To protect and preserve ET life? That is the question

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Credit: humboldt.edu

This past Sunday I served as a judge for the Eastern championship round of the NASA Astrobiology Debates. It turned out to be worth working on a weekend.#

So what are the NASA Astrobiology Debates? It’s a year-long program for middle school, high school, and university students who sign up to study and then debate a topic of interest to the astrobiology community.

The program is organized by the NASA Astrobiology Program and The George Washington University. The debate topic for this year is: “Resolved: An overriding ethical obligation to protect and preserve extraterrestrial microbial life and ecosystems should be incorporated into international law.”

The Debates project is intended “to engage present and future leaders in dialogue on the implications of such a discovery.” Participating students are engaging in online speech competitions, public debates, and tournament competitions and conducting interviews with topic experts (see below).

This debate topic is of great interest to me. As readers of my blog will know, I think humans have no business tromping around on other planetary bodies – habitable or not – for numerous reasons, among them my belief in the value of preserving pristine environments for their own sake. So you can figure out how I would vote on this resolution.

That said, I can report that in the first debate round I judged, I found the team arguing the negative to be the winner. The panel of three judges voted 2-1 in favor of this team. In the final round (se below), I also voted for the team arguing the negative.

I am a student of rhetorical criticism and a practicing rhetorical analyst. I am not and never have been a debater. (I prefer dialogue to debate.) I don’t think my high school had a debate club, and my undergraduate university (1970-1974) was more focused on protesting the Vietnam war, advocating for gay rights, and exploring black power than engaging in more traditional academic pastimes.

Though I prefer dialogue to debate for a number of well-thought-out reasons, I have great respect for the discipline of formal debate (if only our political candidates knew how to debate properly…). After listening to debate teams in quarter-final, semi-final, and final rounds for seven hours straight, I felt like I’d been chugging espresso. I was charged, wired, invigorated. (I’m a big fan of auto racing – stock car, Indy car, sprint car, drag – it’s a similar kind of charge.)

Teams were debating about the intrinsic and instrumental value of microbial life, ethical obligations, moral duty, the effectiveness of international law, competing world views (anthropocentrism, ecocentrism…), the value of space development versus the value of space colonization, the multiple meanings of “overriding….” I kept thinking that the debaters had to attempt to make a topic colored by a million shades of gray appear to be black-and-white. All teams had to be prepared to argue for the affirmative and the negative.

The teams I judged came from Emory University, George Washington University, Johns Hopkins University, and Morehouse College. (Other competitors included teams from France and Japan.) They were uniformly impressive. However, we judges were provided with guidelines for weighing one team’s performance against another’s. In the end, we had to decide who made the better argument.

By the final round, the two remaining teams were pretty much neck and neck. How could I pick a winner? In the end, it was during the second-cross examination when I noted a weakness on the part of the team arguing the affirmative. One of the debaters on the team arguing the negative made several statements that were arguable. I expected the affirmative team to rebut. It didn’t happen.

What were the arguable statements? First, a statement arguing that single footprint on the Moon could wipe out life caught my attention – the Moon has long been considered uninhabitable. Next, Tang and microwave ovens were cited as examples of the important benefits of space exploration and development. The debater could have used much more powerful, and relevant, examples of benefits – say, space-based communications, land remote sensing, a better understanding of Earth’s climate history and future. Third, The “negative” debater said the 1967 United Nations Treaty on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space is an example of “failed international law.” The treaty was intended to prevent war in space, and it has done so. Fourth, the “negative” debater stated that “an action isn’t ethical if it’s not effective.” I certainly disagree, and the “affirmative” team could have, too.

In the end, a panel of five judges – all from the space community – voted 3-2 in favor of the team arguing the negative. (I was one of the three, for the reasons stated above.)

After the debates, I took a look at some the interviews with topic experts that were recorded as research material for the debaters. Here are a few snippets from some of these interviews that I found interesting.

David Berube, a professor of communication at North Carolina State University, had this to say about the challenge of determining whether and how legal protections need to be established for extraterrestrial life:

“I’ve had a strange lecture idea recently, which is to claim that the reason it was so hard to provide civil rights to African Americans living in the United States wasn’t because it wasn’t the right thing to do, but because we weren’t positioned well to do it. This is because we had already dehumanized them, then we had to re-humanize them so that we could provide them rights that had previously been reserved for white landowners. That was incredibly hard thing to do. What ended up happening was that it took a hell of a lot longer than it should have. You’ll likely see the same thing happening here, which is that it will take so long, and it will be so complicated to get the public to concede that a non-human species may have something to offer that may even be superior to the human species, that they will revert to a set of heuristics and biases that we’re talking about being incredibly long-term. There are some algorithms that attempt to deal with this by plotting out how many generations it will take us to develop philosophically to the point where we can have these moments of change.”

