“To Peace, Because the Awful Alternative is the End of All Life”: Build Bomb–Explore Space(s)–Save World! (Part 2)

This two-part post is a collaborative authorship between Taylor R. Genovese and Martin Pfeiffer, a PhD student in Anthropology at the University of New Mexico. For more on Martin’s work see his blog Deus Ex Atomica and his personal Twitter account @NuclearAnthro.

In Part 1, we analyzed nuclear weapon and defense industry advertisements from 1950-1964 to demonstrate the fundamentally, and publically imagined, imbrications of spaces exploration and U.S. military supremacy. In Part 2 we continue with a deeper theoretical examination of technoutopian spaces imaginaries. Although in this post we make use of colloquialisms like “Space Race,” “Ocean Race,” and “Earth Race,” we do not accept the real-world separations they imply. We argue, as per our discussion in Part 1, that these spaces explorations were fundamentally aspects of the same underlying colonial and militarist processes.

Space(s) Race and the Duel Use of Rockets

The so-called “Space Race” was a key component of the violent technological, geopolitical, economic, and social competitions between the United States and the Soviet Union. As we showed in Part 1, the Space Race and the nuclear arms race—like the Ocean Race and Earth Race—were just different rooms in the same office building built on a technoutopian foundation. We argue, somewhat cynically but not unrealistically, that the space race was, fundamentally, a technocultural showcase—a theatrical performance—of what each country’s capabilities were, cloaked behind the pretense of science and exploration. In fact, until the Saturn V moon rocket, every crew-rated NASA space launch vehicle utilized converted intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs): Mercury used the Redstone rocket for sub-orbital flights and the Atlas rocket for orbital flights; Gemini used the Titan II (Dick et al. 2007).

titan ii and gemini 1 launch side by side
A Titan II ICBM capable of carrying a 9 megaton thermonuclear warhead (left) and a Titan II carrying the crewed Gemini 1 spacecraft (right).
Image credit: U.S. Department of Defense / NASA

For the astronauts riding these rockets, the military pedigree could be an unsettling physical experience. Michael Collins, a crew member of Apollo 11, first flew into space on Gemini 10, lifted above our atmosphere by a Titan II rocket. Collins (1974) described the unsettling rocking motion after lift-off—and continuing until reaching orbit—from the extreme gimbaling of the engine nozzles, a motion necessary for a missile designed to be sufficiently maneuverable to hit targets 6,000 miles away. His anecdote points to an unusually embodied experience during the highly theoretical practices of imagined nuclear deterrence, especially when it came to nuclear missiles, which were never fired against the homeland of an adversary (Derrida 1984; Grant and Ziemann 2016). The mostly imaginary nature of large-scale nuclear war encouraged a series of simulation efforts and experiments to inform planning for war and Civil Defense (Davis 2007; Oakes 1994; Rose 2001). These included the Desert Rock military exercises at the Nevada Test Site (1951-1957); public and government Civil Defense drills such as Operation Alert (1954-1961); and even a nationally broadcast nuclear test, Operation Cue (1955), that attempted to showcase the utility of Civil Defense preparations for surviving nuclear attack. Especially entertaining was Plumbbob John in 1957 in which 5 men (and one photographer) stood three miles underneath a 1.5 kiloton nuclear detonation to “prove” the safety of U.S. plans to use large numbers of nuclear weapons for continental air defense.1

The destruction of the National Reconnaissance Office satellite USA-193 after being struck with an ASAT in 2008.
Image credit: U.S. Department of Defense

In the 1950s and 1960s the United States and the Soviet Union both began experimenting with anti-satellite weapons (ASATs), first to counter the perceived threat of nuclear orbital bombardment systems, and then to deny adversaries military use of space for reconnaissance and communications. The inaccuracy of early guidance systems, as with early anti-ballistic missile defenses, led to the use of high yield, nuclear-tipped kill vehicles (Grego 2012). The Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967, banned the deployment of nuclear weaponry in outer space. However, the sustained relevance of space as a domain for militarily important assets (surveillance and communications satellites) encouraged the continued development of ASAT weapons by multiple nations in the Cold War and now. In 2008, the U.S. Air Force demonstrated the ASAT capability of the Standard Missile 3 (SM-3), supposedly in order to destroy an inoperative National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellite called USA-193. The test drew condemnations from Russia and China (Webb 2008) and also highlighted the inherent ASAT capabilities of deployed American ballistic missile defense systems. In addition, Russia may have carried out an ASAT test in 2016 and China conducted an ASAT test in 2007 that produced significant amounts of orbital debris.

