Not the final frontier

Space: the final frontier.
These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilisations; to boldly go where no man has gone before.[1]

I’m a Star Trek fan. Even as I am disturbed by the militaristic organization; the series’ frequent reliance, especially in Deep Space 9 and Voyager on battle as something a lot more than just a plot device; and its authoritarian, earth-centric, human-centric, seemingly based on the U.S., approach to galactic political organization, well, I’m hooked.

But I gather the 50th anniversary of first human moon walk passed yesterday. And with it came a potpourri of stories about returning to the moon and the future of human space exploration.

The kid in me, the Star Trek fan, wants more. But a question that arose even with the space program of the 1960s and has never really gone away is about the allocation of funds to space exploration while there is so much suffering on earth. The usual answer relies on some combination of the tiny fraction the National Aeronautics and Space Administration budget takes from the U.S. federal budget and on how it spurs technological improvement.[2] More subtly, and I suspect for both good and ill, achievements such as sending humans to the moon remind us that we are capable of great achievements, that we aren’t all about poverty, war, environmental destruction, and multiple other forms of cruelty.

Jesus, assuming he ever existed, may have said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”[3] He (assuming he’s a ‘he’) didn’t say what sort of earth they will inherit, but right now, the climate crisis doesn’t make that picture so pretty.

Meanwhile, the rich who now allegedly often maintain survivalist bunkers—some are or will soon be available for purchase[4] can all too easily be imagined to shoot themselves off into space, to Mars, or even to balloons suspended in the Venusian atmosphere.

Which is certainly a different spin on the Sermon on the Mount. And a long ways removed from the Star Trek utopia in which no one suffers want.

Jeff Bezos claims his vision is to move industrial activity to space so “Earth can be zoned residential.”[5] But considering how Bezos made his money, in large part by abusing warehouse workers,[6] I guess I’m just not so sure I can trust that his vision is what he says it is. Indeed, that vision seems to be that people will live and work in space as well as on earth: “There are going to be very nice places to live off earth as well. People will make that choice,”[7] he says. But given his record, even for mid-level workers,[8] what, really, are we entitled to believe about those space habitats and workplaces?

For me, the accelerating privatization of space exploration in a neoliberal capitalist paradigm offers no assurance that the “meek” will not simply be left behind on a devastated earth, while the rich go on not so much to “boldly explore” but rather to pillage yet more planets.

I’ll certainly grant that if we want money to feed the poor, we could do worse than to pillage the Pentagon budget rather than NASA’s. But if the rich really want their future for space to be credible, they should start taking better care of the rest of us here and now.

  1. [1]quoted by Clive Banks in his Star Trek introduction page, n.d. https://www.clivebanks.co.uk/Star%20Trek%20Intro.htm
  2. [2]see, for example, Aya Tatiangco, “Why spend money exploring space when you can feed the hungry? Fil-Am NASA engineer answers,” GMA News, August 11, 2016, https://www.gmanetwork.com/news/scitech/science/577279/why-spend-money-exploring-space-when-you-can-feed-the-hungry-fil-am-nasa-engineer-answers/story/
  3. [3]Mt 5:5 New International Version
  4. [4]see, for example, Jim Dobson, “Inside the World’s Largest Underground Survival Community: 575 Luxury Bunkers for 5,000 People,” Forbes, October 7, 2016, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jimdobson/2016/10/07/exclusive-look-inside-the-worlds-largest-underground-survival-community-5000-people-575-bunkers/
  5. [5]Jeff Bezos, quoted in Catherine Clifford, “Jeff Bezos: I spend my billions on space because we’re destroying Earth,” USA Today, July 17, 2019, https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2019/07/17/jeff-bezos-blue-moon-why-he-spends-billions-space/1762978001/
  6. [6]Daniel D’Addario, “Amazon is worse than Walmart,” Salon, July 30, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/07/30/how_amazon_is_worse_than_wal_mart/; Josh Eidelson, “Amazon Keeps Unions Out By Keeping Workers in Fear, Says Organizer,” Alternet, January 22, 2014, http://www.alternet.org/labor/amazon-keeps-unions-out-keeping-workers-fear-says-organizer; Nichole Gracely, “‘Being homeless is better than working for Amazon’,” Guardian, November 28, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/money/2014/nov/28/being-homeless-is-better-than-working-for-amazon; Simon Head, “Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers,” Salon, February 23, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/02/23/worse_than_wal_mart_amazons_sick_brutality_and_secret_history_of_ruthlessly_intimidating_workers/; Hamilton Nolan, “What Is Life Like For an Amazon Worker?” Gawker, July 29, 2013, http://gawker.com/what-is-life-like-for-an-amazon-worker-949664345; Alex Seitz-Wald, “Amazon is everything wrong with our new economy,” Salon, July 30, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/07/30/amazon_is_everything_wrong_with_our_new_economy/; Spencer Soper, “Inside Amazon’s Warehouse,” Morning Call, September 18, 2011, http://articles.mcall.com/2011-09-18/news/mc-allentown-amazon-complaints-20110917_1_warehouse-workers-heat-stress-brutal-heat
  7. [7]Jeff Bezos, quoted in Catherine Clifford, “Jeff Bezos: I spend my billions on space because we’re destroying Earth,” USA Today, July 17, 2019, https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2019/07/17/jeff-bezos-blue-moon-why-he-spends-billions-space/1762978001/
  8. [8]Daniel D’Addario, “Amazon is worse than Walmart,” Salon, July 30, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/07/30/how_amazon_is_worse_than_wal_mart/; Josh Eidelson, “Amazon Keeps Unions Out By Keeping Workers in Fear, Says Organizer,” Alternet, January 22, 2014, http://www.alternet.org/labor/amazon-keeps-unions-out-keeping-workers-fear-says-organizer; Nichole Gracely, “‘Being homeless is better than working for Amazon’,” Guardian, November 28, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/money/2014/nov/28/being-homeless-is-better-than-working-for-amazon; Simon Head, “Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers,” Salon, February 23, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/02/23/worse_than_wal_mart_amazons_sick_brutality_and_secret_history_of_ruthlessly_intimidating_workers/; Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace,” New York Times, August 15, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/technology/inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-in-a-bruising-workplace.html; Hamilton Nolan, “What Is Life Like For an Amazon Worker?” Gawker, July 29, 2013, http://gawker.com/what-is-life-like-for-an-amazon-worker-949664345; Alex Seitz-Wald, “Amazon is everything wrong with our new economy,” Salon, July 30, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/07/30/amazon_is_everything_wrong_with_our_new_economy/; Spencer Soper, “Inside Amazon’s Warehouse,” Morning Call, September 18, 2011, http://articles.mcall.com/2011-09-18/news/mc-allentown-amazon-complaints-20110917_1_warehouse-workers-heat-stress-brutal-heat

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