Cold water on a Mars landing: The persistence of an unsustainable pattern

When I learned how complex the landing of Curiosity, the latest Mars rover, would be,[1] my own curiosity was piqued and my skepticism was aroused, and not so very much unlike when I was a small boy, enthralled with the moon landings, I watched as the landing seemingly went flawlessly,[2] and was relieved and amazed as the the mission control room at the Jet Propulsion Lab erupted in celebration.

But in the intervening years since that amazing moon landing with incomparably less sophisticated technology, I’ve also learned to be somewhat more circumspect about the space program. Yes, I worry about human needs here on earth, but the budget I would cut to fulfill those needs would not be NASA’s but rather the military’s. I’m more concerned about the continuation of a colonial ethic, that presumes new territory is terra nullius, that here on earth, discounted indigenous people, committed genocide against them, left those who remained as refugees on reservations on the margins of society, and continues to devalue their cultures. If this argument seems strained, recall that just as we arrive on Mars, assuming no intelligent life is to be found, so European colonizers arrived almost everywhere else on the planet. The difference is that where explorers and settlers encountered indigenous people, regarded them as subhuman, as suitable to be enslaved, and as an obstacle to be shoved aside, we have yet to encounter Martians—indeed, we have yet to find life at all and are looking for signs that life could ever have existed.

What’s unclear is that our attitude would be any different even if we had encountered Martians. Consider, for example, our ongoing treatment of cetaceans as to be slaughtered on the pretense of scientific research, to be slaughtered in the name of “culture,” or to be captured and enslaved for amusement parks. Consider that we have still not made amends with the people who have suffered from previous colonizations.[3] Consider our attitude toward our own planet, as to be exploited rather than lived with in harmony.[4] It is thus hard to argue we have learned the most important lesson about encountering other sentient beings.

Then there is the notion of technology as solving all our problems, when in fact our thrall with technology privileges the quantitative over the qualitative, displaces our own cultures, and creates problems that are even more severe than those we solved.[5] We see this with the environmental havoc we have created on our own planet and our unsustainable exploitation of it. This pattern continues today, as we see with notions to mine asteroids.[6] Space is so vast that we cannot imagine exhausting it and we assume that our own impact is infinitesimal in comparison to that vastness. But this is what we thought of our own planet. We still have not learned.

Is Pres. Obama tuned in? Many here at @nasajpl are about to lose their jobs, due to NASA cutbacks. SAVE SPACE. pic.twitter.com/UHNESN3n

Fig. 1: Xeni Jardin, microblog post, August 5, 2012, following successful landing of Curiosity on Mars.

@doctorow Reminder: Government programs can't ever accomplish anything ever. #NASA #FTW

Fig. 2: MrJM, microblog posting, August 5, 2012, following Curiosity landing on Mars

Finally, there were postings on Twitter that reminded me of the politics that surround the space program (figures 1 and 2). A neoliberal presumption that corporations can do better those things that government has traditionally done means that manned space initiatives are now being contracted out,[7] and this follows budget cuts that seem similarly motivated to those which have severely impacted higher education. That private enterprise has followed where government programs have led is apparently irrelevant and it seems inconceivable that we should be concerned about the balancing of environmental or safety issues against the profit motive.

I’ve come a long ways and been through a lot of hell, largely due to a society that is itself insane, and which produces insanity in its members,[8] since I was a little boy collecting the Lunar Excursion Module cardboard models given away at gas stations. But as a Ph.D. student, I still care deeply about learning. I believe in self-actualization, that humans should develop their talents and follow their aspirations. And I accept that many at NASA truly are excited by the scientific potential that now seems within our grasp with the landing of Curiosity on Mars. But a long time ago, those aspirations were subverted to avarice and the hoarding of currency. We need to learn, but we must learn more than what Curiosity offers us; we must re-learn to be human, to value “other” life, and to value the condition of being alive.

Figures:

  1. Tweet by Xeni Jardin[9]
  2. Tweet by MrJM[10]
  1. [1]National Aeronautics and Space Administration, The Challenges of Getting to Mars: Curiosity’s Seven Minutes of Terror – June 22, 2012, QuickTime video, 5:07, http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/videos/index.cfm?v=49
  2. [2]Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “NASA Lands Car-Size Rover Beside Martian Mountain,” National Aeronautics and Space Administration, August 6, 2012, http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/news/whatsnew/index.cfm?FuseAction=ShowNews&NewsID=1288
  3. [3]John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2008).
  4. [4]Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1991).
  5. [5]Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, John Wilkinson, trans. (New York: Vintage, 1964); Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage, 1993).
  6. [6]Mark Sonter, “Asteroid Mining: Key to the Space Economy,” National Space Society, February 9, 2006, http://www.space.com/2032-asteroid-mining-key-space-economy.html
  7. [7]William Harwood, “NASA awards manned-spacecraft contracts,” CNET, August 3, 2012, http://news.cnet.com/8301-11386_3-57486421-76/nasa-awards-manned-spacecraft-contracts/
  8. [8]Erich Fromm, The Sane Society (Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2010).
  9. [9]Xeni Jardin, microblog post, August 5, 2012, https://twitter.com/xeni/status/232352970870767617
  10. [10]MrJM, microblog posting, August 5, 2012, https://twitter.com/misterjayem/status/232353961062064128

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