American Exceptionalism and Space Exploration

A rain-soaked crowd in New York city watch Neil Armstrong step onto the Moon in 1969.

A rain-soaked crowd in New York City watches Neil Armstrong step onto the Moon in 1969.

Why is the term, “American exceptionalism” so readily and predictably panned by writers and commentators, as well as in comments that follow those articles?  Do those who condemn and ridicule its use understand the concept and origin of that term?  I believe they do not, so let me spell out what American exceptionalism is.  First, let me begin by noting that I needed to tell the word processing software I’m using to ignore my use of the word “exceptionalism,” as it is programmed to believe that there is no such thing, signaling to the writer that “exceptionalism” is incorrect usage.  Unfortunately it would seem that many Americans have been programmed to believe the same thing.

The United States of America is the first country founded on the principle of individual liberty and freedom.  In a world where people had long lived under the dictates of tyrants (suffered lives of serfdom and slavery under government oppression and confiscation), the founding of America by refugees of conscience was a radical departure – an experiment whereby the people decided their own fate and prospered from their own labor.  By design, this government was created with limited powers and answerable to the people – where individual rights came from God not from government.  This grand experiment created the richest, freest and most successful country in the history of the world.  It is the exceptional way that this nation was created and how it encouraged individual success that is meant by the term “American exceptionalism.”  It does not mean that Americans believe that they are better than people living in other countries.  It means that the political system we have inherited and through which we succeed, is exceptional.  The principal reasons for the success of the American experiment are freedom and liberty.  And it works everywhere it is tried.

Astronaut Ed White makes the first American space walk, 1965.

Astronaut Ed White makes the first American space walk on the Gemini 4 mission, 1965.

How did American exceptionalism lead to the success of the U.S. space program?  As has been written here and in other publications, the race to the Moon between the United States and the Soviet Union was a Cold War battle fought to claim the mantle of ideological superiority – democracy or communism, freedom or tyranny.  Freedom and liberty won.  Communism and tyranny failed.  The Iron Curtain came down and the world clamored for freedom.  The United States said they were going to land a man on the Moon within the decade and return him safely home and they did.  When President Reagan advocated a missile defense system to protect the free world (dubbed “Star Wars” by a skeptical media), the Soviet leaders bankrupted their country attempting to compete.  With the success of the Apollo program, the Soviets understood that Americans would work and achieve what they set out to do.  Freedom and liberty were concepts embraced by people around the world, and feared by those who oppressed their people.

Forty-one years ago, Americans left the Moon.  Yesterday China put a lander and a rover on the lunar surface.  Today, America can’t launch a human into space.  China is working toward building a space station and putting people on the Moon.  Are America’s days of drive and success behind her?  Is China’s era of drive and success ahead of her?  Is it even important to ask this question?  Wu Ji, director general of the China National Space Science Center believes it needs to be asked.  Stating candidly that he is “dismayed by recent changes” in the U.S. space program, Wu told NPR foreign correspondent Anthony Kuhn, “I don’t know if your listeners or people living in the U.S. understand these changes but as I observe them from the outside, I feel that America is gradually contracting and closing itself off.  It’s a very strange thing.”

In light of other examples where the United States has retreated from leadership on the world stage, this isn’t that strange.  Some of our current leaders believe that America has led too long in world affairs and that our involvement on the international stage has created a more dangerous world.  They contend that by the U.S. taking a rearward position, a healthy normalization of international attitudes will rise up, precipitating world peace.  Others feel this is a dangerous position to take and an abdication of leadership by the United States – that signaling a weak stance gives encouragement to oppressive regimes.

That China would want to energetically embrace space exploration and exploitation is not the issue, but rather that the United States is wandering aimlessly, without strategic direction.  China understands that the Moon is a resource essential to space (as well as terrestrial) leadership and success; the United States apparently does not.  China understands that expansion into space improves the economy and lives of their citizens here on Earth; the United States apparently does not.  Very perplexing.

