Jordan Bimm portrait
Big Brains podcst

The Secret Nazi Past and Billionaire Future of U.S. Space Innovation with Jordan Bimm (Ep. 75)

Space historian examines our militaristic relationship to the stars, and how it still shapes our future


Jordan Bimm portrait
Big Brains podcst

Show Notes

Most people think they know humanity’s history of space exploration, from Sputnik to NASA to our recent shift toward privatized space travel. But what if there was a lost history of our origins with space science that would make us rethink the whole narrative?

Jordan Bimm is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago SIFK and a space historian. Bimm’s uncovered a forgotten chapter of space history that paints a much more militaristic picture of our relationship to space, and he sees a direct through line to our present moment. He says we can’t conceive a brighter future for space exploration until we reckon with its darker past.

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(Episode first published August 19, 2021 and republished on July 13, 2023)

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Paul: Everyone is talking about the upcoming summer blockbuster, Oppenheimer.

Tape: We are always incredibly captivated by behind the curtain looks at some of the most momentous events in our history. Uncovering the secret details and hidden motivations of the people that have shaped our past.

Tape: And all the buzz got me thinking about a fascinating prior episode of our show that did just that.

Paul: You may think you know the history of space travel, from Sputnik to NASA to our recent shift toward privatized space travel. But what if there was a lost history of our origins with space science that would make us rethink the whole narrative? We’re taking a summer break while we work on some special episodes and will be back in August, but in the meantime we wanted to share some of our best and most relevant episodes. These episodes contain some fascinating and life-changing information for new and returning listeners.

Paul Rand: Most people think they know humanities, history of space exploration.

Tape: Yuri Alexavich Gorgoram major in the Soviet air force, the first man into space.

Tape: We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other thing. Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Tape: It’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind

Paul Rand: But what if there was a lost history episodes that got ignored or forgotten, they would make us rethink everything.

Jordan Bimm: It’s been my mission as a space historian to recover those episodes and to learn the lessons from them to help us in the present and to shape the future

Paul Rand: Jordan Bimm as a postdoctoral researcher at the university of Chicago and a historian of science technology and medicine in relation to space exploration. In other words, he’s a space historian.

Jordan Bimm: I was really interested in the astronaut, not as like a person, but as a concept or as an idea. And I was really interested in understanding the origins of that. And I quickly realized that meant, you know, not looking at biographies of famous astronauts like John Glenn or Neil Armstrong, but it meant looking at who was making those people who was selecting them and who were the scientists behind the field of space medicine.

Paul Rand: Bimm’s search led him to discover a lost chapter in our space narrative. One that reveals a very different way of understanding our relationship to space. And he sees a direct through line from the secret history to what’s happening with the recent privatization of space travel.

Tape: The space race between billionaires has a winner.

Paul Rand: He says we can’t create a bright future for space exploration until we deal with this darker past

Jordan Bimm: Space obviously is one of the primary technical challenges of the 20th and 21st centuries. But space is also like a social, political and cultural challenge, a human challenge. And some of the time those questions get bracketed off. We focus only on the technology and what it takes to survive, but these social political, cultural questions of how we will live, how we will thrive, how we will perform justice, I think need attention.

Paul Rand: From the University of Chicago podcast network this is ‘‘Big Brains,’’ a podcast about the pioneering research and pivotal breakthroughs that are reshaping our world. On this episode, the history of space flight from military to billionaires. I’m your host, Paul Rand. I’ve heard you say that your earliest memory of space was the ‘‘Challenger’’ disaster and that was in 1986. What are your early recollections of that?

Jordan Bimm: Yeah, so this is actually my earliest childhood memory that cold January morning, sitting in my parents’ living room, watching our old wood panel, television and tuning in for the shuttle launch

Tape: 3, 2, 1, and lift off lift off of the 25th space shuttle mission, and it is cleared the tower.

Jordan Bimm: And then watching it explode on television.

Tape: We have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded.

Jordan Bimm: And that was just seared into my mind. It’s one of those moments in history that we call flashbulb moments, you know, those moments where everyone remembers where they were. And then I also have a very clear memory of watching the president address the nation that night.