Tommy Curry, a professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University, offered these thoughts on the prospect of human colonization of other planets:

“Is there a process of colonization whereby the United States and other earthlings set up a colony or a place where microbial life on Mars or elsewhere simply becomes a fountain for their own uses? In other words, we assign value to it insofar as we find it useful for human existence or discovery or progress. And I think that what comes along with that isn’t just physical occupation but also the question of an epistemic or a methodological colonization. And what I mean by that is do we only know microbial life on Mars in so far as it extends to kind of taxonomies we have to know about nature here on earth. In other words, we’ve set up a cultural or philosophical view that places the human as the discoverer, a rational actor that seeks to go out, discover, colonize, name and categorize nature. And nature in many ways becomes oppositional to that. What’s external to the human is something that the human has power to act upon.”

And Brian Henning, a professor of philosophy at Gonzaga University (who is, like me, an ecocentrist), had this to say about the topic:

“I would hope students will also discuss what we hope to accomplish by going out into the universe more broadly, the overall justification for our exploration….

“I would argue everything deserves some moral consideration for its own sake, so I probably have the most expansive definition of intrinsic value…. I would say all living things have moral standing because they have intrinsic value, even nonliving things have intrinsic value….

If we really had an adequate ethical perception of ourselves and our place in the world then when we went out in the universe we would end up doing less harm. We need to move from being the conqueror of biotic communities to being playing member/citizens.”

“One of the exciting part of astrobiology and astro-ethics is that it helps us to really complete the process that began with Darwin when we realized we are a part of and a product of processes on this planet and in the universe. It…gives us the opportunity to then help move away from anthropocentrism and a human- centered universe and transition us to seeing ourselves as a part of [the universe].”

Now, talk amongst yourselves….

# My work is funded in part by the NASA Astrobiology Program.

Will the future be bright for all, or for the 1 percent?

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Credit: dailygalaxy.net

The cover of the 25 February issue of Nature magazine asks, “Future generations: what kind of world will we pass on?” Inside is a news feature about “tomorrow’s world.” The editors of the magazine ponder “whether researchers of today consider the world of tomorrow – and why they should.”

“Exponential advances in enabling technologies have reached the point at which they could trigger disruptive change in sectors from artificial intelligence to robotics to medicine,” Nature observes. And what are those enablers? Nature identifies exponential growth in computing power, “really big data,” improvements in communication speed, talking devices, the biology boom, 3D printing, and the rise of robots.

And what will these enablers enable?

Harvard Medical School geneticist George Church predicts, “By 2040, 1 billion people will have their whole genome sequences and get constant updates of their immunomes and microbiomes.”

What about the other 8 billion people who are predicted to be inhabiting Earth by 2040?

Daniela Rus, head of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT predicts “a world where everybody can have a robot and robots are pervasively integrated in the fabric of life.”

Everybody? What about poor Indian farmers? What about political refugees? What about Bangladeshis flooded out of their homes? What about migrant workers in the U.S.A. and elsewhere? (Agribusiness has been exploiting migrant labor in the U.S.A. for a century, and I’m sorry to say that don’t anticipate our government putting an end to it by 2040.)

And so on.

In the midst of all of this techno-optimism, Nicholas Stern, chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, offers a commentary that begins, “The twin defining challenges of our century are overcoming poverty and managing climate change.”

Right on, Professor Stern.

What’s keeping us from eliminating poverty and managing climate change is not a lack of computing power or robots or super-fast communication. It’s the unequal distribution of wealth worldwide, the influence of money on politics, the indifference of big business to prospects for future generations…and so on.

Also in this issue of Nature, Population Council vice president John Bongaarts insists that to solve the problems that Stern identifies, we must “slow down population growth.” He’s right. How to start working on this problem? Educate women and provide access (meaning easy, affordable, or free where necessary) to contraception, he says.