China on the Moon is not the issue.  The issue – and the problem – is that the United States is not on the Moon, nor planning to return there to harvest resources necessary to build and profit from the inevitable transportation system to be built in cislunar space (the area between the Earth and the Moon, where all of our commercial and national space assets reside).  American exceptionalism must stay viable and be a strong presence along side China and other nations.

So when someone mentions “American exceptionalism” in the same breath as space exploration, it is to express the truth that America must not abandon the frontier of the Moon and its economic and national potential to others.  Wherever humankind goes, the exceptional and successful experiment of government “by and for the people” must be there too.

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31 Responses to American Exceptionalism and Space Exploration

  1. Big government projects tend to viewed with a great deal of skepticism by American culture– except if they are related to the US military.

    America is still a very religious country that is frequently hostile to science. Many people are still under the illusion that America is great because of its strong religious and moral beliefs– instead of its incredible scientific advancements. Many Americans are still in denial that they are living in the Scientific Age even though they take advantage of the products and technologies of science practically every day of their lives.

    Even in our K through college system, intelligent students interested in science are frequently derided as nerds or geeks. The excellent PBS documentary about the origins of the portable computer revolution was entitled “Triumph of the Nerds”. Exactly where would the American economy be today without the portable computer and internet revolution???

    Fortunately a free and democratic America is also the third most populous country on Earth. So no matter how hostile or indifferent people tend to be towards science in America, the US is still going to produce and import a lot scientist and engineers and innovative people than most other countries. Plus our titanic military R&D budget still produces a great number of new technologies.

    But if America was only 30 million in population instead of more than 300 million, we’d probably be one of the least innovative democratic countries on Earth, IMO.

    The future belongs to politically stable countries that are economically innovative and efficient. China’s ruling communist Party is rapidly pushing China scientifically and technologically forward— by any means necessary! America, on the other hand, is politically paralyzed by the silly left right cultural wars, refusing to adequately invest in its scientific and technological future while running one of the most– unnecessarily– wasteful and inefficient welfare states on Earth.


  2. Mark R. Whittington says:

    Eloquent as always, Paul. I am confident that we shall meet the challenge in the fullness of time.

    • ernst wilson says:

      Paul why does the moon seem getting further away from the US?

      • Paul Spudis says:

        Because we have a bunch of people in charge of our space program that either do not understand the value of the Moon or, if they do, oppose our use of it.

        • gbaikie says:

          I think very few people understand the value of the Moon-
          nor do I think people generally understand the value of, say, New York city. I don’t have much inking of either And anything big is hard to understand just generally speaking.

          But I think if they were being honest, they would agree with this article:

          I think it good article. I reference it often.
          And I think it’s dead wrong.
          I can’t imagine being more wrong.
          For someone unfamiliar with the topic, not blameworthy.
          But article obviously indicates some understanding of the subject. And probably the writer, was put on someone’s knee and explained the facts of the matter to them.

          I would love for NASA administrator to argue convincingly why this article is wrong, but I think they would tend to nod their head and perhaps say something like, “something may happen in the future that changes this”.

          As it appears to me that waiting is major element of NASA strategy.

        • gbaikie says:

          A quote from article:
          “Unless life turns up on Mars, or somewhere even more unexpected, public interest in the whole thing is likely to wane. And it is the public that pays for it all.”

          Why should the public in general care about life on Mars?
          Scientifically I see how it’s interesting.
          I find the “black smokers” on our the ocean, very interesting.

          few scientific discoveries match the significant of this discovery in the 20th century.
          Let me make short list: Impactors hitting Earth in present age, plate tectonic theory being accepted as true. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge confirmed: “The existence of such a ridge was confirmed by sonar in 1925”, which exploration resulted in giving weight to theory of plate tectonic. Black smoker, dispelling myth that life was non-existent in deep oceans, and allows to imagine there could be life on Mars or Europa. The discovery life starting at around 3.8 billion ago, on planet Earth. Of course understanding nature of impactors related to the Moon, allowed the theory of extinction of age Dinosaurs being caused impactor, of which impact crater in in Mexico.
          Such things this are profoundly important in terms of science.
          But other than interesting trivia, does public care about them?

