The Right(wing) Stuff

One of my last blog posts considered Robert Heinlein’s heated response to former Hewlett-Packard lab director Barney Oliver’s suggestion that the sci-fi writer should reconsider his support of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Oliver, in a letter preserved in the Heinlein Archives, told Heinlein that Reagan’s SDI – a space-based shield against incoming nuclear-tipped ICBMs – wouldn’t work as proponents imagined.

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Heinlein, 1982, looking feisty

Heinlein of course would have none of it. In fact, he implied that Oliver and other SDI opponents were practically guilty of treason. “Barney,” he said, “I am going to ask you to stand up and be counted.” He suggested that HP could be patriotic and profitable by getting on board the SDI bandwagon. And if not…then Oliver should just “back off and shut up; the grownups have work to do.”

Why did Heinlein go nuclear? It wasn’t just because of beliefs about God and country (or, in RH’s case, country). No, his reaction was shaped by his conviction that he had helped get plans for SDI on the President Reagan’s desk in the first place.

The entry point for Heinlein’s supposed influence over national security policy can be traced back to 1981 and the L5 Society. Formed in 1975, L5 was part of the grassroots pro-space movement that was catalyzed by physicist Gerard O’Neill’s ideas for free-floating settlements in space. L5’s membership was relatively small, never more than 10,000 people or so. But it was a vocal – at times argumentative and prone to internal disagreements – group with a strong membership in regions where aerospace and defense-related industries were concentrated. Screen Shot 2013-09-27 at 4.02.40 PMStarting in the late 1970s, the political balance of L5 members began to shift to the right. The militarization of space – keenly promoted by Reaganites – was a divisive issue for L5’ers. The growing attention the L5 society gave for space industrialization, space commerce, and the militarization of space chronicles the group’s drift from counterculture-flavored technological enthusiasm – communes in space where one could pursue alternative lifestyle choices –  to tacit approval of Reagan’s conservative space agenda. As early as 1977, one “long time space advocate and futurist” pleaded that the society’s newsletter present a variety of balanced and “socially conscientious” viewpoints that would be for the “betterment of the human race as a whole.” “Isn’t that what we are seeking,” he asked, “If it isn’t, damn you.”1

The changing makeup of L5’s board of directors nudged the group rightward. For example, by 1980, Jerry Pournelle had become one of the group’s most opinionated and voluble leaders. Before becoming a bestselling science fiction writer, Pournelle had contributed to speeches for Ronald Reagan when he was California’s governor.

In 1981, ten days after Reagan was inaugurated, Pournelle coordinated a meeting of futurists, aerospace executives, former astronauts, L5 officers, and other technology enthusiasts at fellow sci-fi writer Larry Niven’s home in Tarzana. The occasion was the first meting of the “Citizens’ Advisory Council on National Space Policy.” A few months later, the group issued a report (available here) based heavily (and somewhat unimaginatively) on a generic pro-business and pro-defense space agenda.

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Cover page of the 1981 report

A sense of the group’s membership can be seen in the following image; Heinlein’s name can be seen about half-way down.

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Membership list

That same year, with underwriting from the Heritage Foundation and conservative donors, Lt. Gen. Daniel O. Graham founded the High Frontier Project with several other influential Republicans. Nothing in Gerard O’Neill’s papers indicates how he felt about having his own phrase co-opted (Graham later claimed the choice was accidental) but, given his initial interest in the peaceful humanization of space, it is doubtful he would have approved. Graham and his allies used their political connections to establish a working relationship with the White House. The militarization of space – specifically, ballistic missile defense – figured prominently in their plans.

Eventually, Graham split with the group he helped start. Fearing that government bureaucrats would suffocate his ideas, he decided to, like O’Neill, take his ideas directly to the public. In his 1982 book High Frontier, Graham gave equal attention to space-based weapons and what he called the “non-military dimension” of space and generated lots of discussion inside the Beltway.2 A few years later – this would be around 1983, the same time that Reagan announced SDI – a science-fiction press re-published Graham’s book. Who provided prefatory material to this new version? Yup. Robert Heinlein.

