• Thomas Cheney

Social Justice and the Exploration and Utilization of Outer Space

As America prepared to launch American astronauts on an American rocket from American soil a group of two dozen African-American families marched to Florida in protest. They carried placards declaring: “$12 a day to feed an astronaut. We could feed a starving child for $8.” Their leader proclaimed: “We may go on from this day to Mars and to Jupiter and even to the heavens beyond, but as long as racism, poverty and hunger and war prevail on the Earth, we as a civilised nation have failed.”[1] This scene didn’t play out at the recent launch of Crew Dragon in 2020 but the launch of Apollo 11 in 1969, although the parallels are clear. The recent protests regarding the killing of George Floyd by police have provided a stark juxtaposition to the celebratory nationalism of ‘Launch America’ and the SpaceX crewed mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The current protests in the United States demonstrate, 50 years later not enough progress has been made on the social justice issues that haunt our societies.

This discussion, written while the protests are still on-going and a few days after the ‘Launch America’ mission to the ISS, illustrate that no amount of nationalistic window dressing on a space programme can distract from deep seated societal problems. As advocates of human exploration of space, we are often keen to point to the fact that space applications are now integrated into society. We must, therefore, accept that the obverse is true and that advances in space technology are meaningless if they do not empower all sections of society and help drive racism, sexism and all other forms of oppression into the history books. If we are serious about becoming a spacefaring civilization, then we need to address the stark inequalities that exist. Space activity does not occur in a vacuum and aspiration must be accompanied by action to ensure that no section of society is disproportionately discriminated against.

Exploring Space and eradicating prejudice.

There is still racism, poverty, hunger, and war. The protesters of 50 years ago, led by Ralph Abernathy, who had succeeded Dr Martin Luther King Jr to leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, were highlighting issues that pervade contemporary society. Abernathy’s assertion that we, as civilised nations, have failed is just as valid today as it was then.

This then begs the question: why waste money on space when there are so many pressing problems on Earth? Space exploration is expensive, (granted if you’re looking for government spending to cut then civilian space isn’t the worst offender, particularly in the United States, and is becoming increasingly commercial so it isn’t as easy to redirect or curtail), but it is still important to be able to provide an actual answer. Every NASA rover or ESA comet chaser represents funds that could have gone to feeding a hungry child or paying for a school, or nurse. Whilst projects such as GPS and weather satellites have led to concrete improvements for life on Earth, can the same be said for Crew Dragon? The answer can and should be yes.

Making humanity a ‘multiplanetary’ or ‘spacefaring’ species is going to be an enormous undertaking and is hard to define as ‘necessary’ at least on an immediate level. If it is to happen, it needs to be worth it, it needs to be justified. It is telling that many space activists, and especially Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos frame the human expansion into outer space as an inevitability, or an end unto itself. Seriously, go back on YouTube and find the clips of Musk and Bezos talking about why – their argument is essentially that if humanity is to survive then it needs to move out into space and inhabit other worlds. They discuss this as an evolutionary imperative, we must do this, but they never really address the why - why does humanity deserve to survive, why should humanity bother to ‘crawl out of the cradle,’ when faced with limited resources why should we devote some of them to space. At least Robert Zubrin has a rationale, as ‘problematic’ as it is; he views struggle as the engine of innovation and creativity.[2] Musk and Bezos embrace the logic of invasive species, we should expand into space for the sake of expanding into space. Exist for the sake of existence. And that tends to be the common answer ‘destiny,’ often harking back to the ‘because it’s there’ of Kennedy’s 1962 Rice Speech. ‘Because it’s there’… a decent reason to climb a mountain perhaps but not to settle the solar system, the orders of magnitude difference of effort required (and the broader, societal involvement) mean that there has to be more to it than that.

Tempting though it is to accept human space exploration as simply being pre-destined, research, however, does not necessarily support this. The work of ethicists such as James Schwartz and Tony Milligan have tried to examine the ‘why’. Regulatory theory tells us that the absence of a shared notion of this crucial question ‘why explore space’ is perhaps one of the critical elements missing when contemplating issues relating to space governance. When the Outer Space Treaty was drafted the ‘why’ was implicit; the exploration of space was to prevent the other side achieving dominance. Trying to identify a ‘why’ now that we have multi-sectored space activity is no longer quite so easy. Surely, the answer to that question has less to do with a passive acceptance of human destiny (whatever that means) and actually involves making lives better and ending the inequalities and barriers there are on Earth?

We, the people?

