The Narrative Origins of Spaceflight: Alex MacDonald at TEDxAuckland (Transcript)

As an economist working at NASA, I spend time thinking about the economic origins of our movement out into the cosmos. And when you look before the investments of billionaire tech entrepreneurs and before the Cold War Space Race, and even before the military investments in liquid fuel rocketry, the economic origins of spaceflight are found in stories and in ideas.

It was in these stories that the first concepts for spaceflight were articulated. And it was through these stories that the narrative of a future for humanity in space began to propagate from mind to mind, eventually creating an intergenerational intellectual community that would iterate on the ideas for spacecraft until such a time as they could finally be built.

This process has now been going on for over 300 years, and the result is a culture of spaceflight. It’s a culture that involves thousands of people over hundreds of years. Because for hundreds of years, some of us have looked at the stars and longed to go. And because for hundreds of years, some of us have dedicated our labors to the development of the concepts and systems required to make those voyages possible.

I also wanted to tell you about Godwin, Poe and Verne because I think their stories also tell us of the importance of the stories that we tell each other about the future more generally. Because these stories don’t just transmit information or ideas. They can also nurture passions, passions that can lead us to dedicate our lives to the realization of important projects.

Which means that these stories can and do influence social and technological forces centuries into the future. I think we need to realize this and remember it when we tell our stories. We need to work hard to write stories that don’t just show us the possible dystopian paths we may take for a fear that the more dystopian stories we tell each other, the more we plant seeds for possible dystopian futures.

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Instead we need to tell stories that plant the seeds, if not necessarily for utopias, then at least for great new projects of technological, societal and institutional transformation. And if we think of this idea that the stories we tell each other can transform the future is fanciful or impossible, then I think we need to remember the example of this, our voyage to the Moon, an idea from the 17th century that propagated culturally for over 300 years until it could finally be realized.

So, we need to write new stories, stories that, 300 years in the future, people will be able to look back upon and remark how they inspired us to new heights and to new shores, how they showed us new paths and new possibilities, and how they shaped our world for the better.

Thank you.


For further reading: (Book)

The Long Space Age – The Economic Origins of Space Exploration from Colonial America to the Cold War


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