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One version of Graham’s book

Although Pournelle has suggested that reports by the Council were read at high political levels and perhaps even influenced Reagan’s speeches, it is a long way from holding ad-hoc meetings in Los Angeles suburbs to helping influence national security policy.3 Evidence is circumstantial but former White House executives would understandably resist suggestions that a group that included sci-fi writers and futurists could wield influence. Moreover, many factors influenced Reagan’s thinking regarding space-based weapons4

Despite this, Heinlein believed that he and the other members of the Citizens’ Advisory Council did have influence on Reagan’s thinking. This belief is evident in his 1985 riposte to Barney Oliver:

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Page 2 of Heinlein’s letter

Heinlein writes – “It was not Mr. Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech that got me involved in this [SDI]…it was endless effort by a mere handful of us that got the matter to Mr. Reagan’s attention and resulted in his “Star Wars” speech.” Oliver, in Heinlein’s view, wasn’t just questioning the author’s patriotism or his belief about national defense. He was also – perhaps unknowingly – questioning work Heinlein had done, efforts, which – Heinlein believed – had helped craft a major new technology initiative.

Was Heinlein right? I don’t think so. The history of SDI has been picked over very well by many scholars, including my colleague Peter Westwick. Nothing has come to light that I’m aware of that illustrates a direct link between Heinlein’s advocacy and Reagan’s speech. Yes, Heinlein advocated space-based weapons before Reagan’s SDI speech in March 1983…but this does not mean this advocacy was heard and translated into policy. Until firm proof comes to light, Heinlein’s convictions are more grounded in fiction than fact.

  1. L5 News, July 1977: 7. []
  2. Daniel O. Graham, High Frontier: A New National Strategy (Washington, DC: High Frontier, 1982. []
  3. Discussed of 170-171 of Michael A.G. Michaud, Reaching for the High Frontier: The American Pro-Space Movement, 1972-1984 (New York: Praeger, 1986). Also, see Andrew J. Butrica’s excellent Single Stage to Orbit: Politics, Space Technology, and the Quest for Reusable Rocketry (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). A web-based debate over the issue of influence followed a 1999 piece by sci-fi writer Norman Spinrad, “Too High the Moon” was at  but this can now only be accessed via the Internet Archive. Pournelle’s response is at: []
  4. Including a 1940 film he had been in that featured an “inertia projector” that could disable enemy aircraft. Murder in the Air (Warner Brothers, 1940) is described in Frances Fitzgerald’s Way Out There in the Blue, 22-23. []

Is the Exploratorium Flunking Itself?

(Leaping Robot note: When I was in Manchester for the ICHSTM conference, one of the best sessions I attended addressed “science and public culture.” All of the talks were great but one that really resonated with me was by Karen Rader, a colleague of mine at Virginia Commonwealth University. The Exploratorium’s history is related to a new project I’m starting, so I invited her to write a guest post about some recent news concerning the institution. Here it is…)

When the Exploratorium burst onto the museum scene in 1969, it heralded the arrival of a new era of interactive display that was at once modest and remarkable, conservative and path-breaking.  Modesty shone thru in its creative method, which was scrappy, open-ended, and experimental, even while its institutional vision of redefining the museum experience was expansive and its faith in the scientific method bordered on naïve.

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The Exploratorium’s museum floor, in its original Palace of Fine Arts location.

Short on money, materials, and time, founder Frank Oppenheimer, a physicist and the brother of the Manhattan Project’s scientific director (and brother to J. Robert Oppenheimer), scrounged old lab equipment from Stanford to build bare-bones interactive exhibits that he hoped would make visitors question their basic assumptions about the physics and biology of perception.

