If Kansas may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think about interstellar matters, be aware that its state motto is ‘Ad Astra Per Aspera’ — to the stars through difficulties. That’s a familiar phrase for anyone who has pondered the human future in space, appearing in countless science fiction stories and often invoked by those with a poetical streak. It turns out that the Kansas motto was not, however, the work of some percipient 19th Century Robert Forward figure, but of one John Ingalls, a lawyer, scholar and statesman who introduced the motto as far back as 1861. And while its roots were in the coming Civil War, the story of Ingalls’ motto is so entertaining that it merits inclusion here, as reported by biographer G. H. Meixell:
“I was secretary of the Kansas state senate at its first session after our admission in 1861. A joint committee was appointed to present a design for the great seal of the state and I suggested a sketch embracing a single star rising from the clouds at the base of a field, with the constellation (representing the number of states then in the Union) above, accompanied by the motto, “Ad astra per aspera.” If you will examine the seal as it now exists you will see that my idea was adopted, but in addition thereto the committee incorporated a mountain scene, a river view, a herd of buffalo chased by Indians on horseback, a log cabin with a settler plowing in the foreground, together with a number of other incongruous, allegorical and metaphorical augmentations which destroyed the beauty and simplicity of my design.”
It was ever thus, and not just for politicians with an artistic bent. Any writer can tell stories about botched copy edits that would make even Ingalls shake his head in disbelief.
Space advocate Steve Durst was well aware of the history embedded in Ingalls’ motto, but also taken with the idea of Kansas in a more astronomical context. After numerous trips to the state, he would go on to found an organization called Ad Astra Kansas, focusing on high-tech and space research but with a wider charter that includes getting the word out about interstellar matters through education. The idea grew out of two other projects likewise affiliated with Durst’s Space Age Publishing Company: The International Lunar Observatory Association and an international series of public presentations called the Galaxy Forum. Durst says he has always been looking for “something broad that would be inspirational, directional, iconic, symbolic,” and in promoting the concept of interstellar flight, he has surely found it.
Image: Publisher and space activist Steve Durst, standing in front of the “Ad Astra Per Aspera” stained-glass artwork at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson just before Galaxy Forum Kansas on September 22, 2012.
Ad Astra Kansas came to my attention when I flew to San Jose last July to speak at a Galaxy Forum on the 4th and meet the energetic Durst, along with marketing editor Michelle Gonella. The organization is now a decade old, having begun its Ad Astra Kansas News in 2001, a publication that continues today under the editorship of Jeanette Steinert. The first Ad Astra Kansas Day was held in 2003, inaugurating a series of such meetings in various Kansas venues with an emphasis on business and education as space development continues. One of these is the Kansas Cosmosphere, a world-class aerospace facility in Hutchinson that seems to exemplify the anomalous nature of the enterprise. Here is a quiet farming community of some 42,000 people that boasts a major venue showcasing space exploration from the V-2 to Apollo.
What else could be created here? Durst talks about an interstellar research and development initiative, perhaps created as an archive or, long-term, a research center with an interstellar focus. Meanwhile, the organization continues to play a midwestern role in the Galaxy Forum program that began in Silicon Valley. Operating from his headquarters in Hawaii, home to ILOA, and an office in California, Durst, Phil Merrell, and Joseph Sulla of the ILOA Galaxy Forum program in Hawaii have, along with Gonella, expanded the forums around the world. They began July 4, 1984, as discussions of lunar exploration but by 2008 the focus had turned to the galaxy, with sessions as far afield as Canada, Beijing, Singapore and Japan. 2011 saw eleven Galaxy Forums from Shanghai to Bangalore, Hawaii and New York, bringing speakers and the general public together to discuss space and the human future in the broadest possible context.
My focus last July in San Jose’s Galaxy Forum was on the question of nearby targets for deep space missions, ‘nearby’ being defined as objects between the inner edge of the Kuiper Belt all the way to the Alpha Centauri stars. It was a good session, held at the city’s Tech Museum on July 4. Jon Lomberg had flown in from Hawaii and Seth Shostak was on hand from the SETI Institute. Durst’s hope is to provoke what he calls ‘galaxy consciousness,’ a way of looking at the future that leverages near-term projects like the lunar observatory but points beyond:
“We are at the start not just of new century but a new millennium. The Galaxy Forum is premised as much as anything on the fact that this is a new domain of learning for us, for all of humanity. Ninety years ago, before Hubble’s findings, we didn’t know there were galaxies or that we were part of one. Even today we have the sense that all those stars we see on a clear night comprise the universe, but that’s not true — it’s just a small patch of our own galaxy that we see. Professionals understand that, but in general educational practice from high school and early college down, there isn’t an awareness that between the finiteness of the Solar System and the infiniteness of the cosmos there is this larger knowable domain of the galaxy to explore.”
That’s a confounding fact but true — I still find myself having to explain the difference between ‘interplanetary’ and ‘interstellar’ at the oddest moments. Thus the idea of ‘galaxy consciousness’ is a praiseworthy target, but one that will require more than a generation of work. The idea grew out of Durst’s earlier work with the International Lunar Observatory Association, which itself emphasizes that its mission is “to expand human understanding of the cosmos through observation from our Moon.” The original ILOA mission was conceived as deployment of a 2-meter dish observatory near the lunar south pole, for observations both of the local environment as well as deep space as a way of educating people about the Solar System’s context in the cosmos. But ILOA is also working on a Google X-Prize entrant with the goal of placing a 10-cm optical telescope on the team’s lunar lander scheduled for 2014.
And in September 2012, ILOA signed a memo of understanding with the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences allowing ILOA scientists to conduct observations with the UV telescope set to fly on the Chang’e-3 lunar lander in 2013. With Galaxy Forums set to expand to South America and possibly Antarctica by 2014, ILOA is part observer, part educator, with the goal of having a voice in the changing philosophical perception of our planet’s place in the galaxy. Meanwhile, Ad Astra Kansas is a reminder that deep space begins close to home, in the students whose careers may be launched by education that opens minds to the cosmos. Who knew in 1861 that John Ingalls’ state motto would have that kind of reach?