Last weekend, Richard Branson described his bounce up to low-earth orbit as making space “more accessible to all.” It’s laughably ironic for a billionaire to co-opt the language of inclusivity to describe the privatization of space flight. However, mainstream media shared the speech far and wide, largely uncritically, with few journalists pointing out that this carnival ride for the uber-rich was funded with over $200 million dollars in taxpayer subsidies.
None that I saw credited Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, the Black feminist astrophysicist whose line Branson reflected, and whose idea of making space accessible to all starts with social justice on earth.
With this speech, Branson added to the chorus of billionaires using science fiction fantasies to sell us on their vanity space programs. Jeff Bezos will likely treat us to more high-minded speechifying in advance of his launch on Tuesday. He has described Blue Origin’s mission as necessary to avoid putting a limit on energy usage per capita on Earth. Basically, in order to avoid learning to live sustainably here, we must go up to space so we can keep exploiting the hell out of whatever we find up there.
As SpaceX’s Elon Musk has said, “We don’t want to be one of those single planet species, we want to be a multi-planet species”. Never mind that we’ve found zero evidence of any kind of life on other planets, let alone intelligent life, let alone intelligent life spread across multiple planets; Musk’s rhetoric echoes a commonly-held belief that space colonization is an inevitability, that it’s our destiny.
We should be wary when rich people say that colonization is our destiny. That rhetoric sounds awfully similar to Manifest Destiny, which provided greedy men a moral pretense to commit a lot of atrocities.
I recently wrote a viral Twitter-thread-turned-essay about the enormous challenges of sustaining life in space, and why we’re not going to see lunar colonies anytime soon. But just because these billionaires won’t succeed in establishing exoplanetary colonies in their lifetimes doesn’t mean their pursuit of them isn’t harmful. Bezos, Branson, and Musk have sold the public on their space programs, and as a result, we’re giving them a lot of our wealth – billions of dollars of taxpayer money and billions in personal investments.
What’s more, the global economic system is rigged so that a guy like Bezos can become a hundred-billionaire while profiting off the labor of over a million employees, some working for poverty wages, who piss in bottles to meet quotas and sometimes die at work. Meanwhile, the activities of the corporations that create these billionaires are ravaging the only habitable planet we’ve got. But because our neo-feudal lords have sold us on a science-fiction fantasy, many look up to them as heroes rather than decrying their obscene and ill-gotten wealth.
Look, I love science fiction. I’m a sci-fi writer and a lifelong Trekkie. But I’m starting to realize that a public which consumes so much science fiction and so little science fact is dangerous. Just because you watched Matt Damon live on Mars for a year in a movie with convincing graphics doesn’t mean that Elon Musk is on the verge of building a colony there. But when he says he’s going to Mars in six years, there are legions of Musk stans on Twitter who believe him – and his stock soars.
One reason we find the fantasy of outer space colonization so irresistible is the prospect of starting afresh. Our global society is enormously complicated, with baked-in bigotries and illogical ways of doing things that seem impossible to untangle here on earth. But on another planet, so we assume, we could start over and get it right this time.
Realistically, though, there’s no leaving our messiness behind, no matter how many light-years away we travel. I can’t think of a better illustration for this than the fact that the moon is already a toilet.
When people think of what astronauts left behind on the moon, they might picture Buzz Aldrin planting an American flag. But I picture all the literal shit we left up there. NASA, unlike any respectable hiker, didn’t value “packing out waste”. The pooping protocol for Apollo astronauts involved wearing adhesive bags stuck to their asses, which notoriously tore out pubic hairs when removed. They sealed the bag – hoping nothing escaped to float around the lunar module – and crushed an antibacterial capsule inside, mushing it around with their poop to prevent a future biohazard. Then they chucked the bag out the airlock.
Over the course of the Apollo missions, we planted five flags on the moon and ninety-six bags of human excrement. We also left a plaque on the Lunar Lander reading, “We came in peace for all mankind” – never mind that at the time, the US was carpet-bombing Vietnam and hitting the kids who lived there with napalm.
Anywhere we travel, we’ll be bringing all our shit – literal and figurative – with us. And as any Apollo astronaut can tell you, shit is much easier to deal with on Earth than in space. If you care deeply, as I do, about the long-term goals of space science, it’s imperative to put a stop to the world-eating overconsumption that creates billionaires, rather than indulging their pet projects.
For now, the best thing we could do to ensure humanity’s long-term survival in space is to figure out living sustainably here on earth. If you’re a sci-fi lover like me, think of it this way: we are already living on a magnificent spaceship uniquely suited to our needs. It is enormous, big enough to bring all our friends and family along. It has excellent gravity and radiation shielding in the form of a breathable atmosphere. It comes with a nearly-unlimited renewable energy source – the Sun – which should last us another billion years before it gets too hot and burns us up.
Our spaceship is peopled with more than eight million different alien life forms for us to study, whose behaviors and languages and intelligences we’re only beginning to understand. These other-species friends provide us with air, food, medicines, water filtration – some even sing for us, perfume our air, and make our ship breathtakingly beautiful.
Unfortunately, we have a plethora of captains on this ship, and they’re mostly awful. Duty rosters are largely assigned based on racial hierarchies and nepotism. For half a century now, our science officers have been shouting, “We’re running the engines too hot! She can’t take it much longer!” But the captains didn’t listen, or they did and decided to lie about it, assuring us everything was fine. Now the warp core is overheating, and the life support is failing, but our captains keep saying, “Faster, faster! More speed, more extraction, more profit!” Because these captains have been charging us for the service of driving our spaceship into meltdown, hoarding obscene amounts of the ship’s resources in the process. While millions of their crewmates’ kids starve, their living quarters look like dragons’ caves.
Now all the water is poisoned, the corridors are full of trash, a vicious disease is ripping through the ship, and the life support is so bad on decks 43-56 that hundreds of people are cooking alive in the heat. Meanwhile, a few of our captains have started taking joyrides on pitiful little escape-pods. Anyone can see they have no chance of escaping our sorry, shared fate, yet still they spend piles of resources on these pet projects rather than fixing the mess they’ve made of our ship. And then they have the audacity to tell us that their efforts are for the common good.
These are terrible captains. This is like one of those episodes where the chief science officer must relieve the captain of duty, or everyone dies. Except we don’t have a protocol like that in place.
Maybe we should try mutiny.