Perhaps one of the most ambitious plans to weaponize outer space was Wernher von Braun’s (1959a; 1959b) plan to build a lunar outpost for the United States Army that would be crewed by a task force of twelve soldiers. Although this plan was never carried out, the written reports are shit-yourself-terrifying in their stated goals of establishing a military outpost on another celestial object. Von Braun (1959a; 1959b) proposed that the base be powered by two nuclear reactors and defended by unguided Davy Crockett guns with low-yield nuclear warheads, as well as claymore mines that would be modified to puncture pressure suits.2

DavyCrockett-W54 from wellerstein from Hansen SOA phallic
The Davy Crockett turgidly projecting American military might. Image posted by Alex Wellerstein (2012).

This intertwining of nuclear and cosmic imaginaries can result in frightening knowledge productions that, if realized, could have been disastrous for humankind. Even now the nominal President of the United States has virtually unlimited authority to mobilize these unions of spaces and nuclear technologies to rain 720+ nuclear warheads worth of Apocalypse on their targets in less than an hour.3 Large scale use of American nuclear weapons would probably kill well over 100 million people in the first 72 hours.

Hugh Gusterson (2004) discusses the importance of nuclear weapons tests as “high-tech rituals that are as important for their cultural and psychological as for their technical significance” (148). We argue that Gusteron’s theorization of nuclear testing can also be productively applied to human spaceflight. A ritual implies an (arguably) temporally static activity: it needs a beginning and an end and perhaps this is why the NASA budget dropped significantly after the moon landing. This American ritual, generated by a sense of existential competition, had been completed and was no longer necessary to flood with funding. We argue that the moon landings—from the perspectives of many (but not all) federal government elites and members of the public—were never solely (or even mostly) about scientific exploration; they were about a technocultural ritual that culminated in symbolic defeat of their sworn Communist enemy. In future work we intend to expand on this point and examine the differences between competition with nuclear weapons and military forces and the “Space Race.” Why, for example, did the U.S. crewed space program collapse after the moon landings, but spending on nuclear weapons testing, development, and deployment continue at high levels (Schwartz 1998)?

Nuking Mars into Degenerate Utopias

As a coda, we would like to point out that spaces and nuclear technoutopianism remain regularly expressed discourses in American culture and society. An especially noteworthy contemporary example is Elon Musk’s plan to terraform Mars using large numbers of high-yield nuclear weapons. The proposal, given the temporal and technological distance from currently achievable reality, seems most interpretable as a cavalier mobilization of technoutopian optimism. Even if the science behind Musk’s plan is able to drive the desired result of remaking the planet Mars in Earth’s image, there are some serious sociocultural and political questions that remain unanswered.4 These questions include: what message are we sending by using the most devastating weaponry ever devised by humans in order to birth a new ecosystem? What would the lasting scientific and cultural effects be? Do we deserve—or is it morally/ethically right—to take over another planet, even if it is devoid of life? If NewSpace5 corporations are the first to inhabit another planet, is it not inevitable that we would replicate the inequalities and violence of colonial, hetero-patriarchal capitalism that has destroyed our current cosmic home (much like settler-colonists replicating Western social, economic, and political life on Indigenous land and people)?

In an otherworldly and futuristic expression of colonial nostalgia, we are gleefully trashing our planet while simultaneously being nostalgic about what we have trashed. By projecting that nostalgia onto futurist terraforming and colonial endeavors, the underlying imaginaries and practices utilized to lay waste to the Earth—what we call Capitalistic Unquestioned Technoutopian Enthusiasm (CUTE)—are rehabilitated and the damage is justified by the use of a future tense imaginary in which CUTE recreates our lost Eden (that we destroyed) (Povinelli 2011).