          And they should not care too much about them. They have far more important thing to concern themselves with.
          So I believe the public would wrong if it decided that black smokers were so important the tens of billion of dollars per year should spent understanding them. And I think black smoker are far more important to the public than any alien life one could find on Mars.

    • Robert Clark says:

      Renewed Congressional Push for a NASA Return to the Moon.
      Sparked by Chinese Chang’e 3/Jade Rabbit.
      Mark Whittington, Yahoo Contributor Network
      Dec 21, 2013

      COMMENTARY | One salutary thing about the Chinese landing the Chang’e 3/Jade Rabbit probe on the lunar surface is that it has caused a new congressional push for an American return to the moon. But will President Obama heed it?
      Rep. Frank Wolf, R-VA, the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, has sent the president a letter in which he urges him to hold a White House conference gathering the best minds, not only in the United States, but from among America’s international allies, to devise a lunar exploration program to start within ten years. The coalition that would return to the moon would include such entrepreneurial companies such as Golden Spike and Moon Express.
      Wolf is retiring at the end of the current Congress. The man who is likely to replace him as chief House NASA appropriation, John Culberson, echoed Wolf’s sentiments in a recent interview. Culberson specifically singled out the presence of rare earth elements, which have become crucial for making high tech products, on the moon as a rationale for going and for not allowing the Chinese to be the sole lunar explorer.

      Bob Clark

  3. Joe says:

    If the following quote from the state-run China News Service can be believed, it would appear that they are interested in the use of lunar resources and that “Chinese exceptionalism” is doing quite well.

    “By successfully joining the international deep-space exploration club, we finally have the right to share the resources on the moon with developed countries.”

  4. reader says:

    To Joe : Chinese officials have talked about lunar resources in context of Chang’e program since the beginning. If you go back and watch the CCTV coverage over the weekend they have separate segments dedicated to talk about the long term resource potential of the Moon. I’ve heard mentions of Helium-3, regular abundant metals, valuable metals, water.

    Of course, this is their first landing, so way premature to talk about actually doing anything with the resources, but they have a clearly stated intent.

    • Joe says:


      Thanks for the information.

      Their first lunar lander is, of course, too soon to grant them lunar mining rights. However, they do have (as you say) the intent. Additionally, they have the capability to place people in LEO and lander/rovers on the moon; sadly (at the moment – even though we used to have much more capability, including that to place people on the moon) we have neither.

    • China is not simply thinking about their capabilities on the Moon today or even a decade from now. They are thinking about their strategic and economic future on the Moon thirty or forty years from now!

      Its not difficult to imagine self sustaining industrialized colonies on the Moon having complete dominance over the manufacturing and launching of satellites destined for Earth orbit by mid century– taking full advantage of the Moon’s low gravity well.

      The export of lunar thorium slightly enriched with uranium 233 (up to 1%) from the spent fuel of lunar nuclear reactors could be a valuable energy commodity for terrestrial nations powering their cities and manufacturing synthetic fuels with thorium reactors. Uranium 238 on Earth is naturally enriched with fissile uranium 235 at approximately 0.72%.

      You can check out the excellent video documentary: The Thorium Dream at:

      And, of course, there has long been talk about using lunar material and even the lunar surface itself for supply energy through microwaves or lasers for human civilization on Earth.

      The citizens of nations that ignore the strategic and economic potential of the Moon will pay a severe economic price in the future, IMO.


  5. Michael Wright says:

    “The United States of America is the first country founded on the principle of individual liberty and freedom. In a world where people had long lived under the dictates of tyrants (suffered lives of serfdom and slavery under government oppression and confiscation)…”

    It seems we have departed from those principles from our Founding Fathers and loss of exceptionalism.

  6. gbaikie says:

    “That China would want to energetically embrace space exploration and exploitation is not the issue, but rather that the United States is wandering aimlessly, without strategic direction. China understands that the Moon is a resource essential to space (as well as terrestrial) leadership and success; the United States apparently does not. China understands that expansion into space improves the economy and lives of their citizens here on Earth; the United States apparently does not. Very perplexing.”