What’s keeping us from getting to work on this problem, I wonder? On one level, it’s lack of political commitment and insufficient funding. On another level, it’s religious and other cultural beliefs that limit or prohibit women’s autonomy.

Speculations about how computers and robots and a faster Internet will improve the lot of humankind are short-sighted. Scientific and technological advancements will continue to benefit, first, the one percent. The U.S. Census Bureau offers all sorts of data about poverty in this country, but I’ll offer just a few tidbits, for perspective.

With the caveat that correlation does not mean causation, here’s a sampling of census data on the percentage of the U.S. population living below 50 percent of the poverty level:

  • 1981 (Ronald Reagan’s first year in office): 4.9 percent.
  • 1988 (RR’s last year); 5.2 percent.
  • 1992 (G.H.W. Bush’s last year in office): 6.1 percent.
  • 2000 (Bill Clinton’s last year in office): 4.5 percent.
  • 2008 (G.W. Bush’s last year in office): 5.7 percent.
  • 2014 (Obama’s sixth year in office): 6.6 percent.

The worst sort of speculation about the scientifically and technologically advanced future is speculation about human migration to outer space. Talk of “starting anew” and creating off-Earth societies that are free of the problems that plague societies here on Earth is naïve, at best, and disingenuous, at worst.

Neoliberal ideology has played a key role in the transformation of technoscience, including the U.S. civil space program. Until the end of the Cold War, keeping ahead of the Soviets was sufficient rationale for NASA’s costly human space flight program. Once the Cold War ended, neoliberalism came to the fore in advocacy for human space flight. Recent presidents and their appointees, advisory groups, and especially various human space flight advocacy groups have explicitly advocated for “free enterprise” and “unlimited growth” in space. Advocacy groups courted by NASA are most explicit, claiming in their mission statements that U.S. space policy should enable private property rights in space, unfettered private-sector exploitation of solar system resources, and colonization of other planetary bodies.*

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – dreams of space hotels and off-world colonies are elitist dreams. They have nothing to do with solving the world’s problems, as identified by Stern and Bongaarts.

P.S. – I received a February 16 press release from the Museum of Science Fiction informing me that it, along with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Academy of Sciences’ Science & Entertainment Exchange, cosponsored a workshop on “homesteading in space.” From the press release – which did not note the date and place of the workshop or the names of participants: “As President Obama observed in his 2015 State of the Union, we want to be ‘pushing out into the solar system not just to visit, but to stay.’ Workshop participants discussed the science and technology of space exploration, including mining, nanotechnology, robotics, synthetic astrobiology, habitats, and other related areas…. ‘Just as pioneers on Earth had to live off the land as they traveled to unknown territories, space explorers will need to use resources from asteroids or other planets,” commented Tom Kalil, Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation at OSTP.” I continue to be baffled as to why this administration has embraced this kind of thinking.

* See Linda Billings, 2007, “Ideology, advocacy, and space flight – evolution of a cultural narrative,” Chapter 25 in Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Launius, Eds., Societal Impact of Space Flight (SP-200-4801), NASA History Division, Washington, DC.; and Linda Billings, 2006, Exploration for the masses? Or joyrides for the ultra-rich? Prospects for space tourism, Space Policy 22, summer 2006.

 

 

The future is uncertain: talking about asteroid impact hazards

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Credit: bloombergview.com

One of my many ongoing projects is working on how we in the near-Earth object (NEO) observations community* can improve the clarity of our communications about NEO impact risks, hazards, and threats.

A key part of improving these communications is coming up with better ways of characterizing the uncertainty that is in inherent in mathematical/statistical predictions. It’s a challenging task. What we’re talking about here is predicting the future orbital movements of asteroids that may come close to Earth – that is, NEOs.

Now, consider that “the future” is uncertain, and thus “predictions” about the future are uncertain. Also consider that “near” and “close” are relative terms.

By NASA’s definition, a near-Earth object is an asteroid (or comet) whose orbit periodically brings it within approximately 195 million kilometers (121 million miles) of the Sun – that’s within about 50 million kilometers, or 30 million miles, of Earth’s orbit. A potentially hazardous asteroid (PHA) is an asteroid whose orbit is predicted to bring it within 0.05 Astronomical Units (just under 8 million kilometers, or 5 million miles) of Earth’s orbit; and of a size large enough to reach Earth’s surface – that is, greater than around 30 to 50 meters.