President Ronald Regan: Ladies and gentlemen, I’d planned to speak to you tonight to report on the state of the union but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans.

Jordan Bimm: President Ronald Reagan deliver what was now called his Challenger speech.

President Ronald Regan: We will never forget them nor the last time we saw them this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth, to touch, the face of God.

Jordan Bimm: He quoted that famous poem from John Gillespie Magee, "High Flight," where he said the astronauts had slipped the surly bonds to touch the face of God. And that line just sort of stuck with me. It was almost haunting and a lot of the space historians who trained me see that they were sort of animated by the Apollo 11 moon landing, the sort of triumphant celebration of American technology. You know, I’m animated, not by the sort of utopian vision, but by this dystopian worry about disaster. Having my earliest memory, be the Challenger explosion.

Paul Rand: Most histories of space start with Sputnik sometimes called the opening shot of the space, race.

Tape: This story of the Russian satellite burst upon a startled world early in October,

Paul Rand: And this pushed the U S to develop its own space program, to compete with the Soviet Union and that program was NASA.

Jordan Bimm: But what I covered doing my PhD research is that the founding of NASA, the launch of Sputnik was not the start of our investment or our work on getting to outer space in terms of science, technology and medicine. That work actually began in the aftermath of World War II almost 10 years earlier. And it wasn’t part of NASA, which didn’t exist then—it was in the U S military. Space history as an institution really begins with NASA. It’s actually in the National Aeronautics and Space Act that creates NASA in 1958, that they should also have a history office. They knew at that time that what they were going to do was going to be historic. What didn’t really get covered by the sort of institutionalized NASA history was that prehistory, that preceding decade of military research, those chapters have sort of been forgotten. And specifically I’m really interested in the field of space medicine, which is concerned with selecting and protecting astronauts.

Jordan Bimm: And that really got going in 1949 within the U.S. Air Force. They were trying to define the ideal space faring body, but that body is not given by, you know, the extreme environment of outer space or the harsh environment of the space cabin interior or by the complex machinery and technology inside the cabin. Who we think of as right for space really comes from a social political and cultural expression of who has power and who we trust to carry us forward into the future. So if you look at who we select as astronauts, going back to the first group of astronauts in the Mercury Seven selected April, 1959, they were all white male military test pilots with degrees in engineering. We are still on a path that has a very specific origin. And if we don’t realize what the politics of that origin is, it’s very hard to see our way off that path or to change tracks.

Paul Rand: So who were the people working in this early space program while the answer is surprising.

Jordan Bimm: These early space medicine experts, these physiologists, these medical doctors and psychologists were actually former Luftwaffe experts brought over from Germany after world war II. And they didn’t check their politics at Ellis Island or check them with the CIA and just sort of leave them in a folder. They brought them to Texas to the U S Air Force’s School of Aviation Medicine, and they imbued them into our idea of the astronaut.

Jordan Bimm: So most people when they think of the Nazi role in the U. S. Space program, they think of Wernher von Braun and the technology of the rocket. What people don’t realize is that Operation Paperclip was actually much, much larger than just rocket scientists. Over 1500 German scientists were brought to the U S and not just rocket scientists, but

Paul Rand: Wow.

Paul Rand: all manner of medical experts, engineers. They ended up in all different parts of the U S Military industrial complex, including forming the nucleus of space medicine in the U S Air Force. So a lot of people think of Wernher von Braun and the rockets that took us to the moon being a Nazi creation, but they don’t remember that it was also the astronaut who would ride inside that was also a creation of these Luftwaffe scientists. Namely, a scientist named Hubertus Strughold who was formerly the head of aviation medicine research in Berlin for the Luftwaffe and was tied to a number of extremely heinous, lethal concentration, camp execution experiments.

Paul Rand: And these Nazi scientists brought those disturbing sensibilities to our space program as well.

