The Surprising Space Ambitions in Colonial America

Long before NASA, private individuals and communities banded together for the pursuit of geopolitical power and scientific discovery.

Gary Cameron / Reuters

Many turned out to watch Venus pass across the face of the sun, a tiny, black dot moving against a white-hot backdrop. Scholars organized watch parties up and down the East Coast, from Rhode Island to Delaware, ready to learn more about their place in the world. The observations were described in published papers, and they were praised by European observers, who were impressed by a “new stage of maturity in the development of America.”

The year was 1769, and American space exploration was beginning to take shape.

The pursuit of space exploration has long been as much about geopolitical power as about scientific discovery. The tug-of-war between the Americans and the Russians on their way to orbit in the 1950s and 1960s is perhaps history’s best example of that, but it’s certainly not the first. Politicians, religious figures, and wealthy individuals have held up the study of the cosmos as a signal of great achievement since the colonial period and America’s early years, according to Alex MacDonald, an economist at NASA and the author of The Long Space Age: The Economic Origins of Space Exploration from Colonial America to the Cold War.

In his first address as president in 1825, John Quincy Adams called for the establishment of a national astronomical observatory. “And while scarcely a year passes over our heads without bringing some new astronomical discovery to light, which we must fain to receive at second-hand from Europe, are we not cutting ourselves off from the means of returning light for light, while we have neither observatory nor observer upon our half of the globe, and the earth revolves in perpetual darkness to our unsearching eyes?”

Dozens of astronomical observatories began popping up across the states in the 1830s and 1840s. The funding largely came not from the government, but from private individuals and communities seeking to signal their ambitions for exploring the heavens. These days, the investments in space exploration by billionaires seems like a departure from a long record dominated by NASA and government funding. In reality, it’s a revival of 19th-century dynamics.

I spoke with MacDonald about this extended history of space exploration in America and the role of private individuals in making it happen. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Marina Koren: So, I had no idea that John Quincy Adams was so into space exploration.

MacDonald: Yeah, neither did I. John Quincy Adams was this fascinating character. He grew up with his father, the second U.S. president, traveling around the world. He spent time in Leiden, which is a European city famous for scientific research. He seems to have picked up an enthusiasm for science while there, and he took that into his presidency. In his first inaugural address to Congress, he essentially advocated for a federal astronomical observatory. He argued that because Europe had so many astronomical observatories and because the United States at that time did not, [building one] would show the world that America was prepared to contribute to the global scientific endeavor. He explicitly thought of this as a signal of the strength of this new union at the time.

Congress was not particularly pleased with the idea; they never actually supported his proposal when he was president, but he continued to advocate for the idea, and his advocacy ultimately ended up leading to the Smithsonian. John Quincy Adams argued that James Smithson’s bequest [of his estate to the nation in 1835] should be used for a permanent endowment that will perpetually fund science in America.

Koren: It was kind of surreal to read John Quincy Adam’s pitch to Congress, because he literally talks about how the Russians are outpacing the Americans in astronomy. It sound as if, in his mind, there was a space race.

MacDonald: In his mind, there really was. And he looked to the Pulkovo Observatory outside of St. Petersburg. A lot of observatories had been established for the determination of longitude and practical matters, but Pulkovo had really been established in order to have a very large telescope that would hopefully find new discoveries. John Quincy Adams argued that the United States needed to follow this model.

And his advocacy actually inspired others. A guy with a marvelously 19th-century name of Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel ended up going to Cincinnati—which in the 1840s was the sixth-largest city in America—and advocated, through a series of public lectures, the need for an astronomical observatory. He argued that because America had no czars like Russia did, that in America the people will have to take up the role of patrons of science. He advocated that Cincinnati should build the largest telescope in the world, which is a pretty ambitious notion. But the people actually responded strongly to this request. They end up importing the third-largest telescope in the world at the time, from Germany. And when they opened the observatory for the first time, John Quincy Adams made the last trek of his life for his last major speech to dedicate the observatory on what was renamed, and today is still called, Mount Adams.

Koren: The Cincinnati Observatory sounded to me like the product of a 19th -century Kickstarter. In exchange for contributing to the project, the public got certain perks, like membership to the city’s astronomical society.

MacDonald: Long before we had the Kickstarter, we had the same notion that went by the name public subscription. This type of process was also used for monuments, so whenever you go to monuments, you’ll often see dozens of people’s names on it. Well, those were the Kickstarter backers of whatever monument that was. The Cincinnati Observatory established a public subscription model for astronomical observatories which was then used in other cities, in Boston, Albany, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. People came together to determine that they wanted their own telescope for the observation of the heavens.

And what’s particularly interesting is that it wasn’t so much that they were interested in supporting science. Often, they would fund an observatory but they wouldn’t fund salaries for astronomers or instruments. What they were really interested in was this process of exploration. This actually led to a number of conflicts in some cities, such as in Albany. There was such conflict that the astronomers barricaded themselves into the observatory until the local constable had to be called out and threw them out. In Cincinnati and Boston, you also had these conflicts where the people who had paid for it essentially wanted to be able to use the telescope themselves, but the scientists wanted to be able to conduct long-term, careful research.