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Frank Oppenheimer at home in his Exploratorium

Oppenheimer relied on family to help him install new wiring and sweep the floors of the floors of the city’s old Palace of Fine Arts, a cavernous rebuilt remnant of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition that he convinced the city of San Francisco to rent to him for a dollar a year.  At the same time, he told the local press that, unlike rigid school curricula, his museum would have no predefined learning outcomes: “No one ever flunked a museum” became the Exploratorium’s rallying cry.1 In the planning stages local neighbors objected to the museum’s presence, fearing that its anti-establishment values would attract San Francisco’s youth counterculture to the otherwise quiet Marina district.

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The cavernous space at the Palace of Fine Arts, 1968, that became the Exploratorium

They needn’t have worried: the day the museum opened, it barely registered with the public. No renowned scientists spoke, no ribbons were cut, no press releases were sent. That morning, Oppenheimer and the few members of the staff just opened the doors, and kept them open.  Two runners jogged in and “never slowed up,” Oppenheimer recalled. “They just went back and forth, and finally went through the curling path and out the door again.”2  The then-young National Science Foundation nevertheless took notice: the Exploratorium became one of the U.S. government’s first and longest post-Sputnik investments in a new program that would come to be called ‘informal science education.

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Exploratorium exhibits and visitors, 1975.

But on all this historic innovation and investment, the economics of running an interactive bricks-and-mortar museum in the age of Web 2.0 and vanishing federal support has recently taken a heavy toll. On August 26, the New York Times’ Kenneth Chang posted a story titled “Exploratorium Forced to Cut Back”, detailing the institution’s decision to pare down its staff of 435 by nearly a fifth in order to (in Chang’s description) “preserve the core of the institution while putting it back on an even financial keel.”  What caused the reported “budget hole” of around $11 million?  Current executive director Dennis Bartels chalks it up to a combination of bad timing and bad planning.  The museum recently underwent relocation – to Piers 15 and 17, between the tourist meccas of Fisherman’s Wharf and the Ferry Building – and a $220 million renovation on its new site that, in theory, could encompass double the visitors in nearly three football fields worth of displays, demonstration arenas, and teacher training spaces.  But just as when the original Exploratorium opened, the museum’s leaders “did not make a big publicity push” after the move, because apparently they “worried that the new location would be overwhelmed” in the same way that the California Academy of Sciences was after its 2008 renovation and reopening. Historically, museum directors rarely try to suppress attendance, but this unusual strategy combined with a more typical plan to promote what Oppenheimer would have called museum “addicts”: greatly reduced-price tickets for local visitors and children.

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Artist’s rendering of the Exploratorium in its new location on Pier 15.

Insiders publicly bear little ill-will towards the Exploratorium leadership, even while they recognize the momentousness of the shift that their miscalculations have wrought.   The institution has employed many staffers for the longue durée, some since the time when Oppenheimer was director and several of whom who (like biologist Karen Kalumuck) openly “love the place and the people” despite being let go.  Many of those leaving, however, are those who worked in the original experimental mode of exhibit building: develop an idea, prototype it, put it on the floor, and see what happens, then adjust and remount the display according to the visitor experience.  That model of interactive exhibit building values the same knowledge-making processes as organized science itself — trial-and-error, rigorous internal review, and relentless technological refinement and innovation – and it insists on achieving relevance to the visitor.  Even while Oppenheimer, himself a target of Cold War-era persecution for his communist beliefs, thought little of exhibits that simplistically pandered to audiences by incorporating contemporary ideological currents, he never lost sight of the need to move ‘hands-on’ displays beyond just pushing buttons and flipping switches to engage visitors in genuine explorations of the questions that meant the most to them.  Now, instead of such engaging in more such explorations, the foundation of the Exploratorium will be (in the words of exhibit designer Earl Rankin Stirling) “work-for-hire for other museums around the world.”   The Exploratorium will remain an exhibit shop, but one that is scaled up and focused primarily on the mass-production and sale of finished displayable products rather than the creation of messy, ‘ceiling wax and string’ works-in-progress.