    Not really. Japanese made a very good fighter aircraft, the Zero.
    If want a good government, pick Sweden. Ruled by a King for gosh sakes.
    Not good government is moral sense [but then again which government is] but they do ok
    managing the joint.
    The US system is as good as it allows it citizen to do things. That is it. That is all.
    In war or Apollo, the government allowed it’s people to do great things.

    But currently we have NASA building it’s own launch system. It did the same thing with
    Shuttle Program, and wishes to continue with this habit. And this kind of stuff
    which has nothing to do with “American exceptionalism”. Only expceptional in sense
    that NASA has mountains of cash to burn thru.

    If this was “American exceptionalism” then we have “German exceptionalism” in regard to their building of tanks. The Soviets even managed to build a good tank. Why? Because the Soviets actually listened to an American, Christie. Same with Japanese, the got ideas from Americans.
    So one say Americans are exceptional to the extent that one is talking the American people- and only it’s government, when the government follows the Constitution. When we a have Federal government which does things like Obamacare it’s not following the Constitution despite a majority
    of Supreme Justices voting that it is.

    Americans are revolutionizing medical science, and government wants to control it.
    Are Canadian doing anything to significantly improve medicine?
    Because the government has already screwed up medical insurance and they want continue to screw it up.

    And being ruled by pack of lawyers is probably the worst fate anyone wish on anyone.

    What is good about the Ten Commandments?
    It’s mostly good because it was a reduction laws, only 10. Does any imagine there is anything new about mountainous nature of current American laws and regulation? Other we are less limited by quantity of paper or stone tablets which can be used.

    It can be argued that for Americans to explore space, we need something like NASA.
    But what NASA is doing, does not help make this argument. NASA is not vigorously doing what
    anyone who understand “American exceptionalism” would think it should do.
    What NASA seems to want, is to be like the Chinese space agency, but have a much bigger
    budget. So in other words, NASA is simply missing a vast opportunity to be an American
    space agency. Though the space agency does not have a lot “government peer pressure” to assist it
    in this regard

    Why? Well it wasn’t too long ago that many people who regarded themselves as smart
    thought the Soviet Union was the wave of the future.
    And they will not actually change their minds.They were brainwashed to start with, so how could they possibly manage to change their minds?

    But despite this, Americans remain exceptional. And exceptional in terms doing things related
    to space. For example we still going to have suborbital flight next year [maybe]. SpaceX might build the largest rockets since Saturn V, next year [maybe]. US still is major player in ISS. We have nice rover on Mars, called Curiosity. We have great orbiter, LRO, flying at the Moon.
    NASA has manage to do COTS fairly well.And have the elections of 2014 and 2016 coming up which could more interesting than normal.


    • Paul Spudis says:

      The US system is as good as it allows it citizen to do things. That is it. That is all.
      In war or Apollo, the government allowed it’s people to do great things.

      In our system, government doesn’t “allow” anything — it is the instrument of our collective will. You praise NASA on one hand (Curiosity rover, LRO) but damn it on the other (SLS). Why is one superior to the other? Because you like the one and not the other.

      All this is in the weeds. You talk specific projects, not strategic directions. The problem America has with space is not any given program but the lack of a real achievable strategic horizon. We had that with the Vision for Space Exploration and now we do not. Some mock the Chinese for “doing what we did 40 years ago.” But at the same time, they praise “New Space” for doing what “we” did 50 years ago. It all depends on whose ox is being gored.

      Hype and BS has replaced real achievement in the American space program.

      • reader says:

        “Each group and the individuals attending agreed to drop personal or organizational agendas such as planetary destinations, or technological fixes and work together to create a space exploration and settlement agenda for the nation that could be carried to the White House and Congress.”

        Why are these calls not going anywhere ?

        • Paul Spudis says:

          Probably because “settlement” is not an obtainable, successful long-term rationale for the civil space program.

