Cherry Trees to Mars

Prefatory note: My colleague, William ‘Ray’ Macauley, found an interesting set of documents during a visit to NASA headquarters.1 Ray was kind enough to share them with me. The story they tell is a good one…

In March 1976, planetary scientist Carl Sagan was in Washington, DC to address a symposium convened at the Smithsonian to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Robert H. Goddard’s first liquid-fueled rocket flight. Filming of the TV series Cosmos was still a few years away but Sagan was already on his way to becoming a celebrity-scientist. The title of his talk – “A Cherry Tree to Mars” – came from a near-mythical tale associated with Goddard.

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The first page of Sagan’s essay based on his March 16, 1976 talk “A Cherry Tree to Mars”

As traditionally told, in the afternoon of October 19, 1899, the teenaged Robert Goddard went out to his back yard to trim a large cherry tree. While perched atop it, he looked out over the Massachusetts countryside and “imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow at my feet…I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I had ascended, for existence at last seemed very purposive.”2 For the rest of his life, Goddard referred to that date as his “Anniversary Day.” After recounting the cherry tree tale, Sagan commented on the importance of people who combine “visionary dedication and a remarkable technological brilliance.” Such focus – for Goddard, it was building the tools of space flight – comes at a price. Sagan noted that Goddard’s diary contains a “flash of poignant self-insight.” “God pity,” Goddard wrote later in his life, “a one-dream man.”3

At the end of his talk, Sagan suggested that NASA have a “modest celebration” on October 19, 1976. The date, the 77th anniversary of Goddard’s vision, would be marked by two functioning Martian orbiters and two landers roaming the Red Planet – spacecraft “whose origins can be traced with utter confidence back to a boy in a cherry tree in a New England autumn in 1899.”

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Sagan with a model of the Viking lander

A few weeks after Sagan’s talk, the head of NASA, James Fletcher, wrote Sagan to thank him for his “intriguing” talk. So far as the modest celebration for October 19, 1976? “We’ll go to work on it,” Fletcher said.

So what did the space agency come up with? Check back for my next post and see how NASA borrowed a page from Walt Disney…


  1. Ray is a scholar affiliated with the “The Future in the Stars: European Astroculture and Extraterrestrial Life in the 20th Century” research group at the Freie Universität Berlin. []
  2. Recounted in Tom D. Crouch, Aiming for the Stars: The Dreamers and Doers of the Space Age (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999), p. 20. []
  3. In 1938, a storm finally destroyed the old cherry tree. A distraught Goddard wrote in his diary – “Cherry tree down. Have to carry on alone.” []

Relevant History


Are the humanities sinking in time?

One feature found on the oozy landscape left behind as the Great Recession receded has been persistent questioning about the value and purpose of the humanities. This has ranged from reflective/angry to downright idiotic.1

This whole discussion is a subset of much larger passel of issues – political power, people’s expected return on their investment in higher education, and the lobbying for seemingly novel forms of instruction such as massive open on-line courses (MOOCs). In response, new groups and forums – my favorite is 4Humanities – have organized to advocate for the value of the humanities. In my own department, focus has shifted to discussions about reinvigorating public history as well as more activities centered around the rubric of the public humanities.

I believe histories of science and technologies can connect with wider audiences by engaging with and contributing to contributing to policy discussions. My faith has been animated by two works in my field. The first, a chestnut, is the opening essay from 1965 that explored the historical analogies between the federally-funded space program of the 1960s and the building of railroads in the 19th century.2 The author, Bruce Mazlish, argued for the utility of historical analogies – carefully applied – to understanding contemporary events. The other was a 2011 piece in Technology and Culture by Richard Hirsh on the “pursuit of policy-oriented history.”3  History has the potential to help decision makers become better aware of the context of their choices as well as potential outcomes. The classic in the “uses of history” vein is Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May. The problem of course, as Hirsh points out, is that even when historians want to engage policy makers, few of them “draw directly from this work or seek our assistance.” Why? Failure to present our work in a format that is accessible and engaging in too much “well, it’s just more complicated than that” reasoning.