Jordan Bimm: So my book project ‘‘Anticipating the Astronaut’’ one chapter looks at high-altitude indigenous people who were studied by these former Luftwaffe scientists for their remarkable tolerance to altitude, because they were seen as perhaps being more oxygen efficient in low oxygen environments, which is what they imagined the interiors of future spacecraft might be like. What’s super interesting about this is that the Nazi scientists, Bruno Balke, who was working for the U S Air Force, he went and studied these miners in Morakotcha, not because he wanted them to actually be astronauts, but because he thought that their physiology could be useful and that he could replicate their oxygen efficiency in a white male pilot. And this is sort of, you know, how can colonialism exist in space, in a place where there’s no existing population? it’s this way, it’s by enacting colonial relationships on earth to get you there.

Paul Rand: Not only was Strughold interested in defining an ideal space fairing body, he was also interested in where they might go and what kind of life they may discover

Jordan Bimm: Specifically focused on the planet Mars. And he invented this experiment called a Mars jar, which is essentially a small terrarium like enclosure in which you replicate the harsh surface environment of the planet Mars. And then you add terrestrial life inside there and see if anything can survive to see if life on Mars was actually possible. And this was in the 1950s. This is far before most astrobiologists practicing today believe that their field was started. If you ask an astrobiologist today about the origin of their field, they will tell you a totally different story that starts after the founding of NASA and that involves these academic molecular biologists, like Joshua Lederberg and Carl Sagan. The military origin of astrobiology has been essentially forgotten or erased. So bringing back Hubertus Strughold, the former Luftwaffe Aviation Medicine Research director, and his invention of the Mars jar, which has now been adopted by the astrobiology community without understanding its origin or who its inventor was, for me is a way to sort of make them confront the sort of military politics that are still imbuing their science without them even realizing it.

Jordan Bimm: And the idea of a Mars jar is that if you build that jar, you’re sort of coveting the environment that you’re simulating inside of it. You are imagining that the life inside of that is something that you can use that you, that belongs to you. And that’s a very specific relationship. Something, I call an instrumental relationship to extra terrestrial life. So if we find life on Mars, we are almost jumping ahead of ourselves to say, well, of course we should capture it. Of course we should study it. Of course, we should use it to establish a base there. This of course is what the air force was interested in when they built those Mars jars. They weren’t animated by those big questions that later exobiologist like Carl Sagan were interested in like, are we alone in the universe? You know, what is our place in the cosmos?

Jordan Bimm: The air force astrobiologists Hubertus Strughold and the people who built the Mars jar, they wanted to establish a U.S. Air Force base on Mars. And they wanted to know that if there is life on Mars, could they use that life to fuel their base. So that is a very specific view of extraterrestrial life and I worry that we get ahead of ourselves. We don’t stop and ask the question that should be asked two or three steps back. It’s like somebody asking you, what type of meat do you want on your pizza before asking you, what do you want for dinner?

Paul Rand: Jordan says, these ideologies carried into the next phase of space exploration, which he calls the science phase. N

Jordan Bimm: NASA gets founded in 1958 as a nominally civilian agency, but it is still extremely militaristic in its character. It imports all of that decade of military research personnel and material from that previous military era. And of course, as we know, all of the first astronauts were military test pilots drawn from the ranks of the U S military. Things began to shift a little bit after the lunar landing in 1969, the first scientist in space flies on the last mission to the moon in 1972, that was Harrison Jack Schmidt, who was a geologist. And then more and more scientists astronauts begin to fly in space in the 1970s. And then really in the 1980s when the space shuttle takes as the main launch system. And now if we think about it today, you know, with rovers operating on Mars and PhD holding scientists doing research on the international space station, you know, the dominant paradigm right now is that space is a place for science and exploration.

Paul Rand: Okay. And so would you say we’re still in the science phase or are we in another phase where we are right now?

Jordan Bimm: We’re still in, in the science paradigm, but we are at an inflection point. We’re in a moment where things are changing.

Speaker 3: So Richard Branson had a crew of five others aboard Virgin Galactic’s unity spaceship, soaring to the edge of space prime delivery, the culmination of a lifelong dream for Jeff Bezos, who reached the space with his brother, Mark, Dutch teenager, Oliver Damon and 82 year old veteran pilot, Wally Farm.