Koren: What was the strangest or most memorable story about this dynamic that you found?

MacDonald: One of the more unexpected stories was the case of the Georgetown Observatory, which was essentially funded by the Jesuit order. There was a Father at Georgetown in the 1840s who convinced one of the young students who was of particularly wealthy means to finance an astronomical observatory. And this information went back to the superior general of the Jesuit order in Rome, who was not very impressed because he worried that this was not exactly the right signal to send—[funding] astronomy rather than, for example, supporting the poor. So they would send letters back to Georgetown saying, we don’t suggest that you proceed with this project.

But Father James Curley, an Irish Jesuit, through some curious interpretation of the instructions—and utilizing the fact that it took weeks for letters to cross the Atlantic—proceeded with the project anyway. He believed it was going to be a strong signal of the Jesuit order in America. What I liked about that story is that both parties were concerned about what signal the astronomical observatory sent. One believed that this would show commitment to education and science, and one worried it would show commitment to science above social means. That’s a particularly illustrative example of how this signaling role of space transcends even nations, and really is a function of human communities.

Koren: So let’s zoom back out a bit. Today we hear a lot about space exploration moving more and more from the government’s domain and into the private sector. But your main argument is that private citizens actually have a much longer history in space exploration.

MacDonald: We are used to this standard space-age narrative, which starts with Sputnik, the Apollo program, and the space race, when in reality, private support long predated significant programs like Apollo. That’s not to say that there wasn’t public support as well. In fact, public support goes back to the origins of the country in a very small way. One of the first public appropriations for funds for science was actually by the Pennsylvania legislature, which appropriated funds in 1769 to support a number of expeditions related to the observation of the transit of Venus. And when the Declaration of Independence was first read out in Philadelphia, it was made from a raised platform that had been built as part of that observation.

But aside from small examples like that, if we look at the full history, from the colonial period to today, the vast majority of the time, it was the funds of individuals, civic societies, and philanthropic organizations, rather than public funding, that provided for astronomical observations and even for early liquid-fuel rocketry efforts. People like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, James Lick—they were funding, in today’s terms, billion-dollar projects. There’s a precedence for these modern private-sector examples that we have with Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk that date back long before even the origin of NASA.

Koren: Can you describe the desire for space exploration over this long arc, from colonial times to the space race?

MacDonald: Let’s look at signaling, which is this concept used in economics and biology that states that credible information about the characteristics of an individual or group can be transmitted through costly action. We see the emergence of a public interest in space-related signals in the reaction to the work of a scientist named David Rittenhouse, who had designed the most complex orrery, a mechanical model of the solar system. He was held up by Thomas Jefferson as one of the three great Americans, along with Franklin and Washington, and his astronomical achievements were held up as a signal of the nation as whole. And that belief about the role of space exploration as a signal of strength continued all the way to the Cold War, because achievements in this field are hard. They signal something important about the technical and organizational capability of the nation.

Sputnik, which was launched by the Soviet Union in 1957, was interpreted by the world as a very strong signal. And it’s important to remember this was a period of significant asymmetric information—not a lot of people knew a lot of details about what was actually going on in the Soviet Union, and if you’re in the Soviet Union or the rest of the world, not a lot about what was going on in America. All you really have to go on was newspapers or radio communications, both of which could be really easily propagandized. But if you knew one thing about a country—that the country had sent something into space and the other country had not—you knew something important about their technical capacity.

And so from Apollo on, advances in space have served as a signal of America's technical supremacy. I don’t think that is a particularly new idea, but what is often forgotten is that the space race is one example of this signaling motivation that includes the transit of Venus expedition.

Koren: You write that the Apollo program “should not be seen as the classic model of American space exploration, but rather as an anomaly.” Why is that?

MacDonald: When I think about the Apollo program as being an anomaly, what I mean is that at the time, in the 1960s, geopolitical competition increased the demand for space exploration. Now, we don’t have that, and we have much more access to information. The demand for space exploration as a signal is not as strong as it was. So what’s happening is we’re seeing the rise of this other trend, which is the intrinsic motivation of individuals to contribute to space exploration coming back to the fore. And that’s very much what Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk represent. So we’re always going to have, throughout history, moments when the signal value is strong and when it’s not, and part of the point of trying to draw that long space age narrative out is to show that even without that strong demand for a signal, space exploration continues regardless, because individuals have used billions of dollars of their own funding in the past to make progress in this field.

Koren: Who do you think should be paying for space exploration, or who has does it better over the course of history?

MacDonald: It’s not a particular question of who does it better. The private sector in the history of space exploration has as many boondoggles and cost overruns and schedule overruns as the public sector. It’s not necessarily about efficiency. Both are always needed. Space is never wholly public or wholly private.

Koren: So what’s next?

MacDonald: The long space age can teach us that space agencies might do well to focus on missions that serve as effective signals of national interest and achievement. My personal favorite is thinking about orbital human missions to other planets. There’s always a lot of emphasis on human missions to surfaces, but in terms of the signaling potential, orbiting other worlds is a major step beyond anything we’ve done and significantly more affordable and achievable than human planetary surface missions.