In technical terms, a “close approach” is a predicted event in which a NEO passes within the orbit of Earth’s Moon. Some passes of larger NEOs close to the Earth-Moon system but not between the two bodies are also called close approaches. In lay terms, a “close approach,” while not a risk, hazard, or threat to Earth, is an event that scientists want to keep an eye on.

Are we clear so far?

(Just FYI: in searching Google Images for a visual depiction of uncertainty, I came across a picture of a road sign reading “doubt and fear just ahead,” another road sign reading “lost confused unsure unclear perplexed disoriented bewildered,” and a quote from Voltaire: “Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.”)

In working on the challenge of improving communications about uncertainty, I’ve just read a book by Dylan Evans, Risk Intelligence: How to Live with Uncertainty (Free Press, NY, 2012), that’s provided some good food for thought.

What Evans calls “risk intelligence” is “the ability to estimate probabilities accurately.” (You can take his simple “risk intelligence quotient,” or RQ, test online.)

Evans by no means advocates the abandonment of probabilistic risk assessment. He argues that we need to better understand, and develop better ways of explaining, probability. “Probabilities are an expression of our ignorance,” he observes; “by quantifying uncertainty, we are already conceding that we don’t ‘know’ the relevant facts with 100 percent certainty and admitting that we have to work on the basis of educated guesses.”

Numerical characterizations of risk are more accurate than verbal descriptions, he says. However, “replacing verbal labels with numbers is not enough by itself to make things any better.” While verbal labels are imprecise, and numbers may be less so, even numerical labels can mask uncertainty. “It is not enough to supplement verbal labels with numerical translations; the labels should be dispensed with altogether, because people tend to ignore the numerical translations and interpret the labels in their own idiosyncratic ways.” Imprecise statements about uncertainty can lead to miscommunication between analysts and policymakers [I’d say “experts and non-experts”], he notes, and for that matter, among analysts themselves.

This last point gets to one of my favorite “problems” in science and risk communication – the all-too-common use of subjective terms such as “serious,” “severe,” “likely,” “unlikely,” “significant,” “important,” and so on. These kinds of words are subject to interpretation. Does “likely” mean 50 percent probable, 90 percent probable, 99 percent probable? What would render the prediction of a possible – emphasis on possible – asteroid impact with Earth 20 years from now “significant”? It depends on who you ask.

By the way, according to the asteroid impact risk table maintained by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Center for NEO Studies (CNEOS) and updated daily, no known NEOs pose any risk of impacting Earth over the next 100 years. Also by the way, CNEOS has reported that an upcoming asteroid flyby originally characterized as a possible close approach is no longer predicted to be close. Based on early observations, asteroid trackers predicted that an asteroid named 2013 TX68 would pass by Earth on March 5, at a distance as far out as 9 million miles (14 million kilometers) or as close as 11,000 miles (17,000 kilometers). Further observations enabled trackers to eliminate some of the uncertainty surrounding their calculations and refine their prediction. They now report that 2013 TX68 will pass by Earth on March 8 at a distance of about 3 million miles (5 million kilometers). “There is still a chance that it could pass closer, but certainly no closer than 15,000 miles (24,000 kilometers),” according to CNEOS. (So uncertainty has been reduced, but not eliminated….)

Now back to Professor Evans for some final thoughts: “The very tools that can help enhance risk intelligence – the mathematics of probability theory and the collection of statistical data” – can lead to overconfidence, “a sense that we can master Lady Luck [let’s say “chance” or “randomness”] through science. But as the financial crisis of 2007-2008 reminded us, the models we build to manage risk are always fallible…. If such thoughts make you panic, then you haven’t come to terms with the irreducibility of chance.”

* My work is funded in part by NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, which encompasses the agency’s NEO Observations Program.

Believe it or not? The NFL’s nonprofit

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Credit: globe cartoon.wordpress.com

The topic of today’s post is rather far removed from the sort of subject I usually write about. But it’s so appalling that I thought it was worth reporting.

In a briefing offered by Guidestar on nonprofit compensation last year, I learned that the National Football League is a nonprofit organization.

Yep. It’s true. What I want to know is, why? How?

Over the holidays, I took a look at the NFL’s IRS Form 990. The NFL describes itself as a “trade association promoting interests of its 32 member clubs.” Who decided that this is a nonprofit activity?

First, the bottom line: in 2013, the NFL reported assets of $727.7 million and liabilities of $1.5 billion – yes, with a B. Apparently not a great year.

