Why Public Engagement With Space Policy Matters

Dr. Linda Billings has published an article entitled “The Inexcusable Jingoism of American Spaceflight Rhetoric” in Scientific American’s Forum. I read the article with great interest, because  I find myself on both sides of her argument.  On the one hand, human expansion into space is happening, whether we like it or not, and regardless of any government program’s mission statement. Where previous generations perhaps imagined the push into space driven by big national programs, we are seeing now that it is likely to be corporations or private interests staking claims out there at least as much as governments. In fact, multiple companies have already declared near-term space intentions such as orbital tourism, mining lucrative asteroids, extracting fresh water and hydrocarbons, and settling on the Moon and Mars.

But here is where Dr. Billings is absolutely correct: We need to make sure our expansion into space results in an equitable, sustainable, and responsible distribution of the truly staggering amount of resources right here in our own solar system. And that will definitely require a cultural shift in how we talk about spaceflight.

Billings writes:

Throughout the history of the U.S. human spaceflight program, a peculiarly American rhetoric of manifest destiny, frontier conquest and exploitation has dominated official and public discourse. […] Such rhetoric reveals an ideology of human spaceflight—a set of beliefs about the nation’s right to expand its boundaries, colonize other lands and exploit their resources.

This ideology rests on a number of assumptions about the role of the U.S. in the global community and American national character. According to this ideology, the U.S. is and must remain “number one” in the world community, playing the role of political, economic, scientific, technological and moral leader, spreading democratic capitalism. The metaphor of the frontier, with its associated images of pioneering, homesteading, claim staking and taming, looms large in this belief system.

There are multiple, truly valuable reasons to expand our human presence in the solar system. Beyond the most commonly cited reasons and the long list of technological and medical advancements spun off from the human space program, I see a lot of potential for directly alleviating human suffering around the globe and solving many of our most pressing problems here on Earth through investment in space.

Orbital solar power plants, for example, would be free of the ground-based dependence on a day-night cycle and dispersion by the atmosphere. Such space-based power plants could generate clean solar power 100% of the time, and can be large enough to power the planet with clean energy without any fear of covering land and disrupting ecosystems here on Earth. In a similar vein, expanding space agriculture could dramatically increase humanity’s food supply without any additional land clearance, carbon emissions into Earth’s atmosphere, or additional ecological damage. Vast troves of precious and usable metals ring our sun in the form of the asteroid belt, which could be used to build all manner of structures, again without negative impact to Earth’s ecology or the populations presently exploited by global mining companies. Not convinced yet? Then consider that the dwarf planet Ceres may contain more fresh water than the entire planet Earth. How many lives could that change here on our home planet, especially in an age of increasing drought and climate change?

Energy, food, material, and water… all pressing human problems here on Earth, and all with viable, direct solutions attainable through investment in space.

So here’s where I disagree with Billings: We (humanity) are going to space, for a lot of great reasons. And when we do, I certainly hope it’s us (the United States) in the lead, or at least with a strong say in how space is governed. Because all of that vast wealth and potential can either help humanity as a whole, or make very rich people even richer. I honestly don’t trust the Chinese or Russian governments one bit when it comes to human rights, and they are two of the big players in the national space game right now.

It may have been thin paint over Cold War jingoism at the time, but the words of Kennedy’s moon speech still ring true:

Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.

Where I do agree with Billings is that I only trust the US government a little bit more than our so-called rivals, on economic terms. With cotton, railroads, gold, fishing, and any other large-scale profitable resource, we have a terribly history of letting powerful financiers and well-connected private interests grab whatever they can while shoving underprivileged populations aside (at least, the ones we aren’t using for forced labor or indentured servitude, which still continues today on a massive scale, don’t get me started on workers rights, prisons, and immigration).

So I do not believe our current trajectory is adequately setting us up for an equitable, sustainable, and responsible expansion into space. Right now, space access is expanding into the private sector and driven by those with the material resources and connections to power to be able to do it. That means those demographics already with a significant degree of privilege and wealth are shaping what the next era of human existence will look like.

From Dr. Billings’ op-ed again:

At a time when the U.S. needs to be building sustainable partnerships with other nations to continue exploring space, “USA, Number One!” is not a good way to start productive conversations. In a 2012 paper Jacques Blamont, a founding director of the French space agency CNES, argued that people are losing interest in the human exploration of space “because spacefaring nations, and especially the USA, have clung on to outmoded cold war ways of thinking about it. The US attitude of ‘command’ over its international partners will no longer work.” It is time for human spaceflight space advocates to reexamine their rhetoric—to think about what these words mean to the vast variety of people who are not American, not white, not male, and not interested in moving to Mars.

The first trillionaire is going to be the first person (who will in fact be white and male) to reach an asteroid and tap that platinum. Adjusting our space policy to be more in line with the more inward stances of other spacefaring nations (such as the EU, Japan, and India) ignores the very real danger inherent in a private space gold rush. I fear what happens when all of that is left to our status quo of wild west of corporate development for profit. It will be wealth disparity on a scale the species as never seen. This is actually the main theme in my upcoming novel, Red Soil Through Our Fingers. The novel depicts a future in which public control of space resources is weak at best. A tenant farmer must make a dangerous deal and flee a corporate colony with information vital to the future of millions.

All that potential benefit for humanity needs to be tapped in public-private partnerships that certainly allow for profit, but also make sure that all boats are lifted back here at home and as we settle the stars. That means regulation and redistribution by governments with strong public contrl– and those ground rules need to be set now, before it becomes too late to reign in corporate greed and exploitation. Writers, scientists, engineers, and policymakers have been talking for decades about what our future in space will look like, and important decisions are already being made without a lot of public awareness or input. The public, especially demographics that have been barred from the table, need to enter that conversation — because we need to make sure our expansion into space results in an equitable, sustainable, and responsible distribution of the truly staggering amount of resources right here in our own solar system.

We cannot simply turn away and say space is not relevant to the problems we face here on Earth. Space is very relevant, perhaps dangerously relevant to humanity’s well-being — and this battle is the next frontier of ensuring a more positive and just future for all people.

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