Screen Shot 2013-09-23 at 2.07.49 PMOne can neither blame the museum for taking this direction, nor the staff for acquiescing.  Pragmatically, in an era when STEM education is supposed to be a high priority for states and countries around the world even though innovative ideas in this area have not always increased accordingly, distributing more high-quality, well-tested interactive exhibits as a means of increasing access to informal STEM learning will make a difference.  On a larger scale, it is also what will bring the museum back from the brink of financial collapse.  But it’s equally true that (again, quoting the assessment of the Exploratorium’s Mr. Stirling) “it’s a core difference” that “basically rips at the heart of who we are here.”  Without new display experiments of the kind the Exploratorium pioneered, what will tomorrow’s exhibits look like? How will visitors connect with them?  What will interactivity in the design of museum displays come to look like? One can only hope this development will not encourage the same kind of relentless standardization of science exhibit making that the “No Child Left Behind” Act ushered in for school testing.  If that happens, it would be an irony that Oppenheimer could have appreciated: no one ever flunked museums… except for museums themselves.

  1. For more on the history of the Exploratorium, see chapter 6 of Karen A. Rader and Victoria E.M. Cain, Life on Display: Revolutionizing Museums of Science and Natural History, 1900-1990 (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming (Fall 2014 []
  2. As cited in K.C. Cole, Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens, p. 152. []

“This is grim death…”

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Heinlein’s early fiction shaped his later political views. The September 1940 issue of Astounding Science Fiction contained his nuclear fission-oriented story “Blowups Happen”

Robert Heinlein was a fan of Star Wars. A passionate fan, if the correspondence in the Heinlein Archives gives any indication. But I’m not talking about the 1977 classic by George Lucas (nor any of the subsequent sequels nor recent Lego interpretations). There’s no evidence – none I’ve found, anyway – in the Heinlein papers that Star Wars caused any sort of disturbance in the Force for the award-winning author of sci-fi classics like Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

No, I’m talking about real plans to put real lasers (and other hardware) in space – Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Announced in March 1983, journalists and politicians quickly dubbed Reagan’s vision – and it was little more than that, at the time – “Star Wars.” SDI’s advocates pitched it as a technological end-run around the “limits” of nuclear weapons negotiations which appeared at an impasse, especially after the 1979 Soviet incursion into Afghanistan. Speaking to the terrifying logic of “mutually assured destruction,” Reagan asked in his televised speech, “Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than avenge them?” Whether he or his advisers were sincere is beside the point. Just as space-based settlements promised a “technological fix” for overpopulation and resource shortages, Star Wars offered similar (and equally unrealistic) solutions to the perils of nuclear war and the “limits” of arms control treaties. (An aside: if you’re really interested in nuclear topics, especially those pertaining to secrecy, check out Alex Wellerstein’s blog.)

Praised by conservatives and many in the military while derided by liberal politicians, Reagan’s plan for rendering incoming nuclear-tipped missiles “impotent and obsolete” was among the most divisive issues the post-1945 science and engineering communities had ever confronted. (For one recent look at this, see Rebecca Slayton’s new book on the SDI controversy). A small taste of the nasty exchanges between people on differing sides of the SDI debate can be found in an exchange of letters between Heinlein and Bernard (“Barney) Oliver in February 1985.

It started when Oliver – well-known in the technical and scientific community as the founding director of Hewlett-Packard’s research labs – wrote a letter to Heinlein. The recently retired scientist began by noting that John R. Pierce – Oliver’s contemporary at Bell Labs and also a science fiction writer – had commented on Heinlein’s interest in missile defense. Oliver went on to tell Heinlein that the prevailing “scientific consensus” held that the “effective interception of a massive [nuclear] attack presents enormous technical difficulties.” SDI, in other words, wouldn’t work as its proponents imagined.