On the other hand, sponsorship.com reports that the NFL’s sponsorship revenue totaled $1.07 billion for the 2013 season, up from $1.01 billion in 2012.

Next, let’s look at the nonprofit NFL’s executive compensation (no female executives here, by the way):

  • Commissioner Roger Goodell: $35 million.
  • CFO Joseph Siclare: $1.9 million.
  • EVP and General Counsel Jeff Pash: $5.8 million.
  • EVP of Media Steve Bornstein: $5.1 million.
  • EVP Business Ventures Eric Grubman: $3.8 million.
  • EVP Football Operations Ray Anderson: $1.5 million.
  • EVP Human Resources Robert Gulliver: $1.7 million.

Add another $3 million or so to total executive compensation for “other compensation.” So the NFL reported that in 2013, it doled out $58.1 million in executive compensation.

Compensation to the NFL’s top five independent contractors included $15.5 million for legal services, $6.1 million for concussion research, $12.4 million for office rent and maintenance, and $4.9 million for IT/mobile consulting.

The NFL reported spending $12.5 million on travel in 2013, $6.8 million on “event production,” and $73.4 million on “club-related financing.”

For this Sunday’s Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins game, ticket prices at the NFL Ticket Exchange start at $139 and go up to $1,000.

According to CNN Money, President Obama’s salary in 2015 was $400,000. He also was provided a tax-free spending account worth $50,000.

According to 24/7 Wall St., U.S. Cabinet secretaries make a little under $200,000 per year.

Keep these numbers in mind next time you put out a couple hundred bucks for an NFL game ticket, or buy a 12-pack of Bud because Anheuser-Busch sponsors the NFL – or complain about the government…. Think about where your money goes.

Questioning technological determinism

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Credit: gartonjoneswestminster.com

In the first issue of a new open-access journal, Engaging Science, Technology, and Society, Taylor Dotson – an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, Liberal Arts, and Social Sciences at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology – writes about the assumptions, beliefs, and patterns of thought undergirding “technological determinism and permissionless innovation as technocratic governing mentalities.”* That is, they contribute to the biasing of political discourses, practices, and organizations toward non-decision making and adaptation with regard to technological change.

It’s a most interesting paper, and I think Dotson’s right on the mark. This paper is highly relevant to the current discourse on the future of human space flight.

Dotson provides concise definitions of his two key concepts: “technological determinism [is] the idea that technology autonomously drives history, and permissionless innovation [is] the belief that technology best benefits humanity if innovation remains nearly unregulated.”

According to a well-sourced Wikipedia entry on the topic (thanks to those who assembled it!), “Most interpretations of technological determinism share two general ideas: that the development of technology itself follows a predictable, traceable path largely beyond cultural or political influence, and that technology in turn has “effects” on societies that are inherent, rather than socially conditioned or produced because that society organizes itself to support and further develop a technology once it has been introduced.”

Dotson rightfully characterizes technological determinism and permissionless innovation as “normative phenomena.” That is, “their foundational beliefs, ideas, and assumptions constitute governing mentalities that shape discourse, thinking and action regarding technological innovation to the advantage of a narrow range of elite actors.” (I’ve added the emphasis.) “Because they help mobilize bias (within the political organization of technological societies so as to encourage adaptation to technological change) and non-decision-making (regarding the potential consequences of emerging technologies rather than conscious democratic steering) they can be termed technocratic governing mentalities.”

My own observations support Dotson’s – “permissionless innovation is quickly becoming the motto of those aiming to legitimate a ‘hands-off’ approach to the sociotechnical ‘disruptions’ sought by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.” (See my post of June 25, 2014, on Jill Lepore’s critique of the idea of “disruptive innovation.”)

He observes that “permissionless innovation” is a manifestation of what he calls “Silicon Valley techno-libertarianism.” From my perch inside the aerospace community, I interpret talk (thank goodness, that’s all it is so far) for the human colonization of other planets, the mining of asteroids, and large-scale space tourism (hotels on the Moon and such) as advocacy for permissionless innovation.

This administration’s seemingly uncritical embrace of “innovation” disturbs me. Enactment of legislation legalizing asteroid mining appalls me – for all the important issues that Congress is not acting on, it had time for this one? The media industry’s enthusiasm for technological innovation, with little critical analysis and plenty of cheerleading for the next wacky, impractical, and cost-prohibitive toy (read: space elevators, planetary terraforming, warp drive and the like) is bothersome as well.

