Criticizing space cowboys is not enough

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Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, is celebrating after his suborbital space flight on New Shepard on July 20th. (Credit: Blue Origin)


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Anyone who has ever looked at the night sky can confirm the fascinating effect of space. The emptiness, the size, the possibility of being blinded. The desire to achieve and understand what lies beyond our planet comes closest to a universal human goal that we will likely ever have.

Outside of the usual left-wing magazines, little is being done to address the real cost of deep space privatization.

Unfortunately, as with almost any other human desire, we have a penchant for ignoring some of the dire consequences of space domination. It is therefore encouraging to see more and more people criticizing the current trend towards the influence of individual wealth in the space industry. At this point, any criticism is welcome, be it Clickbait outlets that mock the unusually phallic shape of Blue Origins New Shepard, or a deeper analysis of the problems of placing our access to space in the hands of some eccentric billionaires, as in Layla Martin’s recent review of “Space Cowboys” (see “The problem with space cowboys,” The Space Review, 09/13/2021) .

But as much as I like these pieces, I can’t help but feel like something is missing. Outside of the usual left-wing magazines, little is being done to address the real cost of deep space privatization. Despite their understandable distrust of the outwardly progressive rhetoric of Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, Martin goes out of his way to reiterate their support for the private sector, pointing out that he “drives innovations that create new jobs, make significant price cuts and make progress. Martin likes to gloss over many of the real problems that will arise if we allow private companies to monopolize space.

To take an obvious example, Martin laments the lack of real equal access to space, contrasting the current state of the space race with the California gold rush of the 1850s. She writes:

In the California gold rush, anyone with courage and determination could pack their car to find gold. This possibility was open to everyone. Getting your hands dirty and working hard to be successful is part of the American dream … if there really were equal access to space, in the American West so to speak, legitimate cowboys would blow these competitors out of the ring faster than one Bucking bronc at a Friday night rodeo at the slaughterhouses.

Quite frankly, this is a myth. The California gold rush, like all contemporary gold rushes, was far from an egalitarian paradise where anyone could make a fortune with a shovel. The vast majority of individual gold prospectors in California in the 1850s at that time earned little more than the average worker, despite incredible hardship. The ones who made the real money from the gold rush were the traders who charged predatory prices for prospecting supplies, and mining companies that set up large corporations after each prospector identified fertile soil.

Worse, the California gold rush was known to be detrimental to people of color. Prospectors have been encouraged by the authorities to evict indigenous communities, which is about to happen the Californian indigenous genocide. Xenophobia resulted in an enormous tax being levied on non-white prospectors, and finally the complete exclusion of Chinese workers. And although California was nominally a “free” territory, mining slavery was widespread (see Robert F. The destruction of the California Indians.)

As easy as it is to make fun of “space cowboys”, we need to go further and critically examine the underlying assumptions that enable billionaires to divide space for themselves. If we don’t, we run the risk of losing our chance for a fair and just future forever.

It would be very easy to write these problems off as anachronisms of time, but history teaches us that the discovery or availability of a new resource inevitably leads to the exploitation of both workers and the environment. There is no reason to expect that the private annexation of resources in space by commercial corporations will turn out differently. In fact, Elon Musk has already started talking about it Selling tickets to Mars subject to future employment contracts, and SpaceX has specifically stated so it will not recognize international law in its space colonies.

It may be tempting to argue that the increasing innovation offered by commercial space companies has enough advantages to justify some of these problems. However, it is far from clear that such operations are actually interested in advancing the state of the space industry. With all of Musk’s rhetoric about colonies on Mars or Bezos’ visions of permanently habitable space stations, very little has proven that her words are worth counting on. Driven by the need to generate profits for shareholders are commercial startup companies feverishly filling low earth orbit with redundant communications satellites, and are increasingly turn to military contracts– hardly helps mankind to reach the stars.

True, it is difficult to criticize progress, even if it is gradual. The state of space exploration has undeniably stagnated since the 1980s, and the current surge in interest in off-planet potential is a good thing overall. But if progress comes at a high price, we mustn’t be afraid to push back. Space is the future of our species, and it belongs to all of us, not a handful of private companies. As easy as it is to make fun of “space cowboys,” we need to go further and critically examine the underlying assumptions that enable billionaires to divide space for themselves. If we don’t, we run the risk of losing our chance for a fair and just future forever.


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