Response to VVEV: Section I – Low Earth Orbit

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Visions, Ventures, and Escape Velocities

This is Part 1 of a six-part response to Visions, Ventures, and Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, which is available for free from Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination thanks to a grant from NASA. I say “response” and not “review” because I intend to engage with the ideas presented from my own point of view.

VVEV is illustrated by Maciej Rebisz.

Section I of VVEV is entitled Low Earth Orbit, and contains two short stories and three essays:

  • Vanguard 2.0, by Carter Scholtz
  • Reflections on the Dual Uses of Space Innovation, by G. Pascal Zachary
  • Mozart on the Kalahari, by Steven Barnes
  • Past Empires and the Future of Colonization in Low Earth Orbit, by William K. Storey
  • Expanding Our Solution Space: How We Can Build an Inclusive Future, by Deji Bryce Olukotun

This blog post contains spoilers!

I’ll begin by noting that VVEV follows on the heels of another ASU/CSI project, Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future. While sharing the the same general goal of using science fiction stories to inform thinking about the future, VVEV differs in two important ways from its predecessor. Firstly, where Hieroglyph explored a variety of technological spaces, VVEV is exclusively focused on space itself. Secondly, where Hieroglyph explicitly emphasizes “better” futures, VVEV is much more willing to consider the adverse consequences of innovation as part of a substantive discussion on what we should do about the future of spaceflight.

Though I enjoyed both collections, I think the latter difference makes VVEV seem far more relevant to today’s world than Hieroglyph does. The short story Vanguard 2.0 is a brilliant case in point: Uber CEO Gideon Pace (depicted as a empathy-challenged, self-assured tech executive with a profound disdain for anything standing in the way of his personal goals) wants one of the original Vanguard satellites for his own private collection, and sends a conflicted front-line employee out into the deadly black to get it for him. Moreover, since the US Government and the world at large has effectively ceded control of LEO to Uber in the name of efficient orbital debris collection, Pace sees no ethical problem with using loopholes in space law to place nuclear weapons in orbit to further business goals. These business goals are propped up by preying on nations’ fear of asteroid impact, and convincing them that he is the only effective and cost-efficient solution. It is implied that he intends on creating some kind of new world order with his new-found power.

There are many parallels between Pace and the real-life Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, or any number of other ultra-wealthy “innovators” to whom we have willingly ceded control over large swaths of our social, economic, and cultural capital — and who have conflated the resulting personality cult with a savior-like narrative of technological progress. The reality is that Amazon is profoundly bad for local economies, Facebook appears to be actively harming our mental health and undermining civil democracy, and SpaceX may well be the vehicle that ushers in a whole new level of plutocracy.

To be sure, these companies have been the source of positive innovation (Musk’s Tesla products alone have probably advanced solar power and hybrid-engine technology by a significant degree, for example), and can even be said to have created whole new sectors of the economy (especially in Facebook’s case). These companies and their iconic leader personae are not inherently evil, nor do I believe that they (or companies like them) should necessarily be excluded from participating in and even profiting from space ventures.

However, there is simply no reason to think that Bezos in space will operate with any more regard for economic fairness than Amazon does now, that Zuckerberg won’t see space systems as any less of an opportunity to monopolize information, or that Musk has anybody’s interests in mind but his own.

Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich allude to this problem in VVEV’s Editor’s Introduction:

Over the past two decades, private space companies have joined their public counterparts and offered new rationales for their work. Initially dismissed as the hobbies of billionaires, several of these enterprises have had a real impact on the logistics and possibilities of space exploration, and more importantly, they have offered new answers to the question of why. Elon Musk’s claim that he wants to retire on Mars puts space into a very different context: a personal and commercial one, where the notion of planting flags gets replaced by planting gardens. Musk plans to retire on Mars not because he thinks he should, but because he thinks he can. [Emphasis mine.]

Finn and Eschrich loosely categorize answers to the question of “Why Space?” as either the “flag” (representing national interests) or the “garden” (representing commercial potential for growth).  I would suggest that we add a third category of potential space futures, that I would posit are the most likely given present circumstances: the “strip mine”.

Mozart on the Kalahari takes place entirely on Earth, but continues the prior thread by positing a space frontier reserved for the wealthy and the elite. Personally ostracized and socioeconomically marginalized protagonist Michael “Meek” Prouder dreams of space — in particular of the Disney Observation Platforms (DOPs), which provide a world of enchantment for the ultra-wealthy at only $100,000 a day. For everyone else slumming it down on old Earth, things seem pretty bleak, as robots have taken any job that could be done by lower class workers and most everyone is on a subsistence dole they can’t seem to escape.