I’ve studied the history of the idea of progress, which is deeply rooted in Christian theology. It’s a very Western idea. The idea that technological progress (innovation, disruptive innovation, whatever you want to call it) is inherently necessary and good is questionable. I myself would go so far as to say that it’s dangerous. As Dotson points out, this belief leads societies to embrace new technologies with little thought to the social change they may bring out – good, bad, or ugly.

Dotson says “meeting the challenges presented by technological determinism and permissionless innovation will entail,” among other things, “challenging system-justifying ideologies.” My ongoing project involves just that. (See, for example, my post of March 27.) Right on, Professor Dotson, I’m with you.

 

* “Technological Determinism and Permissionless Innovation as Technocratic Governing Mentalities: Psychocultural Barriers to the

Democratization of Technology,” ESTS 1, 2015, 98-120, http://estsjournal.org/article/view/8/20.

2015 in review

No, this is not an end-of-year news roundup. You’ve seen enough of those already…. The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog, and I’m sharing it with you.

The stats monkeys tell me:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 9,200 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

The post that drew the most views – more than a thousand! – was “More on manifest destiny” (March 27). Extra traffic was no doubt generated by Emily Lakdawalla’s tweet about an earlier, related post (July 24, 2013 – also see my post of February 24, 2015)  – thanks again, Emily!

As I mentioned in my last blog post (December 28), I’m working on a paper about the way that neoliberal ideology is playing out in the execution of U.S. civil space policy. I will be blogging about this project in 2016.

You can see the stats monkeys’  complete report here: https://doctorlinda.wordpress.com/2015/annual-report/

Capitalists, and federal dollars, in space

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Credit: motherjones.com

On December 23, I came across this headline in Investor’s Business Daily: “SpaceX Rocket Is A Capitalist Triumph.” Like a rubber-necker driving by a car crash, I had to look at the story.

Here’s how it starts: “Free Markets: This week’s return of a rocket to its launch pad was a big deal, not only because it signals a new era in competitive space exploration but also because it shows a new generation how capitalism solves problems. Americans keep hoping for something spectacular from NASA but are disappointed. In recent years, in addition to ending the costly shuttle program and forcing our astronauts to hitch rides with the Russians to go into space, NASA has made “Muslim outreach” a top priority. That’s not much return for NASA’s $18 billion annual budget.”

I gagged on this load of…um, let’s just call it hyperbole. I couldn’t bring myself to blog about it on the day before Xmas Eve, so I’m doing it today. (Thanks to Dave Huntsman for his comment on the IBD story online, check it out.)

First, “capitalism solves problems.” Let me remind my readers that both SpaceX and Blue Origin – both owned by billionaires – have received substantial subsidies, followed by even more substantial contracts, from NASA – you know, the evil government.

I have no need to defend NASA. I do have a need to challenge the libertarian rhetoric that government is the problem and capitalism is the solution. Please. Both Musk and Bezos are outspoken libertarians.*

Second, “NASA has made ‘Muslim outreach’ a top priority”? I don’t think so. NASA has always played a role in achieving the administration’s foreign policy objectives (that’s why NASA was formed in the first place), and, yes, NASA has played some small role in the current administration’s outreach to the Muslim world.

IBD goes on: “the current battle between SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whose Blue Origin rocket safely landed in November, will bring big benefits to the American people — and, down the road, potentially huge profits to the entrepreneurs who create the rockets.”

What benefits will these rockets bring to “the American people?” Really, I want to know. And which “American people”? OK, jobs, for some. But the underlying assumption here seems to be that the goals, objectives, and values of Elon Musk/SpaceX and Jeff Bezos/Blue Origin are representative of the goals, objectives, and values of “the American people” – a wildly diverse population…. I am not convinced that a majority – or even a significant minority – of “American people” share Musk’s and Bezos’s dreams of colonizing outer space.

SpaceX and Blue Origin are in competition with established behemoths Lockheed Martin and Boeing and their joint venture United Launch Alliance, and the well established Orbital Sciences Corp.

According to Aeroweb, NASA’s top 100 contractors for fiscal year 2014 included:

  • Lockheed Martin at #2 ($1.7 billion);
  • Boeing at #3 ($1.4 billion);
  • Orbital Sciences Corp. (now Orbital ATK) at #4 ($666 million);
  • SpaceX at #6 ($483 million) – up from #7 in 2013; and
  • United Launch Alliance (Lockheed Martin-Boeing) at #9 ($365 million).