Jordan Bimm: The aerospace landscape in the United States has been reshaped with the emergence of these new actors SpaceX, Blue origin, Virgin Galactic. There are now three US-based space companies that can send humans to outer space. So that is going to have a major effect going forward. It’s unclear to me at this moment what exactly that will be, but the lessons of history tell me that a remade aerospace landscape like that will change what space is for and that has always been tied directly to who space is for.

Paul Rand: All right and so maybe this next phase is the billionaire phase. So we’ve got military phase, science phase, billionaire phase, and a little tongue in cheek, but in the same breath, that’s a whole new world, isn’t it?

Jordan Bimm: Totally. And as a historian, I’m always interested in change over time but I’m also interested in what stays the same over time. And so we can say that space remains a very elite place. So we started off with space as a place for elite soldiers, pilots, and then it became a place for elite scientists. And now it’s a place for the wealthy and the sort of financially elite.

Paul Rand: After the break, the future of space history, a deep dive on billionaires in space.

Paul Rand: Hello, Big Brain listeners, the University of Chicago podcast network is excited to announce the launch of a new show it’s called ‘‘Entitled’’ and it’s about human rights. Co-hosted by lawyers and new Chicago law school professors, Claudia Flores, and Tom Ginsburg Entitled explores the stories around why rights matter and what’s the matter with rights.

Paul Rand: So billionaires in space, a lot of you may be rolling your eyes at this because isn’t it just a stunt.

Jordan Bimm: It is a stunt for sure at the same time I think it’s too narrow to focus only on the show and to say, this is only a billionaires contest because there is material change. There are now these new launch infrastructures existing in the U S that didn’t exist before and what could happen and what could be done with those could change the game of space exploration. It could make it sort of just this playground for the wealthy, similar to, you know, cruises to Antarctica or people who pay to get carried up Mount Everest and then call themselves a mountaineer or it could lead to, you know, a renewed investment in science and exploration, those sort of traditional things that we associate with space travel that right now, when it’s just billionaires going to space, haven’t really had the spotlight treatment.

Paul Rand: Jeff Bezos is the last one that’s come down and he was quite chatty when he got back to earth and made a number of comments on different things, one of which was the idea of we should take all of our polluting industries on earth and move them into space. As a, I see you shaking your head, what do you think about that? And where do you think some of these comments are coming from?

Jordan Bimm: I mean, that was just a really dumb thing to say.

Jeff Bezos: We live on this beautiful planet. We need to take all heavy industry, all polluting industry and move it into space and keep earth as this beautiful gem of a planet that it is.

Jordan Bimm: You know that’s not solving a problem that’s shifting a problem. And this idea of like, where do we want to make our intervention? Do we want to make our intervention at the last possible second where we move these things off of earth? Or do we want to solve these problems on the earth so that they’re not problems at all anymore anywhere? And I just think it’s so convenient that of course, you know, what do you need to get those things off the earth, but his rockets that he’s just ready to sell you. Right. So what a convenient answer

Paul Rand: Obviously to have industry in space you’d need workers in space, and we all know how some workers have been treated here on earth. Imagine how they may be treated when they’re millions of miles away from any central authority.

Jordan Bimm: You know there’s this short story written in 1953 that I teach in my class Explorations of Mars called Crucifix et iem about a worker on Mars, involved in the terraforming project there who has to have their lungs replaced with a mechanical ventilator in order to endure the harsh environment there. And as a worker, they are forced to sort of live in these harsh conditions, have their body and altered. Higher status engineers get to live in a pressurized module and don’t have to have their bodies altered at all. And in this story, the worker sort of comes to grips with this idea that they are making this world for somebody who is not them and that their body has sort of been sacrificed to this project. And this score is written in 1953, but it might as well have been written today about Elon Musk’s plans on Mars or Jeff Bezos has plans on these off world cylindrical space stations, not only how will these workers be treated in the sense of like, how will they be compensated and that sort of thing, this idea of like, what will happen to their bodies?

Jordan Bimm: You know, how will they come back to earth? How do you quit a job when you are on Mars and, you know, stuff like that, hasn’t really been thought through. And when we did think it through, in my class explorations of Mars, we reached some very, very dark conclusions. For example, if you want to quit your job on Mars, maybe the only way you can quit is with euthanasia. And that is an incredibly dark future, which, you know, goes against this sort of dignity of life and the dignity of the individual that we have grown accustomed to over the last, you know, four or 500 years.