    The last time Meek’s girlfriend Sonja had come to the greenhouse, she’d ooohed and aaahed at the only such facility she’d ever seen, eaten free peaches and pears and nuzzled him with honeyed breath, but just rolled her eyes when he’d told her about the Moon. Space wasn’t for them. Hell, shouldn’t be for anybody, the way she saw it. What good was it, when there weren’t enough jobs right here on Earth?
“All kinds of things came out of people trying to get to space,” he’d said.
“You wanna tell me about satellites again?” Sonja laughed. “Maybe cell phones and microchips, like Mickey says?” She squeaked her voice like the mouse in the cartoon they’d watched in assembly: “We need space! We need to get to Pluto, Pluto!”
He remembered that animation, an attempt to convince them that tax subsidies were not wasted on the Disney Observation Platforms hovering around the globe. “That stuff is real,” he said, her kisses cooling as he did. “We need dreams even more.” She’d looked at him slyly, smoothing his hand up along her leg. “What are you dreamin’ now, boy?”
“That there’s a way out,” Meek said. “Up there.”

Meek’s only way to the promised land is to win an ultra-competitive local science fair pitting thousands of students against each other for the favor of a corporate entertainer who will choose five winners to receive scholarships and a trip to a DOP. Meek uses a stolen Monsanto Gene Kit to develop original advanced vegetation that more efficiently converts oxygen and soil into usable proteins. He has funded his curiosity for tinkering with horticulture (not to mention helping his aging grandfather get by) by concocting illegal drugs for street Ballers, an occupation which has poisoned him (or so he believes).

Meek eventually gets his wish, but not because he wins the contest. The celebrity judge realizes that Meek’s “poisoning” is really a partial transformation of his cellular metabolism into something more plantlike, and grants him the once-in-a-lifetime chance to be studied for the rest of his life in a deep-space biology laboratory. Meek is of course elated to leave Earth and fulfill his dream of going into space!

While the science-fictional premise (of human-plant hybrids) is of course intriguing, the more glaring questions that the story raises are socio-political. Such as: how much more of a direct commentary on present-day agriculture, education, wealth inequality, and systemic oppression can you get? And, more to the point, what on Earth (or beyond it) do we think is going to change about these systems when we extend them into space, unless we take concerted action to avoid it?

Jeff Faust, in his review of VVEV at The Space Review, seems to sense an ironically anti-space thread running through the collection. I disagree. The dangers that the stories and essays in Section I of VVEV depict are not space problems, nor are they failures of the space industry. They are, bluntly, failures of capitalism. In particular, the fictional characters in these future stories suffer from the very real present failure of neo-liberal capitalism to provide a structure in which science and technology are adequately incentivized to solve actual human problems, and disincentivized from exacerbating human suffering… except perhaps incidentally along the way to profit or power.

G. Pascal Zachary highlights an aspect of this problem in his essay, Reflections on the “Dual Uses” of Space Innovation:

Wernher von Braun and his work at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency exemplified the uncomfortable overlap between military and civilian agendas at the dawn of the Space Age. Perhaps the ambivalence felt by the character Sergei in Scholz’s “Vanguard 2.0” reflects the creeping awareness that whether one’s labors are officially on the behalf of civilian or military technologies matters little. In a world of uncertainty and serendipity, technologies can leapfrog across any boundaries, especially those seen in retrospect as arbitrary.

Space is a subset of a greater ethical void in science and engineering. While the scientific process provides our limited human perception with possibly the closest thing to objectivity it will get, by no means should we pretend that technical programs are ethically neutral. Scientific studies and engineering projects are always paid for by somebody; who that somebody is and what their actual goals are matters greatly to the moral standing of the whole enterprise. In other words, a democratic government establishing an outpost on the Moon and a private company establishing an outpost on the Moon might objectively look like the same thing, but they are not necessarily the same thing in terms of human outcomes.

So what is the way forward? I believe William K Storey gives us a clue in Past Empires and the Future of Colonization in Low Earth Orbit:

In contemplating a future for the colonization of space, NASA will be keen to address issues of equality, as it is a bedrock value in the political culture of the United States. In previous centuries, colonization tended to amplify inequality, not equality, in two significant ways. On the one hand, the initial stages of colonization were led by hierarchical organizations, either businesses or armed services. […] The challenge to future space exploration will be to make certain that the martial values associated with initial exploration do not become the permanent values of colonial settlements, which should instead adopt the values of the broader public. [Emphasis mine.]

