To Infinity and Beyond!  

On October 23, 2020, one day after the final presidential debate before the election and seven months into the Covid pandemic the Republicans tweeted a summary of its campaign platform. The first tweet said:

President Trump is fighting for YOU! Here are some of his priorities for a 2nd term:
*Establish Permanent Manned Presence on the Moon.

*Send the 1st Manned Mission to Mars”
After these promises came others about “Infrastructure” and “WiFi,” and then a commitment to “Develop a Vaccine by The End Of 2020”. So they clearly thought that the electorate was more interested in space than anything-else. And although President Biden disagreed with his predecessor on most policies, space was not one of them. A month after taking office, Biden even affirmed his enthusiastic support for Trump’s ‘United States Space Force’ -
“Earth is only half the battle. Today, space is essential, not only to our way of life, it’s absolutely critical to the modern way of war. The United States Space Force is being built from the brightest minds across the space operations of the Air Force...and the private sector. It’s time for another giant leap.”.
Biden also announced his intention to proceed with the Trump-Pence vision for NASA. So then first, the USA is going back to the Moon where they’re building a lunar outpost. This will then serve as a launching pad to the Red Planet. It’s all called project Artemis.

How will they achieve this immense undertaking? The answer is: through the combined power of NASA and the “NewSpace” industries. These are the telecommunications, tourism, space-mining, and colonising corporations led by billionaire entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Those corporations already carry astronauts and cargo for NASA. In the near future, they hope to mine asteroids and the Moon to produce the materials and fuel necessary to get to Mars.

Investors will fund these endeavours thanks to Obama-era legislation that ensures corporations have the right to sell whatever they manage to extract from planetary bodies and keep the profits. All very exciting. And there is now a company called Orbital Assembly which has announced plans to begin construction in 2025 on the Voyager Station - humanity’s first space hotel – with an estimated price tag of $200 billion. It will reportedly circle the globe every 90 minutes and so will generate artificial gravity for its guests similar to that on the moon.

Why are they doing this? Well, if you ask Musk, Artemis, the Moon-to-Mars plan is actually a result of the medical, ecological, military, and ideological disasters which are occurring or are likely to occur. Whether it’s a nuclear weapon, a killer virus, climate change, or an errant asteroid, something is bound to wipe out most of humanity soon, so we’d better start colonizing a back-up planet. He wants to start transporting millions of people by the end of this decade. The tale Musk is telling relies on an old-fashioned story of disaster and salvation. But it’s also part of a rerun of our colonial past, with “resource” extraction, co-operation between state and private enterprise, “empty” land and brave adventurers.

Bezos in contrast does not suggest the world is going to collapse, but sees many business opportunities in space. He’s handed over the reins of Amazon in order to concentrate on his many space businesses.

The Space Force relies on fear of others being in a position from on high to threaten the West and its democracies.

NASA appeals to tropes of the pioneering American spirit. As Trump declared in his last State of the Union address, Americans are going back to the Moon and then to Mars because space is “the next frontier” and it is our duty to “embrace...America’s manifest destiny in the stars.” Manifest Destiny was the idea that God wanted European-descended Americans to occupy the whole North American continent.

The 1862 Homestead Act, parcelled up land at $1.25 an acre. Of course, the U.S. government could only sell this land by taking it from Native Americans so that white Americans could fulfil their God-given calling. So then, Trump’s invocation of Manifest Destiny has a lot of baggage with it especially amongst Indigenous peoples.

In response to these sorts of arguments, some space enthusiasts say that the comparison of a Martian settlement to Manifest Destiny is simply rhetoric, intended to stir up enthusiasm through nostalgia. After all, there are no people on Mars, the Moon or the ore-laden asteroids.

So, unlike the earthly frontier, which Europeans mistakenly thought was empty, the final frontier of space is genuinely empty, and therefore ours for the taking. Bob Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society (yes, there is one), says: “On Mars, we have a chance to create something new with clean hands. We’re not going to Mars to steal other people’s property; we’re going to Mars to create - not just property but a society.” I wonder if they need anyone to write a constitution?

And of course, it’s not just the USA, but China India and Europe who are all sending rockets skywards. Thus they find themselves in a competition - to make new worlds, with an American accent. They would be God-like. The societies created, however, are likely to consist of people with an attitude to risk and governance much like the early American pioneers and otherwise probably with a psychology and belief system similar to those financing the exploration.

And so we may end up with settlements of clones of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos or possibly Richard Branson. Not really a society I’d want to be part of. I wonder if our billionaire ‘encouragers’ will themselves be amongst the settlors? Musk has said that it’s a yes from him.

But the idea that the rocks on Mars are “just” rocks, although true within the framework of Western thought, itself based on monotheism,  is not necessarily the case for people with a background of other religious beliefs. Based on different creation stories, many indigenous cultures teach that some rocks are alive, or sacred, or both, and that they are therefore worthy of human respect and being taken care of.

The University of
Hawai‘i and NASA have been trying for years to construct the Thirty Meter Telescope on Hawai’i’s Mauna Kea, despite the vigorous objections of the Kanaka Maoli (Indigenous Hawaiians), who insist that the mountain is sacred and ought not to suffer any more damage at the hands of ‘Western’ science. There are already thirteen other telescopes on this mountain. It is the place they go to pay reverence to their origins and their family members, including the mountain itself, which is said to be the firstborn child of the Earth Mother and Sky Father and sibling to the creator of the stars, people, and vegetation.

For them, it’s a living being, a temple, and the umbilical cord between the heavens and the Earth. And they are not alone. There are many other indigenous peoples around the world with similar beliefs. For Australian aboriginals what we call outer space is Sky Country, where the ancestors live. They worry that our invasion of Sky Country will disrupt the passage of souls and the habitation of their ancestors. Space, in other words, is neither “outer” nor empty, but part of the everyday lifeworld of the community.

When faced with these objections the astrophysicists and the finance people say that they’re facing backward, primitive people who need to enter the 21st century. Why would you let ancient belief systems determine what we can and can’t do? Although of course that was precisely what the church did for a millennium or so with its view of how the world worked. As Galileo found out to his cost.

Nowadays, though, although there are people in the Flat Earth Society who believe that the sun goes around the earth, for the vast majority of even the world’s religions people, going into space, of itself, is not likely to cause ethical problems.

But, of course, it does. Because we come back to reality and, even in the absence of ancestors floating in space, ask how precisely the thousands of billions of dollars to be spent on space exploration will benefit mankind, a mankind beset by famine, flood, war and disease? And to this there is no valid answer.

4 December 2022

Paul Buckingham


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