Along with the ‘why’ another implicit assumption regarding space exploration is the ‘who’. Specifically, who wants to engage in this activity. This is another area where, a small, self-selected group talking, ostensibly, on behalf of humanity tie their assertions in to the destiny arguments:

we should do our very best to become a multiplanetary species[3]


"We humans have to go to space if we are going to continue to have a thriving civilization."[4]

This is particularly problematic because the space sector in the West is overwhelmingly white and male, and therefore doesn’t represent our own society let alone humanity as a whole. This is particularly evident when they talk about values and visions. The humanity that is being talked about appears to be a globalised America. The SpaceX mission tagline ‘Launch America’ was explicit about this. It was also evident in the artwork that accompanied Bezo’s talk on his space colony vision. This vision is clearly the American Midwest, especially when compared with the common depiction of O’Neill’s original vision on which it was based. Is Musk’s million-person settlement on Mars going to be an outpost of humanity or the United States (and I don’t mean that in a literal territorial sense)? Is Bezos’s space habitat going to be an island haven of human civilization or Western civilization? Or is it going to be space Disneyland, the personal vision of one man? This was something that was addressed by ESA Director General, Jan-Dietrich Worener’s conceptualisation of the ‘Moon Village’. A vision of lunar habitation that was meant to be more open. Worener deliberately chose to use the word ‘village’ as it invokes (at the very least, and possibly only, to him) a less planned, more spontaneous settlement, a conglomerate of interests rather than an ‘outpost of Europe’.[5]

Space for change

The exploration and utilisation of space can be a powerful enabler for positive change in society. But it does not guarantee the eradication of inequality. It is not a magical solution to the current issues we all face. Beaming a WIFI-signal into every household in the world does not automatically connect them to the internet nor does it solve the structural inequalities of our global or national society. Theming a conference as ‘space for all’ does not make it so. Ignoring the racism and inequality that permeate our society doesn’t make it go away. We need to do more to deal with these issues within our community, our sector, as well as broader society. We need to help improve the diversity of people within the field. We need more people of colour, women, and minority genders, more disabled and neurodiverse voices, more LGBTQ+ people. The space community needs to represent the humanity that we claim to be working for.

The question then becomes how? This is not an easy task. We need to accept the challenge to change and to become uncomfortable with the status quo. There needs to be an attitudinal shift where values such as empathy, tolerance and compassion are recognised as being as fundamental to space exploration as the search for science and understanding. This can be achieved by the promotion of events to ensure that no one feels excluded or devalued. On a practical level this can start with attendance at conferences like the fantastic Space Science in Context . When those in the space exploration industry talk about multi-disciplinary, this should mean reading works by women and people of colour and those from non-traditional backgrounds. This also means actively engaging with the humanities and social sciences, embracing critical approaches from race to queer feminism . In short, we must engage with those outside our current bubble. We, at the Centre for a Spacefaring Civilisation propose that the central value underpinning human space activity should be to ensure that the human future is better than our present. So, that in fifty years humans are not still celebrating space milestones in the shadow of injustice.

Conclusion: Change - Now

In 1969, NASA administrator Thomas Paine met with Ralph Abernathy and the protesters who stated that they didn’t have an objection to the space programme per se, but the aim of the protests was highlighting the plight of the poor in America. As one of the participants said, the issue was ‘billions for the Moon, pennies for the poor.’ Indeed, Ralph Abernathy said that he felt pride, as an American, while watching the launch of Apollo 11.[8] Celebration and enjoyment of the SpaceX mission does not automatically align you to the current inequalities. Here at the Centre we watched the Crew Dragon launch, we celebrated, and we cheered. But we also donated to the ACLU[9], and the National Bail Fund Network[10]. The Centre for a Spacefaring civilisation does not seek to speak for humanity, nor does it want to impose a value system. But we will use our platform to promote a diversity of voices in the space community and help overcome the manifest injustices in the wider world.

Black lives matter, and space activity should enshrine and embrace that truth, not look to mask it or overshadow it.

This post represents the views of the Board of Directors and the Centre for a Spacefaring Civilization

[1]https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/jul/14/apollo-11-civil-rights-black-america-moon [2]Robert Zubrin, Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam 1999), 1-20 [3]https://www.wired.com/story/elon-musk-just-unveiled-starship-spacexs-human-carrying-rocket/ [4]https://www.businessinsider.com/jeff-bezos-space-travel-essential-because-destroying-planet-2019-7?r=US&IR=T [5]Haraold Kopping Athanasopoulos 'The Moon Village and Space 4.0: The 'Open Concept' as a New Way of Doing Space' (2019) 49 Space Policy 1 [6]https://spacescienceincontext.wordpress.com/ [7]https://www.spacefaringcivilization.space/post/why-we-need-more-queer-feminism-in-space-culture [8]https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/jul/14/apollo-11-civil-rights-black-america-moon [9]https://www.aclu.org/ [10]https://www.communityjusticeexchange.org/nbfn-directory

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