SpaceX is #98 ($497 million) on the U.S. government’s top 100 contractors list for FY 2014, according to Aeroweb (Lockheed Martin and Boeing are #1 and #2).

(An aside: Lockheed Martin president, chairman, and CEO Marilyn Hewson’s 2013 compensation was $25 million, according to the Washington Post. See payscale.com for information on Lockheed Martin’s employee compensation scales – for example, $74,000 to $131,000, plus bonus, for a senior systems engineer. In an imaginary glorious capitalist future, when SpaceX has displaced Lockheed Martin as NASA’s #1 contractor, can we expect Elon Musk’s compensation to reach such heady heights? Then again, why should he care about his compensation? His personal net worth is now $12.7 billion, according to Forbes. He’s #38 on Forbes’s list of the world’s richest people.)

See my blog post of September 24 for other thoughts on the so-called “commercial space” boom.

* In November, I presented a paper at the annual meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science, “Neoliberalism: the heart of U.S. civil space policy,” in which I argued that, if not articulated in actual policy documents, libertarian ideology is a driver of the current execution of civil space policy. The paper isn’t finished yet (when it is, I‘ll post it on this site). But here’s the abstract:

“In the journal Social Studies of Science, Rebecca Lave, Philip Murowski, and Samuel Randall urged fellow scholars of science, technology, and society “to undertake a detailed exploration of exactly how the external political-economic forces of neoliberalism are transforming technoscience.” This paper addresses the role of neoliberalism in the transformation of technoscience, specifically in U.S. civil space policy. Neoliberalism’s kissing cousin, American exceptionalism, has been at the heart of the ideology of human space flight since the United States created a space program in 1958. Until the end of the Cold War, keeping ahead of the Soviets was sufficient rationale for the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) costly human space flight program. Once the Cold War ended, neoliberalism came to the fore in advocacy, and policy, for human space flight.

While official national space policy documents are light on neoliberal rhetoric, other official statements – speeches by presidents and their appointees, advisory reports, and especially pronouncements by various human space flight advocacy groups – are more explicit in advocating for “free enterprise” and “unlimited growth” in space. Advocacy groups courted by NASA are most explicit, claiming in their mission statements that U.S. space policy should enable private property rights in space, unfettered private-sector exploitation of solar system resources, and colonization of other planetary bodies (Billings 2006, 2007). That these belief systems have been driving U.S. space exploration and development for so long, and continue to do so today, is disturbing.

Though certain efforts to “privatize” space flight began in the Carter administration, the Reagan administration was first to promote the so-called “commercialization” of space, touting the promise of space-based manufacturing and the commercial exploitation of extraterrestrial resources. The Obama administration, in rare concord with Congress, has embraced and turbocharged the neoliberal heart of national space policy, advancing billions of dollars in direct and indirect subsidies and billions more in contracts to so-called “commercial” space businesses, both established and new, and all well-heeled.

Pro-space neoliberals, libertarians, and Tea-Partiers continue to promote a space-colonization agenda on Capitol Hill and at the White House. A declaration produced at a “pioneering space national summit” in 2015 claims that “the long term goal of the human spaceflight and exploration program of the United States is to expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and to do so in a way that will enable human settlement and a thriving space economy.” A new Alliance for Space Development has formed to execute this goal, including the Space Frontier Foundation and the Tea Party in Space.

Within the aerospace community, the ideology of space exploration is very seldom discussed. The same is true for the STS community. With this paper I hope to encourage further analysis. I will explore the ideology of space exploration by analyzing the rhetoric of policy makers and advocates.”

P.S. For further reading about capitalism and democracy, see E.J. Dionne’s opinion piece in today’s Washington Post, “Capitalists should listen to Bernie Sanders.” He argues that U.S. presidential candidates should be tackling these questions in their debates: “Are all the wealthy societies destined to become far more unequal, as they were in the late 19th century, because of globalization and technological change? Or can governments find new ways of ensuring a degree of justice and fairness?” (I agree.)

I believe that the answer to the first question is no – wealthy societies aren’t destined to be the way they are; they choose the way they want to be. We can be better, fairer. My answer to the second question is yes. We can. We should. But will we?

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