Space isn’t the final frontier

Mars fantasists still cling to dreams of the Old West

A view of the sunrise, with the red planet Mars visible in the background.
A view of the sunrise, with the red planet Mars visible in the background.

Space isn’t the final frontier

In 1873, the US Congress passed the Timber Culture Act, granting up to 160 acres to any head of a family willing to plant and keep 40 acres of trees in the Great Plains for a period of 10 years.

But when would-be settlers attempted to go into the timber business, they ran into a problem that is obvious to any modern person—without a huge supply of water, you can’t just drop a forest in the middle of a dry prairie.

Were 19th-century farmers idiots? No, but they were confused.

The idea that you could plant timber out on the prairies was predicated on the theory that “rainfall follows the plough”—a now-discredited notion that if you break up the prairie sod with a plough, the soil will get better at absorbing rainfall, and will slowly release the water back into the atmosphere, increasing future rainfall. If you plant it, rain will come.

If you were on the Great Plains in the 19th century, it’d be valuable to know that ploughing the soil won’t inevitably summon up a good climate.

Just so, if you’re on Mars in the 21st century, it’d be valuable to know that a harsh environment and great distance from Earth won’t inevitably summon up a good political climate.

Yet, advocates for space settlement persist in pushing theories of the American West founded more in myth than history. Chief among them is the so-called Turner thesis—a grand theory of the American West that has been out of the academic mainstream for decades.

The Turner thesis begins with an 1893 speech by a young historian named Frederick Jackson Turner about the nature of the American frontier, laying out ideas that he continued to develop over the course of a rise to nationwide fame.

Here’s the basic idea: The American frontier was a line of expansion ever-moving westward, where European men could get access to cheap land.

By claiming and taming that land and by organising to fight its former inhabitants, they gained a number of good social qualities—strength, rugged individualism, and a democratic spirit.

Skyline of a plant system from outer space.

Those values filtered back to the effete East Coast while unifying diverse European traditions into glorious Americanism.

And, like any good theory of human nature, it includes a fall from grace. As Turner lamented in his 1893 speech, according to the census of 1890, the frontier line had finally closed, meaning that there were no longer wide connected swaths of unsettled territory.

The frontier days were over, putting all those old frontier values at risk—bottling up American dynamism and shutting down the engine of American greatness.

This is appealing stuff for space settlement fans. Frontiers aren’t just a place to go—they’re a place we ought to go to to become tough and rugged and democratic and unified.

This theory, widely accepted among historians for the first half of the 20th century, entered into space settlement discourse in an especially enthusiastic and simplified form.

Whereas Turner, over time, became concerned that the forces that the frontier unleashed had also resulted in a dangerous form of populism, space settlement fans tend to see settling the so-called final frontier as straightforwardly good.

Consider rocket expert and writer G. Harry Stine writing in his book Halfway to Anywhere that “We got to where we are as Americans because we are a capitalist frontier people.”

Or Princeton professor Gerard K. O’Neill, in his seminal book The High Frontier, writes of space settlements: “What chance for rare, talented individuals to create their own small worlds of home and family, as was so easy a century ago in our America as it expanded into a new frontier.”

Advocates for space settlement persist in pushing theories of the American West founded more in myth than history

This simplified version of the Turner frontier thesis has been grafted onto the space discourse — where it remains to this day, turning up in, for example, the National Space Society's statement of philosophy.

It notes how "the presence of a frontier led to the development of the 'open society' founded on the principles of individual rights and freedoms."

The problem is that professional historians with no position for or against Martian homesteading have largely moved on from the Turner thesis.

As American West historian William Cronon wrote back in 1987, "In the half-century since Turner's death, his reputation has been subjected to a devastating series of attacks that have left little of his argument intact."

So, if the idea is dead down here, why are we suiting up its corpse for a rocket trip?

Over time, a pushback against Turnerism developed. This so-called "new Western history" became dominant around the 1980s, and one of its major critiques of Turner was that while taking an aerial view of history, he managed to mostly see only white male settlers twinkling below.

He does mention the existence of Indigenous Americans, but almost always as a sort of aspect of the wilderness—as just one more problem to be dealt with in taming the land.

Very few modern space advocates are willing to straight up ignore the ongoing violence perpetrated against Indigenous people—what many do want to do is recover the purported Turnerian dynamism of the period, minus all that bad stuff.

Unless we run into Martians, after all, there are no indigenous residents out there in the solar system to be dispossessed. But Turner himself considered the need to fight other human beings to be integral to the process that created Americans.

Group of Native Americans in traditional garb.

As he said in 1893, "The Indian was a common danger, demanding united action." Thus, the frontier was "a military training school, keeping alive the power of resistance to aggression, and developing the stalwart and rugged qualities of the frontiersman."

If you want to keep the Turner thesis for space, you'll simply have to skip this part unless you believe that the natural difficulty of Mars can somehow function as a military training school the same way that fighting other humans supposedly did.

