SpaceX launches the CRS-22 mission to the International Space Station on June 3, 2021. Photo: spacex/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
- Perhaps always legendary, the space program’s once purported aspirations have given way to overtly touristic and militaristic goals.
- Governments should collect the taxes that companies like SpaceX evade and use them to create public sector careers that clean up their mess.
- Spencer Roberts writes that the true ethos of space exploration is one of public affairs and education.
In 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin flew higher and stayed in orbit longer than Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos combined in Vostok 1, the world’s first piloted spaceflight. After returning to Earth, Gagarin became a worldwide celebrity, traveling the world and describing what it felt like to drift weightless and see the planet from above. For a brief moment it transcended the confines of the Cold War, greeting the cheering crowds in both Soviet and US allied nations, and capturing our collective fascination with the cosmos.
The Vostok mission was meticulously planned and designed, its cosmonauts trained for years. Its successor, Soyuz 1, was a different story. The 7K-OK spacecraft was hastily built and all three drone flight tests had failed. According to one account, Gagarin helped detail more than 200 structural concerns in a report calling for the flight to be cancelled. He’s even said to be trying to replace his cosmonaut friend Vladimir Komarov as a pilot on the doomed mission. In the end, Komarov’s parachute did not open, and upon re-entry it burst into flames and fell to Earth at a speed of 40 meters per second.
The border between victory and tragedy in aviation is narrow. While arrogance is Soyuz 1’s fatal flaw, the pursuit of profit has similarly spurred a cut-throat in the US space program. NASA, once the crown jewel of the public sector, was gradually sold to private contractors in the neoliberal era.
Since 2020, NASA astronauts have placed SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets into orbit, a model that has raised safety concerns among engineers and has recorded more failures than the space shuttle has done in 30 years since its debut in 2006. Recently, another NASA contractor, Virgin Galactic, was banned for investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration after its pilots failed to notify the agency that its famous Unity flight had deviated into commercial airspace.
Space exploration for humans
How can space exploration serve society?
Our first priority should be to decarbonize space flight. Without achieving this, the emissions produced by space flight are hardly justifiable given the state of our planet. Zero-carbon jet fuel applications, such as the space blanket and cochlear implant, would go far beyond the space program that developed it. Commercial aviation contributes an estimated 3.5% of the effective radiative forcing – a figure that space tourism can skyrocket.
Due to the weight of batteries and other logistical challenges, hydrogen fuel cells are considered one of the few viable ways to decarbonize long-haul flight. Although some private space companies have begun to incorporate hydrogen, fuel production is likely to be emission-intensive and the technology remains proprietary. Combined with tight restrictions on fossil-fuel rocket launches, a public research program could greatly accelerate the implementation of green hydrogen fuel cells in aviation and other hard-to-decarbonize industries.
In addition to our atmosphere, we must also respect the sanctity of the orbital space on which we litter. The Department of Defense’s Space Surveillance Network estimates that there are more than 27,000 pieces of debris currently orbiting the Earth. Yet even while their own ships are dealing with landfill, billionaires are trashing more land than ever before.
While perhaps none of them match Tesla Roadster’s arrogance, rival commercial satellite networks like Musk’s Starlink and Bezos’ Project Kuiper actually pose a much greater collision threat and are also dreaded sources of light pollution and electromagnetic interference. These unnecessary and dangerous monuments to the egos of the oligarchs must be brought down from our skies along with other space junk.
Rather than subsidize billions of dollars to get this pollution, governments should collect taxes evaded by companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic and use them to create public sector careers that clean up their own mess. To the extent that it is useful, publicly funded infrastructure in private hands should be nationalized and made accessible to all.
The tradeoffs between telecommunications infrastructure and maintaining dark skies highlight another fundamental failure of NASA’s past: the lack of a planetary internationalism. In 2013, the Bolivia Space Agency and China’s National Space Administration launched the Túpac Katari 1 satellite (TKSat 1), demonstrating how easy it could be to bridge the space infrastructure gap between the Global North and South.
In the same year that the United States proposed desecration of a sacred site in Hawaii for a telescope, Bolivia used space technology to bring internet and cell service to millions of Andean and Amazon citizens for the first time. Since then, TKSat 1 has stepped up education and development initiatives and even helped defend Bolivian democracy by streaming transmissions of campesinos resisting the US-backed coup government in real time.
Satellites can serve many other public benefits, such as facilitating research that helps scientists monitor problems like climate change, deforestation and forced labor. While today’s satellite infrastructure is used to commercialize communications and fuel mass surveillance, an international consensus to treat telecommunications and information access as public rights could instead provide free global broadband coverage with minimal infrastructure and balance scientific progress with our shared vision of the stars.
Finally, a socialist vision for space exploration can enable us to reach our full potential to move forward into the unknown. History celebrates intrepid explorers, but the real heroes of the space age are ground-control workers. Yuri Gagarin arrived home safely thanks to command teams stationed from Baikonur to Khabarovsk. Apollo 13 famously called Houston when they had a problem. Today, many of our brightest astrophysicists and aeronautical engineers have been swept away by military departments and weapons manufacturers. We should use their talents for science and education.
Hopeful visions of the future
In the last years of your thoughts about us Pale Blue Dot, astronomer Carl Sagan thought, “Where are the cartographers of human purpose? Where are the visions of the promising future of technology as a tool for human healing, not a hair-trigger-based weapon?” Sagan’s legacy – including Earth’s first and only interstellar mission – offers a glimpse into that vision.
We can choose to collaboratively explore the depths of the cosmos by transmitting collections of human knowledge, or to spend four minutes at the edge of space in a taxi for billionaires, indulging in fantasies of escaping the planet they poisoned with the fuel that propels them. . In either case, the financial, intellectual and human costs will be borne by the public.
Fortunately, if there’s one thing space exploration has taught us, it’s that destiny isn’t written in the stars. It happens here on Earth.
This article was originally published by Jacobin Magazine and republished here with permission.