          I discuss this concept in two previous posts:

          • reader says:

            I have read both before, and did a quick brief scan again. However, you surely realize that Settlement is much more unifying than your cislunar transportation and lunar resources goal for most people interested in space subjects ?

            I agree on the principles of the strategy you propose. ( not the details of course, as always – and the first thing i would focus on is building a robotic village on the moon ).

            But i know major part of population that is even aware of state of affairs in space will not ever agree, no matter how you reason and argue with them.

            To me this is about finding A Goal that can be unifying, not The Best goal that a few understand and support. A compromise and a truce.

            A couple illustrations on the issue

          • Paul Spudis says:

            I agree with you that we are not likely to ever find a “unifying goal” that all will sign on to. My point about settlement is that it only appeals to the true believers, but you have them already anyway. More negatively, “space settlement” in the minds of the unbelievers is likely to provoke an extreme reaction; boondoggle will be the kindest word they come up with.

            Here’s the real issue — it doesn’t matter whether you get “the public” on your side (or even a majority of the space community). You only need a critical mass of key decision makers. Nobody poll-tested the Apollo program. There’s no substitute for leadership.

          • Michael Wright says:

            That article “one legged stools” which Reader linked reminded me what Dennis Wingo wrote in his book “Moon Rush” and a chapter discussed in about late 1980s SEI (or whatever it was called) of plans for expansion that was followed by the Augustine commission in 1990 (or early 90s). Though price tag scared many, it was later recommended to pursue the “intangibles.” This meant after 17 years (from Apollo 17) the plans to go BEO all went poof.

            Supposably that commission was mostly planetary scientists that had no interest in building lunar outposts, fuel depots, etc. I forget the details from the book. Moon Rush has lots of interesting details on space history of what worked and what didn’t and why.

            I remember watching the 2009 Augustine Commission II hearings on NASA TV and Dennis speaking during commentaries of which he said, “20 years ago I was in front this commission as an angry young student.” He then said something of like, “I’m back to say it is important of what this commission presents because it will determine what our plans are for next 20 years.” I recorded the video, need to watch it again (maybe post it to youtube).

      • gbaikie says:

        “All this is in the weeds. You talk specific projects, not strategic directions. The problem America has with space is not any given program but the lack of a real achievable strategic horizon. ”

        Americans and humans need markets.
        Markets are why we using computers. And essential to every aspect of modern living or primitive living. It is the activity humans are engaged in.

        As I said often without the commercial satellite market NASA costs would be higher and there would less interest in NASA, and therefore
        NASA may have already have been ended as government agency.
        Remove the commercial satellite market, and the world is significantly changed. Obviously one has example of world without commercial satellites, before 1960. And there is large difference between that world and now.
        So commercial satellite market is fairly small market- around 100 billion dollar market.
        And what NASA should is attempt to being more markets related space
        activities. The suborbital space market is an example. Within a few years
        the suborbital market could be around a billion dollar market.

        Of course NASA and US Military made some efforts in related to sub-orbitial travel, decades ago and are still engaged in various related projects. There is no call or interest for government get into
        the business of suborbital “joyrides”, other than using such vehicles for scientific exploration of Earth’s atmosphere and space.
        So evolution of commercial suborbital market is good and will be good, everything to do with space, just the commercial satellite is.

        But my point is we need more markets in space. And seems as good direction in this regard, is the development of a rocket fuel market in space. So in terms of cheapest and nearest in terms of getting such a market would shipping rocket fuel to space from Earth. And it evolves
        into lunar water mining etc.
        Mining water in space, is key to starting a far more significant market in
        space, which a an electrical power market. Earth has electrical market,
        globally. And Space doesn’t. Space has brought into the 20th century.
        And just electrical markets transformed Earth in the early part of 20th century, and electrical market in space will transform the space environment, and by transforming the space environment, this will radically transform the lives of people living on Earth.

    • The difference between the US space program and the Chinese space program is that the Chinese program appears to be designed to pioneer the solar system rather than just explore it.