Jordan Bimm: So I, I worry that, you know, space obviously is one of the primary technical challenges of the 20th and 21st centuries. But space is also like a social political and cultural challenge, a human challenge. And some of the time those questions get bracketed off. We focus only on the technology and like what it takes to survive, but these social political and cultural questions of how we will live, how we will thrive, how we will perform justice, need attention. And that’s where, you know, historians, anthropologists, sociologists, who focus on space, come into play and that’s why our perspectives, I think, are so important in the future going forward.

Paul Rand: The privatization of space is quickly outpacing laws and regulations. I mean, who even owns space?

Jordan Bimm: So the 1967 Outer Space Treaty says that no one can own the moon or Mars, but at the same time, there have been laws passed in recent years that have made amendments that say that you can actually own, you know, resources extracted from an asteroid, for example. So this is where the field of space law, which is a, a pretty established field of legal thought is really going to have to make some leaps and bounds in the next couple of years, because I think the problem will be that activity in space will outpace the laws and regulations and that it will become sort of an actor’s game of like, who can do it first and then who can stop them. You know, if Elon Musk shows up on Mars and says, I am now the president of Mars who is to stop him? So, you know, there is sort of a might makes right, a colonialist problem from history right at our feet yet again, and this is where, you know, the lessons of history can really come to bear.

Paul Rand: And there’s all sorts of dangerous scenarios that we can imagine. What if there’s no regulation for example, around asteroid mining and an accident happens that causes a piece to crash into earth? As these private organizations rush ahead, we’re running out of time to create credible and powerful authorities to hold them accountable.

Jordan Bimm: I worry that it’s almost too late to organize that. Like these companies just simply would not recognize the authority. Like that’s a move that I see happening all too often at various levels of U.S. political culture at this moment, you know, people not being held to account and rules being just totally flaunted and then later on, maybe there’s a slap on the wrist or something like that, but it’s not justice. And I worry that we are quickly careening past that point when it comes to private space operations, we may be already past that. We have these charismatic, powerful billionaire leaders who have, you know, legions of followers that that is a force to be reckoned with. And it’s not like we can just create an international UN for outer space or something like that. And then they’ll just say, I recognize you and I will be governed by you. Like there will be pushback on that. And I worry that the power relations right now are so skewed that we may be moving past that point faster than we would want to.

Paul Rand: Hmm Very interesting. Well, before we start getting into those kinds of problems that there is you know, how are we going to get there? And particularly you talked about Musk and getting to Mars, which is his vision. And he’s also made the comment that on the path to doing this, a lot of people are going to die,

Elon Musk: Honestly a bunch of people probably will die in the beginning.

Paul Rand: What do you think about that idea? And is that just part of the price that people, we are going to have to pay, as humankind to figure out what opportunities exist here?

Jordan Bimm: So when I heard him say that I was really disappointed. I thought that that was a major failure of leadership. If I was someone who was thinking about going to Mars under his leadership, I would not want him to sort of be putting out there this idea before you even leave that for sure you’re going to die, because that shows a sort of lessened regard for your life. And if you watch that interview and he compares himself to Ernest Shackleton, the British Explorer of Antarctica,

Elon Musk: Yeah going to Mars reads like that app for Shackleton going to the Antarctic. You know, it’s, it’s dangerous, it’s uncomfortable, it’s a long journey, you might not, you know, come back alive, um... but it’s a glorious adventure and it’ll be amazing.

Jordan Bimm: And that was just a horribly terrible comparison to make, because of course, Ernest Shackleton went with his crew. He was a leader down there in Antarctica and of course he got back, everybody alive from that, that ill-fated mission. So this idea that, that he sort of this Ernest Shackleton figure is, is a complete misrepresentation. As far as I know, Elon Musk, isn’t planning to be one of the first ones to go to Mars. He’s going to send other people there first and let them bear the brunt of the risk. So what I would hope from our leaders is this idea that, of course there’s going to be risks, but we should not assume and we should not have a low regard for the lives of the people that we are having go there for us. You know, we should say that, yes, there are risks, but I’m going to do everything I can to keep you alive because that’s, what’s going to make them trust you as a leader.

