The launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket by Space X on Tuesday, February 6, 2018, was an important day for the future of humanity for some significant and concerning reasons. The spaceflight launched a red convertible into orbit around the sun, which was an impressive stunt, but while the red Tesla in space is surreal, a bit childish and somewhat symbolically suspicious, the real magic of the event was both the carrying capacity of the Falcon Heavy and the simultaneous landing of its twin booster rockets.
Elon Musk, the co-founder of PayPal, Tesla and the founder, CEO, and lead designer of SpaceX believes that the Falcon Heavy and the reusable rocket technology will start a new space race and a revival of the space industry. Musk thinks that in the near future, SpaceX and other companies will be able to deploy bigger and more diverse satellites, take people into space for tours of the Moon and support the colonisation of Mars through the delivery of larger and more complex payloads of supplies.
Not everyone is impressed, however, and there is a vocal contingent of critics who see the launch as nothing more than a waste of time, money and attention. I am reminded of students who, when confronted with ideas of space exploration in class respond with an emphatic “Why?”. Why go to space when we have so many problems down here? Why not concentrate the epic budget for space technologies on earthly problems of poverty, inequality, global warming and so on. The litany against space exploration is not superficial, it’s an important check against the excesses of government and corporate spending, but it is also a reminder of the concerning relationship between space exploration and the military-industrial complex.
The military-industrial complex (MIC) is a term popularised by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell speech in 1961. The speech was concerned with the effects of Cold War planning and warned against unjustified spending on projects that were influenced by the private contractors who supply the armed forces with technology and equipment, and the lobbyists and bureaucracies that oversee and promote the networks of related military contracts. The MIC has always had very close ties to NASA and rocketry itself is a product of Germany’s last attempt to win World War 2. The V2 was a flying bomb that killed thousands of British and French civilians and was largely a product of Nazi science and slave labour. The first space rocket was a highly successful weapon of war, and lead to massive technological development and enormous change. Following the end of WW2, Wernher von Braun, the designer of the V2 and other German rocketry experts went to work for the US Army, while the Russians dissected and copied captured V2 technology.
Rockets aren’t new, the Chinese used rocket technology to produce fireworks and celebrate religious festivals with colourful light shows in the first century A.D., long before they were deployed in Asian and English military forces as offensive weapons and tools of colonisation. The first rocket to deliver a payload into space was the Russian Sputnik mission in 1957, which successfully launched a radio satellite into space. The Soviets were also the first to successfully put a human into space, with the hero of the space age, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961. The North American Space Agency used the massive Saturn V rocket to launch six moon landings from 1969 to 1972. The iconic Space Shuttle program ran between 1981 and 2011 using solid fuel rockets and in 1986, a defective rocket component caused a catastrophic explosion, destroying the space shuttle Challenger and killing the seven astronauts on board.
The Department of Defence, used the shuttle program to launch it’s military satellites until the 1986 disaster when it began to invest in private corporate contracts and smaller rockets. Militaries and governments around the world continue to invest in private space contracts to further research and conduct missions. The Falcon Heavy’s upper ‘stage’, the section deploying the Tesla into space, ignited twice as part of a demonstration to the US Air Force that the rocket was able to perform a coasting mission with a special orbital manoeuvre.
Given the clandestine and bloody past of space exploration, why should we support its future?
The first answer is technological transfer. For the past fifty years, technologies developed as part of international space travel have flowed into commercial, governmental and private use, including innovations in health and medicine, transportation, public safety, energy, information technology, industrial productivity and management of the environment. NASA’s investment in solar and cooling technologies, alone will prove to be of immense importance to the future of all humanity as we head into a post-fossil fuels era. There are some important problems with this response, and the biggest is the question of who benefits and who decides on how those benefits reach us. If you can’t afford basic health care, then medical innovations simply become an insult.
The second answer is ecological. As a species, we are overcrowding and overpopulating the planet. We are destroying the environment, reducing the number of species and dramatically changing the climate of the planet at an incredible rate. History shows that population controls don’t work (see China’s One Child Policy) and cause other social problems. We see that major governments around the world like the United States and Australia are in complete denial and are unlikely to be able to make a difference once things become too late. As a species, we are not going to be able to limit humanities impact on the ecology of the planet and our civilisation unless we take to the stars.
The Falcon Heavy launch and the promise of reusable rockets reinforce the importance of Timothy Morton’s (2010: 24) claim that “Space isn’t something that happens beyond the ionosphere. We are in space right now…” Thinking big doesn’t prevent us from caring for the environment.” This view brings us closer to the vision of space exploration pioneered in the pulp era of science fiction and continued in the Space Operas of the Lensman series by E.E. Smith and Flash Gordon comics strips created and drawn by Alex Raymond in the 1930s, which featured reusable rockets. Ray Bradbury’s 1950 The Martian Chronicles imagined a future in which rockets move between Earth and Mars, taking off and landing, with their crew, not as part of a separate booster and crew arrangement that is typical of contemporary space flight.
As Morton notes, criticism of programs like Google Earth and Google Maps consider these objects as technologies of mass surveillance. That view, however, overlooks the importance and benefit to humanity of tools that allow us to see over the horizon, to view our place in relation to each other, and to see amazing phenomena such as cows aligning north to south across the planet.
“The more risk we know about, the more risk spreads. Risk becomes democratised, and democracy becomes about managing risk. Ulrich Beck calls it a “risk society” (Morton, 2010:28). Morton imagines a progressive ecology that is spacious, not place-ist and global, not-local; “not embodied but displaced, spaced and outer spaced.”
Jeff Bezos is the mega-rich CEO of Amazon, and the aerospace manufacturer Blue Origin, with a plan to take all industrial manufacturing off-planet and into space. His view is that we need to send robots to every planet in the solar system (remember that Mars does have a population, it’s just all robots) and we should begin plans for off-world colonisation of the Moon. The future of industrial development may very well be in space, with asteroids like 16 Psyche, which is one of the largest in the solar system.
16 Pysche is orbiting the sun in the asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter and is thought to be the exposed core of a protoplanet. NASA is sending a robot probe to the asteroid, for both scientific reasons (it can reveal some of the conditions at the centre of the Earth) and financial reasons; the asteroid is worth a potential $10,000 quadrillion US dollars and could well be the key to building a future for mankind in the solar system. It’s quite possible that the future of space industries is entirely robot driven, as its very expensive and risky to send us waterbags into space, where radiation and lack of gravity has a major impact on the human body.
Protecting our environment should be the primary reason for thinking about space exploration and colonisation. To protect our planet, we need to think about where and how future generations of humans are going to live. There is only limited amount of physical space for humans to inhabit on this planet, and without global plague, pandemic or war to reduce our numbers we will need to have somewhere for others to be. Of course, this raises its own set of concerns and issues which are being explored currently in the Netflix TV series, The Expanse, based on the novels by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (using the pseudonym James S. A. Corey). The show imagines the future of the solar system following two hundred years of colonisation. Humanity has begun the terraforming of Mars and is evolving physiologically to better survive the rigorous conditions in the space colonies burrowed out of asteroids and mined for their material wealth. It’s an amazing series which considers what a life off-world to be like and what the relationship between colonists in space, on planets and those back on Earth might be like.
Although the space industry profited from the science and knowledge of death machines, very little of our modern technology is untouched by the military industrial complex (especially networked technology like the Internet). The success of the reusable rocket and heavy lift capacity of the Falcon rockets just might be the reinvigoration of space exploration and the start of the process of off-world colonisation and the key to saving our planet and ourselves.
Morton, Timothy 2010. The Ecological Thought. Harvard University Press: Cambridge.