The Perils of Making Outer Space a Place
If Google Doodles serve as snapshots of the zeitgeist, then it should come as no surprise that the Doodle for July 19th, 2019, was a picture of Neil Armstrong stepping out of the Apollo Lunar Module and onto the surface of the moon.
Because last summer was the fiftieth anniversary of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, Americans seem to have caught space fever of late. But our interstellar end-goal these days seems to be Mars rather than the moon. This preoccupation is clear in a spate of recent films, including The Martian and The Space Between Us.
The obsession with Mars is not merely the stuff of science fiction.1 In his 2020 presidential campaign kickoff speech back in June, Donald Trump boasted, “We will lay the foundation for landing American astronauts on the surface of Mars.”2
Additionally, Trump and Mike Pence have recently rolled out their plan to create Space Force, a sixth branch of the military that will purportedly police the heavens and prevent attacks on U.S. satellites.
To some the idea of Space Force is ludicrous—another instance of our president investing federal money to realize a childish fantasy, one that in this case is likely informed more by Hollywood and his own hubris than concerns for national interests and the future of our species.
Nevertheless, outer space is deserving of our concern. Like the biosphere of Earth, space is now marked by human intervention. There exists, for example, an unbelievable amount of space trash or, as some more politely put it, space debris. Obsolete, non-functional satellites as well as detritus from rockets currently orbit the Earth in the geostationary
ring at upwards of 18,000 miles per hour.3
There’s also human feces on the moon and apparently a lot of it, dumped there from spaceships on past missions.4 Perhaps this is some sort of scatological harbinger of interstellar colonization for these space-obsessed times.
I’ve long been curious about the phrase outer space. “Outer” suggests something that is not only outside of our biosphere but also outside of human experience, a position that is untenable given that humans have been to space many times. Moreover, even those of us who have never been to space are enmeshed with realms beyond our atmosphere. Take, for instance, our daily, ubiquitous use of satellite technologies. The hundreds of satellites that orbit Earth provide us with everything from television and the Internet to weather forecasting and GPS.
The “space” in outer space is even more confounding. Geographers and environmental studies scholars think of space and place not as synonyms but as discrete ways of imagining and categorizing planetary locales. Places tend to be areas that are known and where meaning and value exists. People live in places, and most draw some sort of identity from those places. Place-attachment is and long has been a bedrock desire for humans, even if they do not always achieve it. Conversely, space is abstract, ill defined, and unwelcoming. Space, therefore, needs to be converted into place before we call it home.
Environmental studies scholar and Harvard University Professor Emeritus Lawrence Buell asserts, “Up to a point, world history is a history of space becoming place. In the beginning, earth was space without form. Then through inhabitance places were created.”5
This drive to emplace space has been imperial and colonialist as well as industrial and capitalist. We seek places as resources or as sites for the production of commodities and thus the accumulation of capital.
David Harvey, geographer and Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, states, “the world’s spaces were deterritorialized, stripped of their preceding significations and then reterritorialized according to the convenience of colonial and imperial administration.”6
Emplacement or the placing of space, then, is inherently violent. We alter, if not wholly destroy, the spaces we seek to make our own.
The colonization of the planet’s spaces has historically benefited those privileged by race, class, gender, sexual orientation, able-bodiedness, and religion. So too will the colonization of space likely benefit the privileged of today and tomorrow.
Future space travel could occur through federal programs or international governmental collaboration. But what seems more likely is that the global financial elite will fund the exploration of this 'last frontier.'
Some of the world’s wealthiest men are now initiating their own space race. Companies, rather than countries, rule the day; and corporate astronauts are replacing those once employed by NASA. Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla and PayPal, has his own company, SpaceX, devoted to space exploration. Richard Branson, of the Virgin Group, has created
Virgin Galactic. And, most recently, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, has founded Blue Origin.
Speaking of his $110 billion fortune in an interview in March, Bezos said, “The only way that I can see to employ this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel.”7
By one estimate, Bezos makes approximately two million times the median income of households in the U.S.8 By another, he earns every 11.5 seconds the annual salary of his lowest-paid employees.9 And yet, with this staggering wealth, Bezos is not interested in alleviating the notoriously bad working conditions of his employees at Amazon or paying them a living wage. Nor is he interested in donating his money in order to improve education, fight global hunger, or curb anthropogenic climate change.
Instead, Bezos, like Musk and Branson and Trump, is solely interested in developing weirdly phallic rockets to explore outer space.
