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. []

“The Place They Do Imagineering”

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Disney’s logo for its Imagineering division; source: Wikipedia

[Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part series; it follows up with a story I began in my last post. My thanks to Ray Macauley for sharing the documents referenced here.]

After reading Carl Sagan’s March 1976 essay, NASA head James Fletcher told the scientist he would try to find some way to commemorate Robert Goddard’s Anniversary Day. About 5 months later, Herbert J. Rowe, an associate administrator for NASA’s external affairs for NASA, told Sagan about a new award the space agency was planning. In his letter, Rowe included a proposal for the “Goddard Imagineering Award.”

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Rowe’s Reply to Carl Sagan

Recipients of the new award would be “strong willed individuals pursuing innovative concepts.” It would favor the “past year’s most imaginative/innovative achievement in furthering the end objectives of the nation’s aerospace effort” and be open to contributions from people including “science, management, and engineering…They need not be from the aerospace community.” Besides the recognition, honorees would get $1,776 (the award would be initiated during the U.S.’s Bicentennial year.) The timing of the plan makes sense – the Apollo era was fading away and the space agency was keen to find its next big mission, especially in the realm of human spaceflight.

There’s a short backstory here about “imagineers”: In the histories of technology, there are individuals who have had a clear and strong vision of an expansive future created by technologies they studied, designed, and promoted. Pushing beyond hand-waving and podium speculations, their activities sometimes resulted in actual things like prototypes, models, patents, and computer simulations. Just as importantly, these people also built communities and networks so they could connect their ideas for the technological future to interested citizens, writers, politicians, and business leaders. Visioneer is the portmanteau I used to describe these people. But the term I originally wanted to use was “imagineer.”

It sounds funny now – and I live in California which makes it that much more embarrassing – but I didn’t know this was a job category at the Walt Disney Corporation. Imagineers at Disney are the people who do the design and development of the company’s theme parks. My wife, a medievalist in possession of a better sense of pop culture than me, broke the bad news so I cast about for a different term. Hence, visioneer. In the end, it worked better.

However, as it turns out, the folks at Disney weren’t the first to use “imagineering.” In February 1942, Time magazine carried an advertisement for Alcoa, the Pittsburgh-based aluminum company. Titled “The Place They Do Imagineering,” the ad’s text reads in part: “It takes a very special word to describe making aluminum cheap, making it versatile, finding totally new places to use it, and then helping people use it where they should…Imagineering is letting your imagination soar, and then engineering it down to earth.” Pretty close to what I meant by visioneers, in other words…

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 1.39.40 PMI haven’t yet located any more information on what Sagan said in response to Rowe. And, from what I can tell thus far, NASA’s “imagineering” award itself never saw realization. Perhaps NASA didn’t want to tangle with Disney on this one. But…there are at least two awards now named after Goddard, including the Robert H. Goddard Memorial Trophy. This is given annually since 1958 by the National Space Club; this year it went to the Curiosity/Mars Science Laboratory team.

I’d like to think that if NASA had actually instituted the “Goddard Imagineering Award”, one of its early recipients might have been physicist Gerard O’Neill. Like Goddard, O’Neill had an expansive vision of how the humanization of space might be done and the long-term effects that space settlements might have. Like Goddard, O’Neill coupled his imagination to real-world engineering and design. As it turns out, in 1986 O’Neill did receive a somewhat similar award. This was named after a different Robert – science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein.

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Robert A. Heinlein Memorial Award; this one was given to Burt Rutan.

O’Neill’s trophy is still in the basement of his Princeton home but will soon be going to the National Air and Space Museum. But, more than anything, Rowe’s proposal is intriguing beyond his conceptualization of imagineering as a necessary ingredient in fostering innovative thinking. It makes me wonder what sorts of people might have received such an award. Open to people from outside NASA’s circle, perhaps the “Goddard Imagineering Award” might have gone to an artist, musician, or poet. Given that O’Neill, a physicist, eventually won an award named after a fiction writer, this would have made nice symmetry. One can only imagine.