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Can Space Exploration Be Ethical? The ‘Billionaire Space Race’ and Egalitarian Galactic Democracy

Over half a century since the 1969 Apollo 11 Moon landing, the world is entering an era of space revival. States are once more turning their attention to the opportunities presented by space ventures and developing capacities to advance their interests in space. A case in point is the creation in 2019 of the United States Space Force (USSF), the space service branch of the U.S. Armed Forces and the world’s first space force. That same year, NATO adopted its first space policy and recognised space as a new operational domain alongside air, land, sea and cyber. At the 2021 Brussels Summit, NATO recognised that attacks to, from, or within space could lead to the invocation of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.

The consolidation of space’s military importance has been accompanied by commercial developments. Dozens of private companies are driving the rapid commercialisation of the Earth’s orbit, led by the projects of a select group of billionaire entrepreneurs – namely Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Tesla, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, and Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group. Between 2000 and 2004 these men each founded private spaceflight corporations (SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic respectively) which have recently gained huge media attention due to the successful launch of crewed flights by the latter two in July 2021. Termed the ‘billionaire space race’, this new phase of space development aims to initially advance space tourism, generate profit from satellite launches and asteroid mining, and ultimately populate other planets such as Mars.

The combination of technological advances, commercial interest and shifting military priorities mean humanity’s march towards space is now inevitable; space exploration is no longer just science fiction. But while space exploration presents a leap for humankind, it also constitutes a continuity in industrial development, marked by many of the same inequitable power structures and forms of economic distribution that characterise life on Earth. In this sense, the current moment presents a critical juncture in which to interrogate and challenge the dynamics which are likely to govern space exploration.

This article examines how the development of spaceflight has been shaped by inequalities, including legacies of imperialism and settler colonial aspirations. It then recalls historical appeals for an egalitarian democratic approach to space, before expanding on the risks inherent in current business-led trajectories of space exploration. Ultimately it argues that the impending co-option of space endeavours by capitalist business interests necessitates critical reflection on humanity’s future engagement with the extra-terrestrial imagination, including on which futures risk being foreclosed by the perpetuation of Earthly structures of power and inequality.

The historical dynamics of spaceflight: inequality, violence and dispossession

Spaceflight has historically been characterised by the creation and perpetuation of inequalities, including imperial violence and dispossession. Notably, the massive technological feat involved in the construction of space infrastructure relies on claims to both territory and resources. The Earth’s rotation enables rockets launched from the equator to gain an extra boost of speed on lift-off, achieving escape velocity more easily. The territory of developing countries in the equatorial region, therefore, is particularly valuable in space endeavours. Since 1975 the European Space Agency (ESA) has conducted its launches from the Guiana Space Centre located in French Guiana, an overseas department of France and one of the few remaining European territories in the Americas. In March 2019, the US administration signed a preliminary agreement with Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro to open the country’s Alcântara Space Center to the US space industry, a move which has reanimated concerns around the planned displacement of Indigenous communities from 12,000 hectares of surrounding Quilombo land as part of the site’s expansion.

Meanwhile, the massive technological undertakings of spaceflight rely on spacefaring nations’ access to natural resources. As a rising space power, China has instrumentalised space diplomacy to make inroads in developing states in recent years, offering satellite infrastructure and support systems to states such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nigeria, Cambodia and Pakistan in exchange for access to natural resources like oil and raw materials needed to fuel its space industry.

In addition to the activities required to facilitate the development of space capacities, the language used around goals of space expansion has a deeply colonial element. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 established that ‘outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means’. Despite this, space exploration carried out by countries and corporations in the Global North have been marked by the language and dynamics of imperialism.

The rhetoric of space exploration typically draws on mythology which casts space as a ‘frontier’, or a ‘wilderness’ to be explored, tamed and exploited – similar to how European settlers in North America and Oceania drew on an idea of terra nullius (‘nobody’s land’) to justify claims to Indigenous territory. This narrative can be traced back to the Cold War era space race, in which the United States and the Soviet Union sought to extend their spheres of influence as part of an intense ideological rivalry. This has led analysts to frame the 1969 Moon landing as ‘an extraterrestrial colonial victory for the United States’.

Research has also pointed out the structures of colonialism inherent in space exploration, including reliance on public-private partnerships. These mirror colonial practices, such as the transfer of land colonised by the East India Company starting in the early 18th century which later came under British state ownership. Other commentators have identified continuing logics of settler colonialism (a form of colonialism that is based upon the permanent presence of colonists upon land) in space exploration aspirations, highlighting that ‘space exploration does not exist in a vacuum, but instead draws from settler colonialism and feeds back into it’. Indeed, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has famously outlined his plans for the colonisation of Mars, aiming to land humans on the planet by 2026 and eventually establish one million people by 2050. This vision has been criticised and dismissed as unrealistic, but it remains a driving factor behind the push to invest in and develop commercial spaceflight capabilities.

Both historically and in the present day, spaceflight continues to be driven by imperial dynamics. Colonisation on Earth over the last half millennium has unequivocally led to genocide, forced displacement, the erasure of cultures, enduring economic violence and political subjugation. Faced with the real prospect of space exploration and settlement on other planets, it is imperative that we query the future dynamics of space exploration and settlement.

A celestial commons: opportunities for egalitarian galactic democracy?

Imperial legacies and settler colonial aspirations are hardly the only critiques levelled at space exploration; various environmental and ecological concerns have been raised regarding carbon emissions from rockets and the associated depletion of stratospheric ozone, not to mention the contention that we have more pressing Earthly matters to attend to (such as improving social welfare) before we set our sights on the stars. Despite this, the prospects of space exploration are advancing at a dizzying rate, in large part due to the commercial interests at stake. But as entrepreneurs pave the way towards space tourism and interplanetary settlement, there are important questions to be asked about prospective visions for human futures in outer space.