Turner leaves out other people, too, many of whom had their labour exploited. He mentions slavery but otherwise ignores Black Americans who went westward — sometimes as free people, sometimes against their will.

He leaves out Chinese immigrants, who helped build much of the region's infrastructure under notoriously brutal conditions. He leaves out the Hispanic people who had been in the American West for centuries after the Spanish wars of conquest.

He largely leaves out women, who, in many cases, went West with misgivings. In one study of diaries from the Oregon Trail, fully three-quarters of female diarists expressed a desire to stay back home.

Robert Zubrin, a modern space advocate who explicitly endorses Turner's framework as a theory of space sociology, has said that the 19th-century United States was "an improvisational theatre big enough to welcome all comers with no parts assigned."

But even if we believe that some white men enjoyed this fantastic latitude, we shouldn't conclude anyone else did.

Turner also claims that the good values and democratic institutions developed on the frontier made their way back to US society at large.

Modern historians disagree.

There were, of course, governmental institutions created by and for Westerners, but the vision of the old East as stuffy and regimented compared to the freewheeling West is not so straightforward.

Unless we run into Martians, after all, there are no indigenous residents out there in the solar system to be dispossessed.

As Patricia Limerick, one of the preeminent new Western historians, wrote, "American democracy came from thinkers on the East Coast, not from humble settlements in the interior."

And in any case, the West was always connected to the rest of the country—by the need for massive financing for development.

Not just in the form of highly discounted land but also the physical presence of the US military, which at times kept 90% of its forces west, fighting the genocidal so-called Indian Wars.

There was also government financing of the physical infrastructure crisscrossing the country well before the frontier line closed.

Although there were some regions where white settlers lived relatively cut off from federal governance, the West was not neatly independent of the East, nor was it clearly the lone wellspring of US democracy.

In our experience, some space settlement geeks see raising the above issues as politically correct preciousness—worrying about mean stuff in the past instead of focusing on a future that could benefit everyone.

But the Turner thesis isn't just politically incorrect. It's also regular old incorrect. Especially in the simplistic form used in space settlement discourse, it's a bad model.

To believe it, you have to believe in a theory of a time and place that leaves out most of the people in it, much of what they were doing there, and the institutional consequences they created. At that point, what good is the theory as a guide or justification?

Recently, a series of new papers led by macroeconomist Samuel Bazzi were dropped into the literature of the history of the American West, creating a stir because they seemed to revive something of Turner's ghost.

The fight is an academic one, mostly about methods and interpretation, but the basic finding was that the parts of the United States that spent the most time getting so-called frontier experience have somewhat different cultures from places that did not.

Those places were more likely to vote Republican during recent elections and more likely to support cuts for federal spending to help the poor—and they had higher income mobility.

Image of earth from the moon.

There are certainly space settlement fans who would be happy with these values. But don't saddle up for Mars just yet. The data is complex when it comes to any off-world plans.

First, the effects found were quite modest. For example, counties were 1% more likely to support welfare cuts for every additional decade spent under frontier conditions.

Second, this data can't tell us whether these values are derived from an actual frontier effect or just the cultural belief in one.

Old West tales were already popular during the actual days of the Old West. Dime novels circulated about figures such as Wild Bill Hickok even while they were still alive.

So, although the values espoused by these people could derive from the isolated and harsh frontier environment of bygone days, they may have also arisen because myths about the past shaped these people's views of themselves.

Or it could be something else entirely. Without knowing the mechanism that created these values, we can't be sure of reproducing them in space.

Third, in a subsequent paper, the same authors found some traits that were perhaps less desirable in space. People in these more frontier-inclined areas showed less willingness to trust scientific consensus and less willingness to social distance or use face masks early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

That might not be great in the environment of space, a place where survival will be dependent on high technology and mutual cooperation.

Old West tales were already popular during the actual days of the Old West. Dime novels circulated about figures such as Wild Bill Hickok even while they were still alive.

Similar results were found in other parts of the world, such as Canada and Russia, that had distinctive "core" and "frontier" regions, producing similarly modest effects.

Studies by Roberto Stefan Foa and Anna Nemirovskaya in 2015 and 2019 found that frontier areas were more tolerant of immigrants and more likely to believe in the importance of "personal over government responsibility."

Again, the effect was small: a 1.4% and 2.7% increase, respectively, compared to non-frontier regions.

Some of these papers are academic hot potatoes right now, and we don't want to get our glasses broken standing amid a social science battle royale.

The point we want to make is that even if we accept the most Turner-y interpretation in modern social science, the apparent frontier effect is quite small and quite a mixed bag, and how it operates is imperfectly understood.

The frontier effect is of scientific interest, and frankly, we found the papers interesting, but it's a long way from promising a transformative future.

A claim among some space advocates is that access to new land will increase the chance for peace because conflict is about territory, and space has plenty of territory to go around. And maybe that's where an actual lesson from the Old West comes in. 

Cowboy looking at the horizon, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

When the American West opened to white settlers, many spoke of the territory as so vast as to be practically infinite.

Did war stop? Nope.

