mining the Sky : Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and Planets
by John S. Lewis - 1997
Amazon: US UK
Entering Space : Creating a Space-Faring Civilization
by Robert Zubrin - 1999
Amazon: US UK
Pale Blue Dot : A Vision of the Human Future in Space
Carl Sagan - 1994
Amazon: US UK
The Millennial Project : Colonizing the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps
Marshall T. Savage, A. C. Clarke (Intro) -1994
Amazon: US UK





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