David Harvey (2000) elucidates this last point in relation to those that uphold the hegemonic perception that capitalism is a monolithic, eternal force and those that resist against it:

If the mess seems impossible to change then it is simply because there is indeed “no alternative.” It is the supreme rationality of the market versus the silly irrationality of anything else. And all those institutions that might have helped define some alternatives have other been suppressed or—with some notable exceptions, such as the church—brow-beaten into submission. (154)

In the “rationality of the market” all that remains are “degenerate utopias” (Collins 2008; Marin 1993). Places like Disneyland present themselves as utopic but are actually shrouding the commercial “reality”: “the Main Street façades are presented to us as toy houses and invite us to enter them, but their interior is always a disguised supermarket, where you buy obsessively, believing that you are still playing” (Eco 1986, 43). According to Umberto Eco, Disneyland’s hyperreality begins when one submits to the complete “fakeness” of the simulation in order to partake of the spectacularly tantalizing utopic imaginaries. It is through such agentive submission that the imaginary transubstantiates into “The Real.” Part of Elon Musk’s early CUTE seductions involved promulgating an uncredited Wikipedia commons created image of Mars that begins with the red planet and ends with a terraformed, Eden-like utopia of oceans and clouds and green forests: a new Earth that beckons to colonizers with new possibilities and untapped markets.

Image credit: Wikipedia user Ittiz

This photo is a Debordian “spectacle” that establishes and mediates a social relationship with the public through images (Debord 1994). Photos like the one above are preambles to Musk’s recent spectacular promise of 1,000 ships departing to Mars every 26 months. Even if that does not become a reality, Musk and other NewSpacers have already begun to creep into the social imaginary of space.

NASA—in its neoliberal present—is imbricated with this imaginary as well, possibly because NASA recognizes how powerful NewSpace visions can be in the sphere of public relations. However, their production of nostalgically rooted travel posters for places humans have never been are coded to invite—and exclude—certain types of futures (Messeri 2016). Namely, these futures are white, colonial, and evoke vintage 1950s–1960s travel advertisements, a period of U.S. history especially ripe with overt inequality and oppression. This serves to remind us that the political cannot be divorced from the aesthetic.

NASA travel posters
Image credit: NASA / JPL

The theoretical frameworks we have drawn upon, we argue, illustrate some reasons why social sciences must take science fiction seriously and especially science fiction that does not espouse the tropes of Spencerian social theory. Science fiction writers who identify as people of color, Indigenous, women, and LGBTQI+ often challenge currently hegemonic social imaginaries through work that creates space(s) for multiple potentialities (see: Brown and Imarisha 2015; Dillion 2012; Le Guin 1974; Lempert 2014; Nama 2008, among others). The power of words, of worldmaking, of placemaking that are so inherent in science fiction writing are potential catalysts and resources for social change, especially in Earth-bound space science (Messeri 2016). Furthermore, social scientists should not only embrace the political world that science fiction inhabits, but we should be working together as a collective to actively disseminate the social science that good science fiction writers are already conducting.


Braun, Wernher von. 1959a. “Project Horizon Report: Volume I, Summary and Supporting Considerations.” A U.S. Army Study for the Establishment of a Lunar Outpost. United States Army. http://www.history.army.mil/faq/horizon/Horizon_V1.pdf.

———. 1959b. “Project Horizon Report: Volume II, Technical Considerations and Plans.” A U.S. Army Study for the Establishment of a Lunar Outpost. United States Army. http://www.history.army.mil/faq/horizon/Horizon_V2.pdf.

Brown, Adrienne Maree and Walidah Imarisha, eds. 2015. Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements. Oakland: AK Press.

Collins, Michael. 1974. Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Collins, Samuel Gerald. 2008. All Tomorrow’s Cultures: Anthropological Engagements with the Future. New York: Berghahn Books.

Davis, Tracy C. 2007. Stages of Emergency: Cold War Nuclear Civil Defense. Durham: Duke University Press.

Debord, Guy. 1994. The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books.

Derrida, Jacques. 1984. “No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives).” Translated by Catherine Porter and Philip Lewis. Diacritics 14 (2): 20–31.

Dick, Steven J, Robert Jacobs, Constance Moore, and Ulrich Bertram, eds. 2007. America in Space: NASA’s First Fifty Years. New York: Abrams Books.

Dillon, Grace L., ed. 2012. Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Eco, Umberto. 1986. Travels in Hyper Reality: Essays. Translated by William Weaver. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Grant, Matthew, and Benjamin Ziemann, eds. 2016. Understanding the Imaginary War: Culture, Thought and Nuclear Conflict, 1945-1990. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Grego, Laura. 2012. “A History of Anti-Satellite Programs.” Union of Concerned Scientists. http://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear-weapons/space-security/a-history-of-anti-satellite-programs.