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Barney Oliver’s opening salvo…pretty mild.

Oliver briefly listed the reasons – missile decoys were always going to be cheaper than defensive countermeasures and so forth – and concluded that the “problem has been thoroughly studied from the Nike days through the ABM to now. Maybe something has changed the balance but I am not aware of it.” End of a pretty mild salvo.

The response was anything but. In today’s parlance – Heinlein went nuclear. “I see John has you trying to pull his chestnuts out of the fire,” the sci-fi writer began.

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Heinlein’s retort, page 1.

Oliver, Heinlein says, must have mistaken him for some “uninformed but good-intentioned laymen” who just needed to be educated “as to the experts’ opinions” on SDI. But Heinlein was no naif when it came to nuclear and defense issues. No, his interests in such matters went back, he noted, some four decades. In fact, five years before Hiroshima – in September 1940 – Heinlein published “Blowups Happen” which he claimed was the “first story ever published about the explosive potential of fissioning U-235.”1

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Scene from Blowups Happen, courtesy of Bill Higgins.

In fact, since 1945, “the problems of the next world war have been my principal study,” Heinlein said.

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Heinlein’s reply, p. 2

Besides sending Oliver copies of his fiction stories, Heinlein reminded the retired scientist that both he and his wife Virgina served in the military during World War Two. “We are both retired Navy,” he said, “bound by the same oath and share the same values.”

In other words – Heinlein claimed he well knew what he was talking about. And these views were quite different than those of Barney Oliver and many other physicists and engineers. When it came to SDI, Heinlein believed “this is not just a friendly debate…this is grim death, the very survival of our country.” And if Oliver wasn’t going to be part of the solution, then he “should not go out of [his] way to discourage the troops (i.e., in this case, Ginny and me.)”  “Barney,” he said, “I am going to ask you to stand up and be counted.”

As Heinlein saw it, “the present balance of terror is an unspeakable folly.” In addition, the recent turnovers inside the Kremlin had left him unnerved. (The USSR had seen three General Secretaries of the Communist Party. Brezhnev was replaced by Andropov in 1982 followed by Chernenko in 1984. A few weeks after Heinlein and Oliver corresponded, Gorbachev would assume the position.) “When do we get one as crazy as Stalin?” he wondered.

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Page 3

To be fair, Heinlen doesn’t come across as “pro-nuclear war” in the same manner that Reanganites dropped glib comments and fashioned sober policy (starting under Carter with Presidential Directive 59) about “winnable” nuclear war. Such ideas were hotly debated in the early 1980s. And, Heinlein claimed, he wasn’t endorsing SDI with blinders on. “I am backing Star Wars despite its glaring faults because I do not know of anything better.” He went on to challenge Oliver – an “electronic genius” – and his colleagues to come up with something better. “Shucks,” he wrote, “the description of the SDI project is so loosely worded…Hewlett-Packard could have a write-your-own ticket contract under SDI.”

Would Oliver would be willing to try? If so, Heinlein exclaimed “bully for you!” But if not…then Oliver should just “back off and shut up; the grownups have work to do.”

So – why did Robert Heinlein react so strongly – even nastily – to what was a quite mild letter from a colleague, if not a friend? Was this just two retired men – both of whom did military-related research during World War Two – having a squabble. One answer is right there in Heinlein’s own words: to him, the nuclear standoff with the Soviets was a clear, present, and unstable danger. “Which side are you on, Doctor?” he asked Oliver. “Better Red than Dead? Or Better Dead than Red?” Because when it came to defending the United States, Heinlein claimed “there is third position…no middle ground.”

But there was another reason as well…more on that next time. But here’s a hint:

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From 1983…


  1. Heinlein also wrote another story about what today would be called a ‘dirty bomb’ called “Solution Unsatisfactory”. Both were republished in 1946 in a sci-fi anthology. []