As I have argued in several interviews about my novel, there is simply no way to ensure that human expansion into space adheres to the values of the broader public without making all of it publicly accountable. By which I mean: allow private enterprise and profit from contracts and commercial activity only to the extent that it serves goals that benefit all of humanity.

What might these goals be? Let’s get crazy. Imagine the following as “moonshot” space goals:

  • Orbital solar power stations to provide the whole planet with clean energy, freeing us from the necessity of burning anything ever again.
  • Thousands of cubic kilometers of space agriculture, growing enough food for not only the present population of Earth, but its future billions… all without a single additional acre of land clearance or ounce of ecological damage required.
  • Billions of gallons of water, a molecule now known to be fairly common in our solar system, brought in to supply a growing population and alleviate the severe droughts brought on by climate change.
  • Using in-space materials to construct off-world habitats for millions (again without any further land or forest clearance required), making housing shortages a thing of the past.

Now those are gardens! Too ambitious? Let’s dial it back… How about a permanent, international, orbital city? It would allow for the study of birth-to-death human biology and sociology in space, and all the space systems and logistics required for long-duration in-space settlement, a proving ground for the human and technological qualities required for any human space settlement goal anywhere. And, importantly, it would be the testbed for the international political cooperation needed to ensure publicly accountable human expansion into space.

These are incredibly ambitious goals given present technology, political will, and available budgets. Making such goals publicly accountable would require at the very least a major new international treaty and decades of investment. However, these goals can serve as guiding principles of what to work towards, a framework for shaping our human activities in space.

Further, there is plenty of money to be made here by the companies willing to provide the technological expertise and implementation. To propose that we can feed, clothe, house, and sustainably power the entire present and future population of the Earth using space policy does not require us to set aside the engines of commercialism — only to harness them securely to publicly accountable goals. Whatever the specific milestones may be, making sure that human expansion into space is equitable, sustainable, and democratic, I would argue, should be the primary mission of space policy, not quibbling over which launch system provides the most jobs to whose congressional district.

At the human level of the “Why Space?” debate, there is an equally serious problem than lack of vision: lack of diverse voices and perspectives.  In Deji Bryce Olukatun’s essay Expanding Our Solution Space: How We Can Build an Inclusive Future, he notes:

    The grand visions of traveling to the Moon—or beyond—were imagined not in a lab but by creative artists. In many cases, the scientists themselves consumed this entertainment to inspire their own work. That’s why it’s crucial for entertainment to include diverse voices, whether in literature, art, film, or whatever comes next.
Science fiction entertainment doesn’t have to just mirror the status quo, and its more hopeful predictions of humanity’s future can help break existing barriers of racial discrimination.

(I would extend that last sentence to include not just racial discrimination, but all forms of discrimination and oppression.)

As an aerospace engineer who taught physics for five years in an urban public school, I have observed first hand how contemporary young people of color react to the examples of space, astronauts, and rockets that I worked into the curriculum as much as possible. Most are excited, impressed, and want to be a part of it.  But layered on top of that excitement is a detachment that stems from the sense that such things are not for them. Space is for “aliens, white dudes, and maybe sometimes Asians” as one of my female students of color put it once.

Mind you, this was a kid who was an exceptionally strong student in Physics. Yet as cool as she thought rocket launches were, she did not see a future for herself in space or in space systems. The subconcious indoctrination of culture is difficult to overcome, unless there are many cultural perspectives from which to draw mental conceptions and visions of the future.

We in the spaceflight industry need to be honest with ourselves on this matter. Despite great strides in recent years, the space industry ecosystem from legislators to executive branch managers, from the big defense contractors to the new-space startups, down to who actually watches the Science Channel, all remain woefully monolithic on many axes.

Often, spaceflight seems like a subculture that can easily slip into insular arguments for space, such as “we are born explorers!” or “space is the next great frontier to conquer!”. These arguments are meaningless to anyone not already convinced of them, and serve only to alienate other voices and possibilities of what going into space might be for. Even the economic reasoning can ring hollow, because so far it is not really clear who actually benefits from any returns. On our current trajectory, the benefits of space commerce certainly will not be going to the likes of my former student. Why, then, should she care about space travel or presume that she has a future place in it?

All this to say that the best space policies will be those that listen outside the echo chamber, to the greater concerns of humanity, most of whom have zero interest in space policy. Well… at least not yet.

Sigh… that was just Section I… onward…


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