Image Courtesy of Brendan Sheppard.
Brendan Sheppard, Queens University.
When European explorers re-discovered the American continents in the 15th century CE, they saw a promising New World at a time when they were primed to exploit it. We continue to grapple with the ramifications of the settler-colonial practices they established. When the United States rose to power in the 20th century, the culture they elevated with their rise was steeped in the legacies of a long successive line of western civilizations, traced back as far as Athens and Rome. The American superpower has, by virtue of their pre-eminence in international affairs, enjoyed a period of unprecedented prosperity and global influence. The old European superpowers, in their eager exploitation of a bountiful New World, laid the groundwork for a culture whose influence would come to overshadow their own.
Now, we look out into space with the same covetous gaze. Just as European colonists fled persecution and starvation, many of us hope that somewhere in space we will find refuge from the climate crisis that threatens our home. Like the patrons of early exploration and expansion in the Americas profiting from beaver pelts and stolen gold, the corporations funding new ventures into space look to the untapped mineral potential of the asteroid belt as their reward. The most ambitious pioneers imagine a new colony, no longer weighed down by Earth’s gravity or its political and cultural legacies – a vision shared by revolutionaries who, in revolt against the oppression of the British, birthed the United States.
Space has unfathomable potential. Whosoever establishes the road to the stars will control the future of the species. So, it is important for us to ask – who are these Spacemen? What future will they build?
In 1962, John F. Kennedy captured the ethos of the first space race in the Rice Stadium Moon Speech: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.” The demonstration of one people’s excellence and superiority inspired the once unthinkable voyage to the Moon. Half a century later, new challenges – and new ideals – are at the core of the second race to space. Modern neoliberalism’s meta-awareness allows us to bluntly discuss our interest in space in terms of potential profit, acknowledging that a drive to explore has been replaced by efforts to financialize. At the forefront of these efforts is space tourism – a luxury with a long history of unfulfilled promises of affordability. What space tourism will fulfill, is an exercise in funding that skims riches from the pocketbooks of the 1% to fund the companies of the 0.001% as they advance the technology and infrastructure that facilitates space travel. Beyond tourism, there are promises of resource exploitation from the wealth of minerals in the asteroid belt and on the moon. Luxembourg has become a haven for companies in this pursuit, while NASA, China, Japan, and others have continued to develop and demonstrate new techniques that bring this dream closer to reality. There is skepticism towards the idea that exploiting the mineral wealth of the solar system could ever be profitable, but even if it won’t benefit us here on Earth, developing techniques to obtain these resources will be valuable for reducing the materials cost of space-based manufacturing and broader exploration.
Ultimately, the outcomes of the space race which we deem ‘immediate’ look more like steppingstones than finish lines. They serve to make space a site for human industry; but working in space has significantly fewer permanent implications than living there. It wasn’t the fur traders and cartographers who became the ‘people’ of the American states – it was the colonists and their descendants, who lived there after the explorers had braved the unknown.
Space. Population: seven.
The history of living beyond Earth’s atmosphere is limited to Earth-orbiting space stations, built and used primarily for research. There is much that we can – and have – learnt through orbital research. But the next generation of space-citizens plan to broaden our horizons, both in terms of where and why we live in space. From new orbital research stations, to habitable mega-satellites and colonies in the asteroid belt – even new cities, plotted out on the Martian surface and tested here on Earth – there are big dreams for life in space.
For many, this is more than a trivial interest: this is a matter of escaping an inevitable extinction. Invoking the legacy of Dr. Carl Sagan, futurists like Dr. Michio Kaku and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk are advocating the colonization of Mars explicitly to reduce the human species’ dependence on Earth’s survival – not just from the climate crisis, but from other, unforeseeable global disasters too.
In Elon Musk’s vision, Mars won’t just be a ‘colony from Earth’; it will be, from its inception, an independent civilization where people live, work, and form new culture and law. This isn’t just a dream either: Musk and SpaceX are taking concrete steps to prepare for an independent Mars.
The SpaceX Martian colony – and all other claims to space, whether by corporations or governments – will be contested. While the UN has had an Outer Space Treaty since 1966, nations and corporations posturing in the Second Space Race seem less concerned with the terms of a half-century old treaty, and more concerned with current geopolitical tensions. For instance, in 2020, a US executive order officially opposed recognition of the Moon as a global commons; the establishment of the Space Force to defend American interests in space speaks for itself; and you look no further than comments from U.S. military officials about the China Threat in space to get hints of the real competition between these states.
The other half of the modern space race, which was relatively unimagined in the 60s, is the predominance of private industry. Both the United States and China have powerful space industries spearheading their respective expansions into the great beyond. The rush to establish claims that can be recognized and defended – by legal precedent first, and military force if necessary – may fuel more human expansion into space than anything else. When someone finally invokes the right-by-force to claim their partition of space, the lines between mega-corporations and nation-states may become very difficult to discern.
How we choose to engage in the space race today will determine the conditions under which our species live – or dies – in the future. It feels appropriate to turn to the Seventh Generation Principle, derived from the Great Law of the Haudenosaunee with which the Iroquois Confederacy – “the oldest living participatory democracy on Earth” – was founded. “In our every deliberation,” the principle implores, “we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”
How do we best help our species seven generations down the line? For futurists like Elon Musk, the answer is to ensure that even if the Earth is lost, humanity survives. But others, like filmmaker Werner Herzog, don’t prioritize the benefits of making humanity a “multi-planetary species”. As Herzog puts it, plans to colonize and live on Mars render humanity “like the locusts, coming, grazing empty our planet… and now [asking] where we go next?”. He’s not alone with this view. Recent polling shows that Americans want NASA to prioritize monitoring the global climate and potential asteroid collisions, rather than going back to the Moon. All but the rarest of us will never step foot on Mars. For the majority of humanity, our fates – and our children’s – are tied to the fate of this planet, not the next.
In 1966, Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress envisioned a lunar society built from penal deportees and their offspring. Ruled by Earthly politics and made to produce food and resources for the masses down below, the lunar people nevertheless develop a unique culture in response to their environment. Eventually, they revolt, and establish themselves as a nation of their own. Their culture – as influenced by the challenges they faced both from the moon, and from the Earth-bound authorities that oppressed them – is destined to make choices that will alter the course of history.
Three years after Heinlein’s novel was published, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin brought humanity to the moon. Someday, in the not-so-distant future, we will return. Today’s not too soon to ask what we should do once we get there.
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