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The Territoriality of Space Exploration

by John G. Cramer

Keywords: Territoriality, Apollo 11, Moon Landing
Guest Editorial published in the November-1981 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact Magazine;
©1981 and 2021 by John G. Cramer.
All rights reserved. No part may be reproduced in any form without
the explicit permission of the author.

The spectacularly successful maiden voyage of the space shuttle Columbia has thrust the U.S.A. back into manned spaceflight in a very dramatic way. But in the euphoria of our recent successes let us not forget the great success of a decade ago - the landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon - and the strange loss of interest in the space program by the U. S. public which immediately followed that event.  Somehow, after Apollo 11 the excitement of our landing on the moon rapidly drained away, and the subsequent lunar landings were lacking in some essential ingredient. We were no longer really interested.  The Conquest of the Moon had unexpectedly gone flat.  John Kennedy’s dream of providing the nation with new national goals through new frontiers in space had failed.

What went wrong? Until we can answer that question, even those of us who are enthusiastic supporters of the space program will be perpetually off balance. For how can we advocate any sort of long-range program in space research and exploration if we cannot rely on the support of the public, if our greatest shuttle successes will somehow create an atmosphere of boredom and rejection among the taxpayers who are paying for the enterprise? It is important that we soon gain understanding of the public’s strange reaction to Apollo 11, for although public support for the space program is now very high, its support in Congress is not particularly high and could fall much lower, in the present atmosphere of budget-slashing. The shuttle program must succeed psychologically as well as technically, or the space program is doomed to more decades of decline.

I would like to offer an explanation of what went wrong after Apollo 11, based on the socio-biological concept of territoriality. We of the human species are not strictly rational creatures, despite what we would like to believe about ourselves.  Beneath our rational processes lie intrinsic drives and motivations, which well up from an under-brain inherited from our man-ape ancestors. Our motivations, our loves and hates, fears and. desires arise somewhere in this dark underside of the brain. Human institutions (like the space program) that are to succeed for more than a brief period of history must mesh with the things that motivate human beings.  And the things that motivate human beings are not exclusively high ideals and purposes; they are also things that happen to tickle the under-brain  the right spots, perhaps because they once provided some tribal/group survival value to our man-ape ancestors.

We are just beginning to understand the nature of a few of these tickle spots. One of the most important of these was first identified in the early decades of this century by H. E. Howard,. a British businessman and amateur bird-watcher. It is the concept of territoriality. In many of the animal species, individuals (usually males) before finding a mate (and thus contributing to the gene pool of the species) must stake out and defend a territory that is uniquely theirs, repelling all rivals of their species. This is the reason, for example, that song-birds sing; not as the poets have told us, to express the joy of existence, but to tell all other birds of their species: "This is my territory!  Stay the Hell away from it!" This behavior has survival value because it ties reproduction to the limits of geography, automatically limiting the population to a size that the local ecology is able to support.  Species that are not territorial, and thus do not have this natural regulation mechanism, are subject to large cyclic swings in the size of die population: cycles of depopulation, rapid buildup, and culmination in a climax of overpopulation and rapid die-off. The famous "suicidal" behavior of lemmings is an example of this climax behavior in a non-territorial species.

Human behavior lies somewhere between the extreme territoriality of song-birds and the extreme non-territoriality lemming. We are somewhat territorial as individuals, as family units, and as tribes, groups, or nations. If you doubt this observe the suburbs of any city from the air and ask yourself why the land is carved up into little squares with a house in each one. Why nor put all the people together in one big building and use the land for parks and forests, streams and lakes?   Because each of us likes to have hit own little patch of ground, his own territory. Why is the map of the Earth’s land masses divided up into colored blobs with the name of a nation attached to each? Because, as national groups, we feel the same way.  We need to establish and maintain a territory.

I would like to suggest that what was missing from Neil Armstrong's first step on the, lunar surface was the territorial punchline.  We went to all that trouble to go to the Moon, and then we didn’t claim the territory! Our high ideals and goals had been fulfilled, but our under-brains had not been properly tickled, so the event was an anticlimax.