The shape of their spaceships is not merely humorous and suggestive. It is darkly appropriate in that these men of privilege are participating in a long history of masculinist, paternalistic, androcentric colonialism. In this case, they are seeking to conquer space, but their efforts resonate with Western, male-dominated countries’ imperial drives to conquer the world over. It’s important to remember that these billionaires are not simply offering 'space tourism'; they specifically have their eyes set on the colonization of the moon and Mars and even, one day, exoplanets in far-flung
Interestingly, Jeff Bezos brings environmental concerns to the fore of this new space race. In a recent interview, he stated, “We humans have to go to space if we’re going to continue to have a thriving civilization. We’ve become big as a population, as a species. And this planet is relatively small. We see it in things like climate change and pollution and heavy industry. We are in the process of destroying this planet, and we have sent robotic probes to every planet in this solar system. This is the good one. So we have to preserve this planet, and we can do that using the resources of space.”10
Much like colonial endeavors of the past, Bezos hopes to utilize space exploration to extract resources and thus wealth. Bezos’s comment, furthermore, matches perfectly the definition of capitalist colonialism set forth by anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing in The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins: “When its singular asset can no longer be produced, a place can be abandoned. The timber has been cut; the oil has run out; the plantation soil no longer supports crops. The search for assets resumes elsewhere.”11
There was a time when space travel did inspire better environmental stewardship of Earth. In the late 1960s, the moon landing engendered a significant development in environmental thinking, in that humans saw the smallness of Earth relative to the vastness of space. This perspective was augmented by the fact that the brilliance of the blue-green orb of Earth was juxtaposed by the lunar, wasteland-like surface of the moon. Viewers concluded that they must protect Earth, as it is the only place, the only refuge our species has in the immediate and thus potentially habitable reaches of space.
These days, however, I fear that space exploration will be undertaken as an exit plan, as a way for humans to flee a planet irrevocably damaged by our species.
I’m deeply skeptical of pronouncements by Bezos and the like about their altruistic intentions. Their motivations may well be good, but if some apocalyptic scenario was to develop on Earth and they possessed the ability to flee, their spaceships would likely be populated first with the rich and famous. Tickets for a brief ride on Branson’s rocket are already set at a quarter of a million dollars, so I can’t imagine what the admission price would be for a one-way ticket off of a Cormac McCarthy-esque dying planet.12
In Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars, science journalist Lee Billings examines the possibility of finding Earth-like, life-bearing exoplanets orbiting distant stars beyond our solar system. Billings provides philosophical, as well as practical, reflections on whether this search could ever be successful. He writes, “As precious as the Earth is, we can either embrace its solitude and the oblivion that waits at world’s end, or pursue salvation beyond this planetary cradle, somewhere far away above the sky. In our lives we all in some way contribute to this greater choice, either drawing our collective future down to Earth or thrusting it out closer to the stars.”13
Here Billings showcases a cosmic turn in environmental studies, promoting a view of terrestrial nature that extends out past the margins of Earth and into space. But before we contemplate the colonization of space, we must first, as a species, consider how we’ve treated our home planet—our own place.
In recent years, scholars and critics have largely abandoned the use of terms like 'nature' and 'wilderness.' Slavoj Žižek proclaims that “nature is no longer ‘natural,’” Bill McKibben argues that we are witnessing “the end of nature,” and Timothy Morton advocates for an “ecology without nature.”14
Human-induced ecological degradation, ranging from climate change to pervasive aquatic contamination, has impacted our biosphere to the extent that nature, as a wild and pristine space, is a thing of the past. Instead scholars and critics have adopted the term 'Anthropocene' to describe our current geological and historical epoch, which is marked
by humans’ alterations to the planet.
The Anthropocene and the possibility of an end of life on Earth are causing us to acknowledge the importance of protecting the planet, while also imagining life beyond our biosphere.
The history of our species on Earth is one of modification, transforming planetary spaces large and small to serve our needs and desires. Humans are the worst invasive species Earth has ever known, and as such perhaps we have no business invading other planets. But if we do, we should at the very least seek to do so without the exploitative worldview that facilitated the rise of modernity and global imperialism.
If one day we are able to travel far into space, we may once again encounter nature in the form of spaces not yet altered by our species. However, here too we may be inevitably doomed to repeat the perils of the placing process that we have perpetrated on Earth and its more immediate spaces.
This future is at once hopeful and tragic. The tragedy would ensue if we treated those spaces with the same anthropocentric drive that we and our forebears have marshaled on Earth.
This future could be hopeful, though, if we radically reimagined our approach to space exploration. The placing of space will continue; that much is certain. But we could—indeed we must—learn to approach the process with less hubris, thinking not of space and exoplanets as resources that automatically belong to humanity. The lessons of the American frontier, and colonialism more broadly, must not be lost on the Donald Trumps and Elon Musks of this world. We must face the fact that the so-called settling of frontiers has always necessitated violence toward indigenes and environments. The frontier of space is an opportunity to learn from our history and to write a new chapter for our species—one that makes place of space with humility, with the wellbeing of something other than merely ourselves in mind. Such a novel approach to an old impulse might not only lead to a new encounter with a new nature in space but also might help us rethink how we approach our encounters with the post-natural environments of Earth in the age of the Anthropocene.
5 Buell, Lawrence. The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination. Blackwell Publishing, 2005. 63-64.
6 Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Blackwell Publishing, 1989. 264.
11 Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press, 2015. 6.
12 McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. 2006. Vintage International, 2007.
13 Billings, Lee. Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars. New York: Current, 2013. 8.
14 Žižek, Slavoj. In Defense of Lost Causes. London: Verso, 2008.
McKibben, Bill. The End of Nature: Humanity, Climate Change and the Natural World. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.
Morton, Timothy. Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Harvard University Press, 2008.