      Climbing the highest mountain may be interesting and exciting but exploring and pioneering a new world can socially and economically revolutionizes a society. The current administration views space travel as a stunt of simply climbing the highest mountain while the Chinese view space travel as– exploring and pioneering a new world.

      Of course, Americans have a political system dominated by cynical lawyers– including the President– while 8 of the top 9 leaders of China are either scientist or engineers.

      Sure, Americans could just leave the advancement of science and technology to the private companies and corporations. But the American people need to understand that private business has no loyalty to the American people! Their loyalty is to the almighty dollar– or yen!

      And if China’s ruling oligarchy is in control of the most of the money in the world, then the loyalty of private industry will be to that ruling oligarchy! And an American government of the people, by the people, and for the people could be enslaved by that future economic reality!

      Like they say in the Godfather, “’s just business, nothing personal!”


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  8. David Dickson says:

    Indeed, China is thinking ahead as to what they will do on and with the moon decades from now. But the problem in the United States is not that we are NOT thinking or planning about these things. The problem is that we are thinking and planning about these things in isolated private fiefdoms–none of which are trusted by Americans writ large to competently act on their thoughts and plans.

    Sure, Elon Musk is putting forward big plans for space exploration, as is Richard Branson, as are several different parts of NASA, as are several different members of Congress, as are several different agencies in the executive branch. And they are working with great optimism and gusto, yes they are. But is there anyone COORDINATING all this brainstorming, planning, and optimism? No.

    And do we, the American people, trust anyone in government–or even business!– to do any coordination? Hells, SEVEN hells, no. We’ve seen how this plays out via the Constellation program–it was cancelled partly as revenge against the Bush administration, partly as a result of bureaucratic infighting in NASA, partly as a result of “boondoggle”-hating anti-manned-space “deficit hawks” in Congress, with the bad economy as a convenient excuse. But in the bigger picture, it was cancelled because nobody has the clout (nevermind the courage) to lead on this issue–and because the American people, bless their hearts, are not good followers right now. They don’t want to be “led”, on space or anything else. They want to bunker up, and pray to God that everyone, up to and including China, Russia, and possibly Mother Nature Herself, leaves them alone.

    Until we stop being a risk-averse body politic, and deserve good leadership, we will not get it. We will stay the heck off the moon and Mars, and we will continue to act like an emotionally scarred nation–paranoid and averse to do anything truly bold, while kvetching all the while about all the “bad leadership” that we get, but truly deserve.

    P.S. And anyone tempted to blame Constellation’s closure on “ideologues” in the current administration who “hate American exceptionalism”–well, to be blunt, it’s a nice fantasy, but it’s projection at best. If there’s anyone the current administration “hates” on the issue of space, it’s people who make big plans, and then fail to act on them or fund them competently–like some other administrations we could name.

    Which makes them hypocrites to an extent, but so these things go.

  9. billgamesh says:

    Thanks David, I agree mostly. But then, nobody ever seems to agree with anyone completely, do they? Everyone has their own plan, their own agenda, their own vision of the future.

    “-it was cancelled because nobody has the clout (nevermind the courage) to lead on this issue-”

    The only way we made it to the Moon was fear of the communists taking over the world. Only fear trumps greed. If we want anything to happen I think we need to find another enemy and the only ones that scare me are outbreaks and impacts. Space just happens to be the answer to both these threats.

  10. Michael Wright says:

    Somewhat related to this discussion, maybe this pdf illustrates American Exceptionalism of the past. It has been written much of the titans (chip manufacturers) of Silicon Valley were mostly driven by DOD programs. Sam Araki, from Lockheed Martin and one of the first team members for the Corona Program, did a presentation in 2011,
    Mr. Araki mentioned slide 4 shows our system is broken unlike the past where it was able to recover.

    Mr. Araki said buildup of military and space during Cold War also resulted in significant benefits to the consumer and commercial markets for the US. Same technology developed for missiles and spacecraft like Corona satellites were also used to develop consumer products. But not for Soviet Union because of their way of government and doing business.

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