Gusterson, Hugh. 2004. People of the Bomb: Portraits of America’s Nuclear Complex. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Harvey, David. 2000. Spaces of Hope. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Le Guin, Ursula K. 1974. The Dispossessed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Lempert, William. 2014. “Decolonizing Encounters of the Third Kind: Alternative Futuring in Native Science Fiction Film.” Visual Anthropology Review 30 (2): 164–76.

Marin, Louis. 1993. “Frontiers of Utopia.” Critical Inquiry 19 (3): 397–420.

Messeri, Lisa. 2016. Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds. Durham: Duke University Press.

Nama, Adilifu. 2008. Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Oakes, Guy. 1994. The Imaginary War: Civil Defense and American Cold War Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Povinelli, Elizabeth. 2011. Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Rose, Kenneth D. 2001. One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture. New York: New York University Press.

Schwartz, Stephen I., ed. 1998. Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Webb, Angela. 2008. “Joint Effort Made Satellite Success Possible.” U.S. Air Force. Accessed January 17. http://www.af.mil/News/ArticleDisplay/tabid/223/Article/124266/joint-effort-made-satellite-success-possible.aspx.

Wellerstein, Alex. 2012. “The Sound of the Bomb (1953).” Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog. http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2012/07/13/the-sound-of-the-bomb-1953/, accessed 07/11/2017.

  1. This video is also notable as being one of the few instances in which we can hear the actual sound of a nuclear detonation. Most test videos are either silent or have sound dubbed in. The Genie was an unguided air-to-air missile armed with a W25 1.5–2 kiloton nuclear warhead. For further reading about the sounds of nuclear explosions see: Wellerstein (2012)
  2. The Davy Crockett was the smallest, by weight and yield, deployed American nuclear weapon. It was a W54 warhead with a yield of 10 to 20 tons of TNT and came in two flavors: jeep mounted (usable by two person teams) and person-portable (five person team). 
  3. We calculate this number in the following manner: The U.S. currently deploys 400 Minuteman III ICBMs, each armed with a single warhead. In addition, at any given moment, there are at least four to five Ohio class ballistic missile submarines on “hard alert” and armed with 20 Trident II missiles carrying an average of four warheads per missile. Thus: 400 + (4 • 20 • 4) = 720. 
  4. Musk has said that he wishes to detonate high-yield nuclear weapons every few seconds over the poles of Mars in order to create two tiny pulsing “suns” for the purpose of warming the planet. These human-made nuclear “suns” would assist in turning frozen carbon dioxide into gas, thus warming the planet via the greenhouse effect. The irony that Musk wishes to make Mars more habitable for humans utilizing the same climate effect that is currently devastating our own planet is not lost on us. For those curious, the average temperature on Mars is –80F/–60C; the temperature fluctuates, however, depending on where you are, with temperatures reaching as high as 70F/20C in the summer on the equator. However, the atmosphere of Mars is 100 times thinner than Earth’s, so the low temperature on that same summer night would be –100F/–73C. 
  5. NewSpace is the umbrella term for a movement and philosophy affiliated with the emergent private spaceflight industry. These corporations are usually started by wealthy entrepreneurs or venture capitalists who are hoping to privatize the spaceflight industry and create “low-cost” access into space. 
Taylor R. Genovese

Taylor R. Genovese is a PhD student in the Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology program at Arizona State University. He has a BA and an MA in Anthropology and is interested in the anthropology of outer space, social imaginaries, human futures, and radical (techno)politics. More at: taylorgenovese.com and on Twitter @trgenovese.

One thought on ““To Peace, Because the Awful Alternative is the End of All Life”: Build Bomb–Explore Space(s)–Save World! (Part 2)

  1. Taylor, Martin. Your topic is of literally world-shaking importance. You have done serious research and drawn attention to data usually omitted from the anthropological canon. Why then, serious question, have you received so little response to these posts? To this reader the argument is flat. When I read the proposal that space exploration was closely entangled with militarism and colonialism, my response is “No, duh” (by which I mean, “Doesn’t everyone know that already?”).

    I look for a fresh angle. I don’t see one. That doesn’t mean that one couldn’t be there. As someone who became an SF geek when I was thirteen, that would have been in 1957, I recall a steady stream of dystopian stories and novels that challenged the technoutopian world view you describe so well. I look at what comics, manga, anime, and superhero movies have become and want to learn more about the processes by which the dark vision of cyberpunk displaced the technoutopian dream in popular culture and what has kept it alive in Silicon Valley and the military-industrial complex. There’s a lot that remains to be explored.

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