Recently, two U.K. colleagues have taken a crack at reconsidering how history can contribute to science policy. In their 11 April post, Rebekah Higgitt and James Wilsdon make the persuasive case that the humanities can contribute to science policy alongside evidence from the natural and social sciences. As they report, “the case for historical advisers in government departments received a high-profile endorsement from Lord Butler, the former cabinet secretary” who likened those making “major policy decisions in ignorance of relevant history” to a driver “who commits to some maneuver in the road without looking into the rear mirror.” Shades of Neustadt and May here to be sure…

Higgitt and Wilsdon consider several cases in which histories of science/technology could inform policy. Dispelling myths is one genre. Although I completely disagree with his conclusions, David Edgerton’s reexamination of the linear model of innovation speaks to today’s uncritical boosterism of innovation and entrepreneurship. Coupled to this is the fascination with prizes as spurs for innovation and creative R&D, another topic Higgitt and Wilsdon say benefits from greater historical understanding. Consider the classic case of James Harrison and his 18th century instruments for determining longitude – “Familiar stories of geniuses who work alone to produce products that solve problems, more or less at a stroke, could hardly be less useful,” they say, “Harrison was remarkable, but he and the successful longitude solutions required the skills of others and long-term support.”

Higgitt and Wilsdon rightly note that historians will be unwanted (and uninvited) guests at the table if adding more niggling detail is their only contribution. Instead, historians’ skills – something we stress to students, funding agencies, and deans as to why to the humanities matter – are broader. We can bring “nuance and complexity in evidence, and how perspective changes its interpretation” to the table, not just griping about how “it’s more complicated that.” For example, they draw attention to work by Geoff Mulgan on how historians can contribute to the field of “evidence about evidence.” We’re supposed to experts in how knowledge gets produced, how it is contested, and how it circulates. We constantly try to unpack for our students how we know what we know (and the fact that “we” is shifting audience). Why can’t we do this for policy makers? Besides offering analogies and complicating standard, familiar, and often mythical, stories, helping policy makers better understand and instantiate how knowledge is made would be one step toward some reinvigorated relevance.

  1. Earlier this year, North Carolina governor Pat McCrory, governor of North Carolina, bashed fields like gender studies and said state funds for higher education should be “not based on how many butts in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs.” Apparently getting liberal arts education was sufficient to allow this ass to get his ass in NC’s guvner’s mansion though. []
  2. Bruce Mazlish, ed. The Railroad and the Space Program: An Exploration in Historical Analogy (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1965). There is also a great piece that unpacks the circumstances that led to the Mazlish volume…it’s essential reading for anyone idealistic enough to believe that historical/sociological work sponsored by a patron will actually be heeded: Jonathan Coopersmith, “Great (Unfulfilled) Expectations: To Boldly Go Where No Social Scientist or Historian Has Gone Before,” in Remembering the Space Age,  edited by Steven J. Dick  (Washington, DC: NASA, 2008), 135-56. []
  3. Richard F. Hirsh, “Historians of Technology in the Real World: Reflections on the Pursuit of Policy-Oriented History,” Technology and Culture, 2011, 52, 1: 6-20. []

Considering Countercultural Architects


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Arcosanti, some 70 miles north of Phoenix, Arizona (photo by John Burcham, New York Times)

When I’m in southern Arizona, there are a few places I especially look forward to visiting. One of them is the Titan Missile Museum located about an hour’s drive south of Tucson. Once located out in the middle of the Sonoran desert, the museum is now slowly being swallowed by acres of retirement houses. Besides being redolent of all the Cold War nuclear secrecy stuff that Alex Wellerstein writes about, it’s also a fascinating architectural experience – taking the elevator deep underground leads to networks of tunnels and small rooms where people would launch Armageddon.

Heading the other direction from Tucson, near the town of Oracle, is Biosphere 2. BS2 also was also constructed in the shadow of an apocalypse. Only in this case, it was the imagined catastrophe of the ecological type.

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Built in the 1980s, BS2 was inspired in part by the space colonization ideas of Gerard O’Neill. The idea was create an ecologically self-contained system so as both better understand the workings of our planet and also develop the technologies in case there was a need to move off-world.

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Schematic of Biosphere 2; showing the “ecosphere” and “technosphere” levels

It is a stunning place to visit – nestled in the shadow of the Catalina mountains, a compact metal and glass jewel containing some six different biomes including a miniature ocean. Undergirding this “ecosphere” is a similarly impressive “technosphere” which resembles that found at the missile museum in more ways than one. Like the Missile Museum, BS2 – a model of how we might live in a type of ecological equilibrium – is also slowly being outflanked by suburban sprawl.

If one continues north, a third destination – Arcosanti – can be added to this tour of technoscientific marvels.Like Biosphere 2, Arcosanti was a hybrd of technology, ecology, and architecture. The recent death of Paolo Soleri, the driving force behind Arcosanti, prompted me to think again about the connections between marvels like Biosphere 2 as well as O’Neill’s space colony designs. It also pushed me to think more about the nature of success and failure.

