Why space colonies?

Conquest_-_Frontier_Wars_Coverart

Credit: wikipedia.org

My opinion piece in the August issue of Scientific American about the rhetoric of human space flight has drawn some attention – positive, from friends and colleagues, and nasty, from a couple of (male) people.

As I noted in a March 27 blog post, for more than a decade I have been engaged in an ongoing project of research, analysis, and critique of the ideology of space exploration, in particular its embrace of the frontier metaphor and the idea of manifest destiny. As a U.S. citizen, I am especially interested in how and why this ideology has long been embedded in U.S. space policy and whether and how it serves the public interest. Scientific American’s publication of my piece has clearly stimulated discussion on this topic, which was my goal in writing about it.

As I stated in a July 20 blog post, “The idea of establishing a permanent and expanding human presence in space makes me queasy.” I will continue to engage in analysis and critique of the ideology and the rhetoric of human space flight, space settlement, space mining, and so on, as I am not at all convinced that colonizing other planetary bodies is for the benefit of humankind. How will this benefit the millions of refugees displaced by wars, especially the traumatized children? How will this benefit the people of nations attempting to deal with a history of colonization and dictatorship? How will this help children in this country, and elsewhere, who are undernourished and under-educated?

I’d like to say a few words about titles. They’re intended to draw attention. Why publish a piece if you don’t want people to read it? I submitted my piece to Scientific American under the title, “The rhetoric of the space frontier: turn-on or turn-off?” The first edit of the piece came back to me with this title: “How archaic beliefs about manifest destiny corrupt American rhetoric on human spaceflight is corrupted.” The print version of the piece has this title: “Space cowboys: How jingoism corrupts American rhetoric on human spaceflight.” The online version has this title: “The inexcusable jingoism of American spaceflight rhetoric: how jingoism corrupts American rhetoric on human spaceflight.” (I should note that it was a pleasure to work with the editors of the magazine, who gave me an opportunity to review and approve all changes.)

This piece drew me my first piece of hate mail – here’s a sample, without the four-letter words: “I wonder why this group of people that you discriminate against wants to move to mars [sic]? Maybe its [sic] because of the far left, politically correct bullshit going on in this country. I know that you live in a liberal bubble and do not realize that white males are the reason for 90% of inventions ever happened [sic]. How come the French do not like space? cause of the white American male of course! get the hell out of here.”

Another blogger has criticized my piece as an attack on the Space Frontier Foundation – of which the blogger is a member. My essay is a critique of the old-school rhetoric of human space flight, and the Space Frontier Foundation is one of several dependable sources of this rhetoric. A careful reading of the piece will make that clear.

(For the record, I do not identify as a “liberal.” I identify as a left-leaning democrat.)

As part of my ongoing analysis and critique of the ideology of human space flight, I am looking further into the history of economic neoliberalism, which lies at the heart of U.S. space policy. In his book, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005), David Harvey observes that “neoliberalism has…become hegemonic as a mode of discourse” in the global political economy…. It has pervasive effects on ways of thought to the point where it has become incorporated into the common-sense way many of us interpret, live in, and understand the world…. The process of neoliberalization” – deregulation, privatization, and withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision – “has, however, entailed much ‘creative destruction’…of prior institutional frameworks and powers….”

Just a reminder – the Space Frontier Foundation’s “credo” states: “Our purpose is to unleash the power of free enterprise and lead a united humanity permanently into the Solar System.” Its “frontier enabling test” is this: “Our definition of a “frontier enabling” technology or policy is one which has as its effect the acceleration of the creation of low cost access to the space frontier for private citizens and companies, enables or accelerates our use of space resources, and/or accelerates the rate at which wealth can be generated in space. In other words, is the project or policy going to provide a return on the national investment, if we define “return” to be the economically sustainable human habitation of space?”

I’ll also remind readers of President Obama’s April 15, 2010, speech at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, in which he said, “Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn and operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time, ultimately in ways that are more sustainable and even indefinite. And in fulfilling this task, we will not only extend humanity’s reach in space — we will strengthen America’s leadership here on Earth…. Leading the world to space helped America achieve new heights of prosperity here on Earth, while demonstrating the power of a free and open society to harness the ingenuity of its people…. If we fail to press forward in the pursuit of discovery, we are ceding our future and we are ceding that essential element of the American character.”

If you have any doubts about the persistence of the old-school ideology of space exploration, see NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden’s remarks to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) earlier this month (thanks to Michael Henry of the American Institute of Physics for reporting on this meeting). AS AIP reported, “Bolden articulated the nation’s rationale for a mission to Mars by appealing to American values, heritage, and history. The United States, he argued, is about exploration and expansion through the colonization of new places. Said Bolden: ‘We are going farther into the solar system, except this time we’re going to stay. This is not about sending a man to a body and bringing them safely back to Earth. This is about moving humanity farther into the solar system and establishing a foothold where we can remain time in memorial….Through the history of humanity, we’ve always been confronted with crossing the next river, or crossing the next mountain, or going beyond something…. It is the story of the journey West, you know, of the early pilgrims and other people landing on the shores of the United States, but then just not being satisfied and continually moving west and exploring, and so, we’re now trying to get off this planet and farther out’.”

Garrett Reisman, director of crew operations at SpaceX, told PCAST, “Mars, as Charlie [Bolden] mentioned, is the ultimate goal of the agency, [and] also is the ultimate goal of our company. Really, the company [SpaceX] was founded to make humans a multi-planetary species.”

In the June 1 issue of The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote about the idea of colonizing Mars (“Project Exodus”). In a letter to the editor published in the July 20 issue, John Huxhold comments on the article: “Humans are ill suited to space travel, which is why it is so expensive to keep astronauts healthy and safe. As the success of the Mars rovers demonstrates, sending machines to places and environments in our solar system that humans can’t reach is more than enough to satisfy our thrill of discovery…. We should not supplant the real environmental imperative to preserve the earth with the fantasy of colonizing other planets.”

As to many of the key people driving this idea of colonizing outer space – the multimillionaires and billionaires of Silicon Valley, and elsewhere – they are a special breed. In another letter to the editor of The New Yorker, Tony Robinson comments on a story in the May 18 issue of the magazine about Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreesen: “The V.C.s of Silicon Valley are…the financial engineers of the vast capital flows that are transforming the way the economy operates. But these people are not investing in the wheel, the internal-combustion engine, or the telephone. Playing roulette with other people’s money and, on occasion, hitting it big with a Web portal, a software platform, or a cell-phone app is not exactly ‘changing the world,’ in the traditional sense.”

I agree with Mr. Huxhold and Mr. Robinson.

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One Response to “Why space colonies?”

  1. Brett Says:

    Robinson’s critique falls flat for me. You often don’t know what technologies will be revolutionary in advance – some get hyped enormously and don’t pay off, while others sneak up on you and drastically change human life before you know it. It’s why futurism is usually foolish in hindsight.

    I do agree, somewhat, with Huxhold. My support for the crewed program is mostly political, in that I think that if NASA ever cancelled it they’d lose so much funding heft that they wouldn’t be able to protect their robotic programs either. I say “mostly” because a crewed mission to Mars (or elsewhere) really would be vastly more useful in terms of what science you’d get out of the mission, even if it would also be much expensive and dangerous.


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