The appropriation of land from the Indigenous inhabitants was, of course, itself a multi-century sequence of violent wars of conquest, ongoing since before the founding of the United States.

But all that land didn't even stop white Americans from fighting among themselves.

The tensions over whether new states should allow or ban slavery was a major cause of the Civil War—a conflict that consumed more American lives than World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War put together, creating regional resentments that linger on 160 years hence.

And while we celebrate the fact that the Civil War ended the vilest institution in the history of America, we shouldn't pretend that the addition of free land to the human species will automatically confer peace. It may do precisely the opposite.

In any case, there won't be a huge quantity of free land for space settlers. We can't say for sure what will lure settlers to Mars, but we do know that it won't be low prices.

In 2019, Elon Musk claimed moving to Mars would "one day cost less than $500K and maybe even below $100K."

We shouldn't pretend that the addition of free land to the human species will automatically confer peace. It may do precisely the opposite.

So, under extraordinarily optimistic assumptions, with the time scale being "one day," the price range merely to arrive on-site would price out all but the wealthiest. Presumably, the need for an airtight, radiation-proof terrarium will cost extra.

Compare this to the Homestead Acts in the American West, where settlers could get a huge piece of land, complete with breathable air, for an $18 filing fee (around $700 today) and a commitment to stay on it for five years.

Anyone who goes to a space settlement will either be wealthy or chosen by the wealthy. They will not be lonely adventurers looking for a new start—they will be people with deep financial ties to the home planet.

They will also not be going to get good farmland. Space settlement advocates often claim that privately owned land will draw people out into the solar system as it did with travellers to the frontier. The problem is that land per se was never an attraction.

As Turner wrote in the early 20th century: "It is true that vast tracts of government land are still untaken, but they constitute the mountain and arid regions, only a small fraction of them capable of conquest, and then only by the application of capital and combined effort. The free lands that made the American pioneer have gone."

One suspects that Turner would put the dead, frozen, poison-scape called Mars in the "capital and combined effort" category. Much of the nation's middle was never claimed because settlers never simply wanted 160 acres anywhere. They wanted good land.

The whole reason that the Oregon Trail existed was to bypass the huge part of the country that wasn't amenable to agriculture.

The US government controls huge public nature preserves today, partially because when the frontier line "closed," massive tracts of land were still in government possession despite decades and decades of cut-rate pricing. And every scrap of that land was still far, far better than anything that's available anywhere in space.

It's easy enough to keep piling on differences: Space settlers will be skilled scientists and engineers, not farmers or ranchers or prospectors.

The 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty explicitly prohibits sovereignty over land in space, so even if you work the toxin-laden Martian dirt for five years, you'll never actually own the land under your feet.

Image of an astronaut on mars.

And space settlers will be extremely reliant on the continued functioning of life support machines that could be at risk of sabotage, which may necessitate strict behavioural rules.

Space is just different. In order to apply the Turner thesis to space, you have to start with an incorrect theory of the past, combine it with an incorrect understanding of the present, and then hope to arrive at a correct understanding of the future.

If the legend of the West is so wrong, why is it so persistent among space advocates? This is a question for Western historians as well.

As the aforementioned William Cronon, who specialised in the study of Turner and himself was the president of the American Historical Association, wrote, "it may be that Turner's thesis, in fact, retains more explanatory power than the critics have been willing to acknowledge in it; certainly it expresses some of the deepest myths and longings many Americans still feel about their national experience."

The mythical frontier persists in culture because it does something for people: It's become a sort of national origin myth for many Americans. Former President John F. Kennedy invoked it in talking of "new frontiers" when he accepted the candidacy of the Democratic Party.

Former President Ronald Reagan, himself a former movie cowboy, once gave a speech citing a "noted historian" who wrote that "Americans, in making their Western myths, were not put off by discrepancies with reality. Americans believed about the West not so much what was true, but what they thought ought to be true."

So, what does it matter if those who hope for space settlements are wrong about history? Thus far, sociology on the moon hasn't been very pressing.

But we are now entering a new period in which space launch is cheap and ever more open to nations, corporations, and private individuals. In this era, the United States is the major space power, and it is now pushing the most libertarian legal framework for in-space property rights.

American self-mythology shaped our relationship to the people of Earth—the myths we carry to space may now shape the growth of societies on other worlds for centuries to come.

In 1992, Limerick wrote an essay on the use of the frontier metaphor by NASA. In it, she said she was not concerned that NASA was using the frontier for a "cynical sales pitch" but rather that it seemed to be making a "sincere sales pitch."

Talking about Turner-ish frontiers is one thing, but actually believing in them is quite another, especially when the group that believes in the metaphor has the power to shape human destiny in space.

As Limerick wrote: "The metaphor you choose guides your decisions—it makes some alternatives seem logical and necessary while it makes other alternatives nearly invisible."

***Zach and Kelly Weinersmith, co-authors of A City on Mars: Can We Settle Space, Should We Settle Space, and Have We Really Thought This Through.***

font change