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Mars Hoopla: Manifest Destiny in Outer Space?

About a year ago, I wrote to a friend who is part Iroquois and mentioned that a lot of syfy stories (novels, films, TV series, etc.) are rooted in the notion that earthlings will (or long ago did) colonize the galaxy, or even further. It suddenly dawned on me that Manifest Destiny had reached into outer space.

It’s not a new idea, but it hasn’t been widely recognized. Google the sequence “manifest destiny outer space” and one of the few hits from the past 10 years is a 2019 article quoting NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine when an NPR interviewer asked, “Why do humans have to go to Mars?” He replied, “It’s who we are as a country.”

Let’s take a look at some syfy classics and see how they fit this notion of earthlings performing Genesis 1:28 above and beyond the call of our planet. To avoid the kind of stark dichotomy that arouses more emotions these days than bread and circuses did, I will parse into three categories, not two:

Earth as Colonizer/Leader

Foundation (Asimov)

Dune (Herbert)

Blade Runner (Dick)

Darkover series (Bradley)

Lord of Light (Zelazny)

Time Enough for Love (Heinlein)

Earth as Colonized/Nurtured

Shikasta (Lessing)

Lensman (Smith)

Childhood’s End (Clarke)

Jupiter Ascending

Battlestar Galactica

Hainish cycle (Le Guin)


Star Trek

Marvel Universe

Babylon 5

I am Number 4

Star Wars

Chronicles of Riddick

Update 1: The above lists refer to galactic colonization, as noted in my opening paragraph. Colonization of parts of our solar system (e.g., The Expanse TV series) raises many important issues, but not the notion that earthlings are superior beings who spread throughout the galaxy (or become a slave race as in Jupiter Ascending and some dystopian stories like Philip Dick’s “Faith of Our Fathers”). One reader pointed out that Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead (sequel to Ender’s Game) is about expansion beyond the solar system.

Another hit from searching the term is a 2008 article by Daniel Sage in the journal Geopolitics, examining how astronomical art expresses manifest destiny extended into outer space. Here’s his abstract:

Update 2: Another reader sent me a .pdf of Sage’s full article “Framing Space: A Popular Geopolitics of American Manifest Destiny in Outer Space” which quotes the “manifesto” (now the About page) of the International Association of Astronomical Artists: “Today, we receive images from a new frontier that is rapidly expanding, planet to planet, into space.”

Sage traces portrayals of colonization from the “American landscape sublime” motif expressed by the Rocky Mountain School of landscape painting (1870s onward) through early space art by Chesley Bonestell (a major figure in astronomical art during the 1950s, whose drawings of rockets and alien landscapes were copied widely, with and without permission) to modern depictions of moon landings and Mars exploration. Here I want to emphasize the distinction between exploration and colonization, expressed dramatically in the film The Martian.

Back to the Mars question. Speaking at the 2019 launch of Discovery Institute’s Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence, George Gilder drew from his book Life After Google and lambasted the fallacy of tech giants making life wonderful on earth while their elite leaders run off to Mars:

So the purpose of privileged people colonizing Mars would simply be a more challenging “upgrade” from a paradise on earth? Well, maybe not. Life there would be pretty daunting. If you thought self-quarantine was bad in 2020, check this out:

Those conditions make living on Mars seem less like an upgrade and more like a life raft for those desperately fleeing earth. If billionaires want to spend their money on a private venture like that, it’s their right. But NASA spent about 45% of its taxpayer-funded 2020 budget on human spaceflight projects:

Is the “human spaceflight” slice of the NASA pie for flights to the space station, to the moon, or to Mars? There is no clear answer. Read the political aspects of recent budget appropriations and note repeated references to “public-private” and “private partners”:

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