It is far from the first time that humanity has expanded its imagination to encompass extra-terrestrial realities, thinking critically about questions of access, power and distribution in the process. The Cold War era space race played out in a period of decolonisation and an accompanying movement to decolonise international law. Starting in the 1950s, developing states initiated transnational projects like the Non-Aligned Movement and the UN Group of 77 with the aim of achieving an equitable redistribution of resources in the wake of imperialism. In this context, space represented the ultimate non-aligned sphere for superpowers and emerging states alike: a blank canvas ready for the projection of power, assertion of property rights and apportionment of resources. The movement included interventions in international law whereby these newly independent countries proposed concepts like ‘common interest’ or the ‘common heritage of mankind’ as vectors of equitable distribution.

To a certain extent, this democratic vision was foreseen in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. In addition to forbidding sovereign appropriation of space, the Treaty contains a positive requirement for extra-terrestrial conduct, declaring that ‘the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind’. However, this vision of radical democratic distribution of revenues derived from the international commons – and developing countries’ efforts to formalise it in international law – was largely rejected by the international community. While this defeat can be attributed predominantly to resistance from business groups and industry, for spacefaring nations such as the US, Russia and China space also remains a nationalist project. In this sense, the space race offered another opportunity for powerful nations to consolidate their power at the expense of marginalised populations.

The failure to establish a galactic commons in the latter half of the 20th century meant that the prevailing model of human relations in space ultimately gave way to a domain characterised by the ‘free and uninhibited exercise of commercial and military might’. This is especially apparent today in an increasingly commercialised epoch which analysts and industry insiders have referred to as ‘NewSpace’, in contrast to the Cold War-era mode of space relations. This new model primarily benefits a specific set of wealthy entrepreneurs as opposed to humankind broadly conceived, particularly in light of the former’s plans for the private appropriation of natural resources from asteroids. ‘NewSpace’, then, is rapidly being defined by the production of a new political-economic regime aimed at profit maximisation and fuelled by the expansionary logic of capital accumulation.

The entrenchment of a model of space capitalism has serious implications for humanity’s relationship with spaceflight and future possibilities for interplanetary relations. Profiteering space corporations like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are currently primed to become the gatekeepers controlling access to outer space. Following the successful realisation of the first suborbital passenger flights, space tourism is set to expand rapidly in the coming years – but prices ensure that only the extremely wealthy will be able to take advantage of this opportunity in the near term. Blue Origin has reportedly sold nearly $100 million worth of tickets for future flights, with a seat on the first flight going for $28 million at public auction; Virgin Galactic has charged $250,000 per person for seats on their VSS Unity rocket-powered space plane.

When this problem of exclusion is combined with the racist myth of the frontier steeped in settler colonial rhetoric, questions emerge about potential issues around access to spaceflight and the valuing of certain lives in a space settlement scenario. As anthropologist Kimberley D. McKinson asks, will Black lives matter in outer space? This further begs the question: can we rely on white male billionaire venture capitalist interests to forge humanity’s extra-terrestrial future?

Conclusions and recommendations

From the installation of launch infrastructure on Indigenous lands to the rejection of a galactic commons, the history and present of spaceflight has been marked by the production and deepening of inequalities. These dynamics are set to continue in the era of commercialised ‘NewSpace’, as demonstrated by the problems inherent in using language of colonisation to frame the future of humanity in space and the consolidation of a laissez-faire approach to space which gives full rein to exclusionary capitalist interests. At stake in space exploration is a political-economic struggle over democratic access to the opportunities and resources offered by outer space. As some commentators have noted, the status quo makes the further concentration of even more wealth in the hands of a few powerful corporations and technologically advanced countries ever more likely.

Faced with this reality, this article offers three key recommendations for the long term.

First, narratives of space exploration should avoid replicating colonial frameworks of occupation. This starts with language: critics such as astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz have been vocal about the importance of inclusivity in the terms we use to talk about space exploration. Possible alternatives to ‘colonisation’ and ‘settlement’ include ‘inhabitation’ or ‘humans living off-world’.

Second, the international community needs to re-emphasise the anti-sovereign spirit of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and guarantee its application to resources in addition to territory. Furthermore, the positive requirement of the Treaty should be interpreted as a call for egalitarian economics and equality of access in space. This could be achieved through the creation of an independent ‘Galactic Wealth Fund’ to manage and equitably distribute the benefits from outer space resources on behalf of all humankind.

Third, we should go further than interrogating the dominant military and corporate narratives surrounding space exploration. This is contingent on the better inclusion of voices from groups which have largely been excluded from historical trajectories of spaceflight, notably women, people of colour, and Indigenous and LGBTIQ+ communities. Only by encouraging alternative visions of possible human futures in space can we hope to avoid ‘a violent imposition of earthly normativity on landscapes elsewhere’. An example of this in practice is NASA’s Indigenous Peoples Pilot, a programme that ‘engages with Indigenous communities to foster ethical and culturally relevant space for the use of Earth observations in monitoring, mapping, and managing natural and cultural resources’. Though currently limited to Earth observation applications, such frameworks are laying the groundwork for a less exclusionary approach to space development.

The latest phase of spaceflight’s development is set against a backdrop of climate change, ecological catastrophe, overpopulation and now a global pandemic, all of which are fuelling the push to shift humanity’s reach beyond the Earth. While the opportunity to ‘start over’ is an attractive one, the sheer exhilaration many feel at the prospect of space exploration disguises the persistence of deep-seated unjust power structures which are set to be carried along for the ride. It is time to invent a better narrative for space endeavours that can foster an egalitarian democratic future among the stars.

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