Paul Rand: Where do we think we’re headed? And if you had to say, if I look five years out, this is what I think we’re going to see happening around us?

Jordan Bimm: This is a really interesting question because if things continue the way they’re going right now, and only the super wealthy are able to buy tickets on these launch systems. What you’re going to have is sort of the mass production of an extremely wealthy individual who has also gone to space and then probably will be very passionate about space exploration when they return.

Jordan Bimm: Whether or not they then open up their wallets for more than space tourism is something that I think is a possibility. So maybe these billionaires recently returned from outer space will decide, Hey, I want to start funding space science. I want to found my own space flight company. You know, whether or not we want the elites, the, you know, the wealthy elites to be holding the keys to outer space, I think is, is definitely another question. But there is the potential for more investment from the private sector, because these people have had space flight experiences. And of course they don’t have to just fund it with their own money they can also advocate their political representatives for more public funding to NASA and other national space flight agencies, even if they are sort of being a bit reduced in their roles as these sort of leftover organizations founded during the cold war.

Paul Rand: And do you look at this and say that we’ve kind of jumped the shark, and that is now the private sector that’s going to believe that they have to carry, or they are going to carry the weight on this? Or do you think governments are going to be back to a Sputnik moment where they say we’re losing, we’ve got to step it up all over again?

Jordan Bimm: I don’t think that that will happen. I worry about the role of NASA going forward. NASA has done an incredible job with space science, robotic exploration of Mars with the International Space Station and I would love to see a renewed funding for NASA and the larger role for them going forward in the future, almost as a check on some of these private companies as well.

Jordan Bimm: You know, we have right now the system of public private partnerships, where NASA is collaborating with each of these companies, providing information, some launch facilities, expertise, even the astronauts who fly on SpaceX missions so far have been NASA trained astronauts. So I would hope that NASA’s role doesn’t fade but I worry that it will because there will be this sort of idea of redundancy. But what we don’t see in these private companies is an interest in space science. You know, Elon Musk is not planning to send rovers to Mars to search for life. He’s not interested in sending probes to Saturn and the outer planets. You know, I worry that space science will fall to the wayside and this idea of space as a place for science and exploration, things that can actually benefit all of us in at least the accumulation and formation of knowledge, I worry that that piece will be left if we go just to the commercial space flight experience for the wealthy paradigm.

Paul Rand: And so if you were going to be giving counsel of saying, these are the things that have to be before we go any further here, this is what has to be put into place, not only nationally, but globally. What, what advice would you give?

Jordan Bimm: I would say that we need to have a moment of deep introspection about what we are doing in space and what space is actually for and who it is for. You know, there is this gap between the rhetoric and the reality. If you think back to the, the lunar landing in 1969, they said space was for all humankind. But of course that wasn’t the case. We have not seen the benefits of space distributed equally. And of course, if we look at who has been able to actually go to space, that has not been an equal proposition either. So the needs to be a deep moment of introspection of like, why are we doing this? Who is it for?

Jordan Bimm: I worry that sort of the popular fascination with space is sort of attached to a utopian vision, which in fact has never been true and won’t be in the future. It’s actually going to be a very sort of dystopian future in space. And this is something that I teach my students here. Space is not a utopian transformative place. Space is a place where all of our problems on earth will be reproduced. If not amplified,

Paul Rand: If you’re getting a lot out of the important research shared on Big Brains there’s another University of Chicago podcast network show you should check out. It’s called ‘‘Not Another Politics podcast’’. ‘‘Not Another Politics podcast’’ provides a fresh perspective on the biggest political stories, not through opinions and anecdotes, but through rigorous scholarship, massive data sets, and a deep knowledge of theory. If you want to understand the political science behind the political headlines, then listen to ‘‘Not Another Politics podcast’’, part of the University of Chicago podcast network,

Matt Hodapp: ‘‘Big Brains’’ is a production of the U Chicago podcast network. If you like, what you heard, please give us a review and a rating. Shows hosted by Paul M. Rand and produced by me, Matt Hodapp. Thanks for listening.

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