Let us try to rewrite the script of the Apollo 11 landing, and to assess within ourselves what the impact would have been.  Visualize with your mind's, eye the same event, Armstrong's first step on the Moon, with a slight modification. This time, let us edit out the “One small step for a man …” line.  Instead, the spacesuit-clad figure of Neil Armstrong lumbers down the ladder of the lunar lander with a long stick-like object clutched in one glove.  Slowly he turns.  He unfurls what is revealed to be a light plastic flag. He plants the Stars and Stripes in the rocky, irregular soil of the Moon. And slowly and with great emotion, he says; “I claim this territory in the name of the United States of America !"

That's what was missing. That is why we felt let down:. The territorial punch line wasn't there. We went all the way to the Moon, picked up some 49 pounds of rocks, and left without claiming it as ours. We cannot look up at the Moon and say, “That is our Moon, our Territory!"

There were, of course, many good rational reasons for not claiming the Moon as 'a territory of The U.S.A.  It would have been greedy.  It would have been impolite.  It would have been imprudent.  It would have had international repercussions.  It would, have been an insult to the other nations of the world.  It would have seemed neo-colonial. The rest of the world would have protested and sued in international courts. We would have been denounced in the UN. We would have sent the Russians into frenzy. They would have been driven to expend tremendous efforts to make their own lunar landing and claim their own chunk of lunar territory so that we wouldn't get it all. We would have had to establish a Moon base to protect our own real estate. International tensions would have moved into space. We might have had to fight a war there. But in all probability we would, at this very moment, have men and women living and working on the Moon.

On balance, I believe that it would have been worth the risks involved in staking out claim on the Moon. In retrospect, it is clear that we have incurred at least as large a risk by not having much in the way of a national purpose, by losing our initiative and our momentum in space, by leaving to the USSR the establishment of the first permanent space station and probably the first moon base, by running our space R&D efforts like a weathervane to the winds of political fashion and expediency.

But all of this is ancient history.  It is too late to go back and claim the Moon as a United States Territory , even if we wanted to do so. We are already a party to a treaty stating that no nation can claim the Moon as its territory. Our government was, until recently, on the verge of signing the Moon Treaty, which would have made the Moon into a sort of International Park which no individual or corporation could own any part of and which nobody could exploit, except in a very limited way, for national or commercial purposes.  Suddenly, there was a great public outcry against the Moon Treaty, and its signing now appears unlikely.

This strong public reaction is perhaps a symptom of our unease at our loss of the Moon as territory.  The present slow but definite gain in popularity and support of our national space effort may also be attributable to the reintroduction of anticipated territorial gains in manned spaceflight in the form of space colonies. The enthusiasm for Gerard O'Neill's idea of mounting s national effort to build an L-5 space colony may very well be rooted in the fact that it would be our territory. We would not build it “in the name of all mankind” but as our personal property, to be defended, cared for, and enlarged.  We are slowly arriving at the realization that the prime real estate in space is not the moons and planets, with their troublesome gravity wells, but presently empty points of stability such as the L-5 points of the Earth-Moon system, where we are free to construct our own environments to suit our needs. The Moon is perhaps not a place to live and “conquer.” Rather, its smaller gravity well is a mineshaft from which we will obtain the raw materials for the space colonies that will be our real Territory.

Some, even if they accept the above arguments, will find it quite reprehensible that territoriality must provide a driving force of mankind’s first ventures into space. One-World idealism and altruism are far more aesthetically appealing and “sanitary” as motivations.  But we have tried the high road of international altruism with the Apollo program, and it has proved to be a treacherous dead-end highway. The engineering of human institutions, like all other forms of engineering, must make the best advantage of the available materials. An important material we must work with in the enterprise of space exploration is the not-completely-rational and rather territorial human species. This material is not likely to change in the near future.  If we are going to venture into space, we must carry with us the baggage of our man-ape ancestors.  I believe that this alterative is a better one than not going at all.

John G. Cramer's 2016 nonfiction book (Amazon gives it 5 stars) describing his transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics, The Quantum Handshake - Entanglement, Nonlocality, and Transactions, (Springer, January-2016) is available online as a hardcover or eBook at: or

SF Novels by John Cramer:  Printed editions of John's hard SF novels Twistor and Einstein's Bridge are available from Amazon at and .  His new novel, Fermi's Question may be coming soon.

Alternate View Columns Online: Electronic reprints of 212 or more "The Alternate View" columns by John G. Cramer published in Analog between 1984 and the present are currently available online at: .

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 This page was created by John G. Cramer on 02/03/2021.