When I was young, I wanted to be the first person to set foot on Mars.
Like most kids I had a dozen imagined career paths, but one of the most persistent ones that I came back to was astronaut. As a young child thirsty for knowledge, the unknown of the cosmos was endlessly fascinating. I used to repeatedly reread the Mars Diaries novels, a fictional series about the first child born on Mars, fighting conspiracies and growing his faith while living in the planet’s first colony. Even today I still love a well told science fiction tale.
There is an allure to the seemingly infinite mystery of the universe that is perpetually entertaining. But with that mystery comes danger. Ever since the first spaceflight, 18 people have died during spaceflight procedures (though only one incident actually took place in space). While this number may be relatively small, considering that only 553 people have been to space, this places the fatality rate at about 3 per cent. And that’s not to mention the variety of potential ways to die in orbit of this pale blue dot—oxygen deprivation, unexpected decompression, exposure to the vacuum. The amount of work that goes into keeping astronauts alive is a marvel of engineering that shouldn’t go underappreciated.
Considering all the problems on Earth, at this point I’d rather not add the variable dangers of space travel into my life. But despite my personal fear of an early death in orbit, space travel is, once again, the centre of much media fervour and discussion.
Space race 2.0
The increased interest in space exploration is due to a variety of reasons. One is a resurgence in coverage of NASA’s space exploration—at the time of writing they are planning to launch another exploratory probe named Lucy on the 16th of this month. Perhaps part of the fervour is centred around the possibility of a manned Mars mission—both China and America have plans to send humans to Mars by the end of 2033 in an echo of the race to get a man on the Moon.
It’s likely, however, that the renewed focus on space exploration is not due to the work of governments or governmental institutions—it’s been caused by the whims of some exorbitantly wealthy individuals: Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson. Each of these multibillionaires has invested extremely large amounts of money into spaceflight businesses—Blue Origin, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic respectively—and Bezos and Branson both embarked on widely publicised spaceflights earlier this year.
Of the three, Musk is perhaps the most widely known for his desire to expand humanity out into other planets—having stated multiple times that he wants “to die on Mars, just not on impact”. While Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic focus on creating enterprises for “space tourism”, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is far more focused on supporting the space travel already occurring and providing opportunities to further galactic exploration. Musk envisions a future where humanity is not confined to the one planet Earth, but is spread out across the solar system, and potentially even beyond. To further this vision, SpaceX has partnered with the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) in the US on an exclusive contract to build NASA’s human landing system which would allow a safe lunar landing using their new design—though it should be noted that work on the lunar lander contract has been halted due to a lawsuit from Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin protesting NASA’s decision to provide SpaceX with the exclusive rights to the project.
But not everybody shares this vision.
Waste of space?
The endeavours created by these billionaires have come under sustained criticism, with many wondering if there are better avenues to spend their wealth. Bezos’ company Blue Origin was created according to him, in part, because it was “the only way” to “deploy” the amount of money he had gained from Amazon—money which allegedly comes from the labour of comparatively low-earning employees who are discouraged from taking collective action to benefit their circumstances by the very company that employs them.
Responding to the criticism, the billionaires argue that space travel may provide a solution to some of the problems facing Earth and human civilisation. Bezos notes that moving heavy industry into space could help solve the energy crisis we currently face, while Musk believes that space travel will be the solution to the current climate crisis. “Those who attack space maybe don’t realise that space represents hope for so many people,” Musk posted on Twitter.
This tweet highlights one of the underlying concerns that I share with many about this new space race: Who does it give hope to?
An expansive issue
In the science-fiction series The Expanse, Musk and Bezos’ dreams seem to have been realised. Humanity has successfully colonised the solar system, with a nation working on terraforming Mars to be more habitable and numerous smaller stations and outposts in the asteroid belt and the moons of the outer planets. Industry has begun to thrive with space mining, interplanetary agriculture and numerous other forms of commerce existing. The total human population has ballooned and continues to grow.
But this world is far from a utopia.
Poverty runs rife—on Earth and in space—leading to the continuation of cycles of crime and violence. Families who have lived and grown up in space for generations are unable to survive the high gravity of Earth, forcing them to rely on Earthers for necessary supplies such as oxygen, water or food—supplies which they are charged excessively for, keeping them in a state of perpetual poverty and anxiety. Despite the promise of a new frontier in space travel, the inequalities and disparities that are present on Earth persist.
Obviously, The Expanse is a work of fiction (albeit one which works hard to consider the current scientific theories about what long-term space exploration may look like and features physicists amongst its writing staff).
I’ll admit that when I was young, I was enamoured with Musk’s utopian vision for the future of mankind. How could I not have been? But the more I learn about his vision for the future, the more I’m convinced that it’s not the solution to our problems.
Space travel will not solve the issues of poverty and homelessness that exist around the world. Nor will it give those facing the brunt of these issues much in the way of hope. What hope does Bezos’ space flight provide to a family facing eviction due to their loss of income from the pandemic? The reality is that the current work being done by these rich billionaires is more concerned with propagating the status quo we currently have, or creating an experience for other rich people to become space tourists.
If the problems we face on earth are not solved here, there is every likelihood they will persist if we ever successfully expand into the solar system. But despite this, billionaires continue to spend exorbitant amounts on space travel instead of more immediate, closer to home solutions to these problems. Make no mistake, choosing to focus resources in this direction is choosing to focus on a solution that will only benefit those who can afford it—it will not solve many problems, but exasperate them.
It should be noted in case it sounds like I’m being too harsh on these billionaires, that they do engage in certain philanthropic efforts and donations—as do most wealthy individuals. Unfortunately, it is a well-documented reality that these philanthropic efforts often are targeted at solving problems caused by the corporations the billionaires run. Or worse, they merely provide the means of avoiding taxes and ultimately work to consolidate the wealthy’s control over resources.
Help closer to home
So if space won’t save us, what will? The answer here may be people, though not people like Musk, Bezos or Branson. The merit of helping others in your community is one that has been espoused by numerous religions and philosophers for millennia.
The Bible, for example, repeatedly highlights the importance of helping those in need: “Carry each other’s burdens,” (Galatians 2:6); “. . . in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3,4).
Importantly, the Bible notes that this approach helps everybody, and not just those who seem most in need. Proverbs 22:9 states, “The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor” while in Luke 6:38, Jesus states, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
So instead of looking to the stars—and those who aspire to reach them—for solutions to our problems, perhaps we can instead look a little closer to home, towards organizations which aim to address some of the more pressing inequalities and injustices in our world, or to communities like church, where people can gather to support each other and provide mutual aid in times of crisis. Space may not be able to save us but that doesn’t mean we can’t work to help one another.
Ryan Stanton is a digital cultures PhD student at the University of Sydney. While he loves technology and exploration in equal measure, he is in no hurry to go to space . . . even if zero gravity does look like a fun time.
This article first appeared on Signs of the Times Australia.