An immigrant from Italy, Soleri came to the U.S. in 1947 to apprentice with Frank Lloyd Wright. Around this time, he began to develop a design philosophy in which architecture combined with ecology – what he called arcology.

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Paolo Soleri, 1919-2013

Soleri’s ideas resonated with emerging concepts about managing the planet and its resources like a spacecraft. Promoted and popularized by economist Kenneth Boulding and futurist Bucky Fuller, “spaceship earth” became one of the dominant metaphors of the 1960s. As Soleri’s obituary notes, the Italian architect believed human habitation had to become more thrifty, space-wise, and compact.

In the late 1960s, Soleri bought more than 800 acres of desert north of Phoenix and, along with a cohort of eager acolytes, began to design and build Arcosanti. Describes as “Buckminster Fuller meets Buck Rogers,” Arcosanti was designed as an architectural and social experiment. Early visitors paid for the privilege of working there and Soleri went on to become an iconic and controversial figure. Planned as an ecologically sound human habitat in the wake of the first Earth Day, Arcosanti appealed to the many “seekers” who populated the communal living and “back-to-the-land” movements of the era. Originally designed to house 5,000 people, fewer than 200 called Arcosanti home at any one time. But, over the years, some 7,000 people lived there in a nest of poured-concrete structures, some domed and others with soaring arches.

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Aerial view of Arcosanti

Soleri combined an expansive vision of the future made possible by his designs with actual design and construction work to advance his vision. In true visioneer fashion, he also attracted a community of followers as well as some detractors. “When so many others were theorizing,” said Jeffrey Cook, a professor of architecture at Arizona State University, “Soleri went out into the desert and actually built his vision with his own hands.” This same “vision + engineering + advocacy” formula marked Gerard O’Neill’s activism for space-based settlements.

Soleri and O’Neill attracted some of the same critics. In a 1977 book on space colonies, Nobel-winning biologist George Wald – no fan of O’Neill’s visioneering – critiqued Soleri’s architecture as “bony constructions in the American desert…Can you imagine trying to live, even to raise children in such a place?” In the same book, Soleri himself expanded on the “eschatological concerns…the purposefulness of life” of O’Neill’s space colonies and space exploration in general. The apocalyptic aspects of the missile silos that dotted the Arizona landscape went uncommented on. Perhaps there was nothing really to say, Soleri seeing his designs and perhaps O’Neill’s as a more hopeful counter to missile-filled holes in the ground.

It is easy to write off Arcosanti, O’Neill’s space colonies, and Biosphere 2 as failed examples of a certain hippie-era utopianism. None of them accomplished what their designers had originally imagined for them. But the chain of influence between them is striking. Arcosanti expressed some of the same design ideas that O’Neill included in his plans for space colonies. In both cases, architecture, engineering, and ecological thinking were inseparable.1 Both held strong appeal to that somewhat fuzzy demographic group known as the “counterculture.” However, I’ve seen no evidence – other than some shared space in a book and some shared ire from critics – that O’Neill was much aware of what Soleri was building in the Arizona desert. Of course, the lines of influence from O’Neill and Soleri to Biosphere 2 are much more clear and direct. Biosphere 2 was, like Arcosanti, a utopian community of sorts, a social as well as ecological experiment. It was also seen a prototype to test some of the design concepts and technologies that might be necessary to construct a self-contained ecological system in space.

A key different between Arcosanti and either Biospere 2 or O’Neill’s concepts is, oddly enough, the future. O’Neill’s visioneering has inspired a new crop of Space 2.0 types but few have the bold and expansive plans he once had. Biosphere 2 – still open for tours – is managed by the University of Arizona as an ecological research station but it’s no longer operated as a closed ecological system. In comparison, Arcosanti still seems to have a future. “Part Mos Eisley, part Ozymandias,” as one writer recently described it, some 60 people still live and work at the “urban lab” which they see as a model for sustainable living. As a recruitment poster for Arcosanti says “If you are truly concerned about the problems of pollution, waste, energy depletion, land, water, air and biological conservation, poverty, segregation, intolerance, population containment, fear and disillusionment – Join us.” There are other futuristic planned communities on the drawing board – the Seasteading “movement” is one intriguing example – so perhaps  Arcosanti won’t be the last experiment of its type.

  1. Peder Anker, “The Ecological Colonization of Space,” Environmental History, 2005, 10, 2: 239-68 discusses some aspects of this. []