On this special episode of In Plain English, Brendan Ziebarth, Nick Wolslegel, and I talk about the political side of space travel: billionaire joy rides, corporate asteroid mining, climate impact, and more.
This episode was inspired by our conversation on Season 1, Episode 4: Where did Earth’s Water Come From? You can listen to that episode here.
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Photo by Edvin Richardson from Pexels.
On rocket fuels and the environmental impacts of space travel
On the Outer Space Treaty
The Outer Space Treaty: https://2009-2017.state.gov/t/isn/5181.htm
On the Moon Treaty
Institutional Framework for the Province of All Mankind (Jonathan Koch, 2018)
Jamie Moffa: Hello, everyone. Happy New Year and welcome to a special bonus episode of In Plain English. I’m your host, Jamie Moffa. Instead of our normal format, this episode is a discussion between myself, Nick Wolslegel, who was a guest on Episode 4, and Brendan Ziebarth, who was a guest on our very first episode, about the politics of space exploration and travel. I hope you enjoy,and we’ll be back in February with another regular episode of In Plain English.
JM: On Episode 4 of In Plain English, some of the discussion that ended up getting cut from the podcast that was uploaded was about, sort of the more political side of space, and specifically kind of talking about the implications of the trend towards the commercialization of space, more private industries getting interested in space, touching on tourism in space, and mining in space, and just space politics. So one of the things that got brought up in the episode was talking about these billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos’ private excursions into not-quite-space, and the impact that that might have on the sort of—whether or not that is a positive development in humanity’s exploration of space. And we didn’t get too much into it in the episode, but I kind of wanted to open up a discussion about that trend and whether we think it’s going to continue, and what sort of some of the implications of it are.
Nick Wolslegel: Well I think there’s maybe more than just two, but I can I can think of off the top of my head two schools of thought when it comes to popularizing space travel. There’s the people that sort of think that, like green energy, it needs to be made cool in order for us to invest in it, and they look at stuff like Elon Musk going into SpaceX stuff, Jeff Bezos flying to near-Earth orbit and just really rimming the edge of space, and see those as good because if you can popularize space travel, particularly among the ruling class, the billionaires that have the resources to invest in it will further this expedition, this project, which is inherently good. And that’s one class as I see it. If you want to farther this inherently good space travel thing, you need to make it something that is appealing to the moneyed interests.
And then there’s a second school of thought that also thinks that space travel is inherently good, but they think the correct way about it is to do it through this very analytical scientific exploration, more Star Trek—or some of the less shitty episodes of Star Trek—sense of, we are doing this for the exploration and the common good of the human species. And this should be maybe a more state-driven aspect or a more—less individual-driven aspect and more of a collective decision to go and use space for the benefit of a collective of people. I find that under our current system, it’s pretty inevitable that we have to have billionaires going to space to popularize it, to boost their stocks and their space companies and make them even more marketable to try and essentially get anywhere in the space race as it is.
Brendan Ziebarth: You say both schools of thought or just one?
NW: I said two schools of thought. The people who think that billionaires should be driving this, moneyed interest should be driving it, and it’s a good thing that they’re going to space because, hey, they’re clearly interested now. And the people like, this is a sacred thing that we should be taking very seriously as a species and allowing billionaires to play around in space is causing not just lasting damage to the planet because of emissions, but like lasting damage to, like, the sanctity of something that we should take really seriously, space, travel out to expand our influence to other parts of the universe.
JM: I mean, I think one of the concerns is that, so there’s this treaty that 111 countries are party to, a treaty about the non-militarization of space and the prohibition on the use of space for weapons of mass destruction, or the stationing of like military bases in space or on any like celestial bodies. But I think there is a little bit of ambiguity over whether individuals and private corporations are party to that. And so one of the potential concerns is that these like multi-billion dollar corporations could utilize space and celestial bodies like the moon and asteroids for things that would be detrimental to, or dangerous to, like the global welfare.
BZ: Can you talk more about the ambiguity of whether corporations are party to the treaty? Because as far as I understand, a private corporation is by definition not party to an international treaty.
NW: So there’s this treaty that was developed and is pretty admirably restrictive and encompassing if you’re someone who wants to take a slow and steady approach to space. It’s an admirable treaty from that regard, developed during the height of Cold War with a lot of fears in mind. It says that everyone who signs on to this international agreement is bound to not only abide by its rules, i.e. you cannot own sections of space, you cannot claim them as your own sovereign territory, you cannot militarize them, you cannot etc. But it’s also the responsibility of every state that signs on to this treaty to manage—and this is just a small little clause somewhere in a different section of the treaty—but it’s the responsibility of these states to manage their domestic and private citizenship and companies that would not normally be bound by that treaty. So, while technically something like SpaceX or Blue Origin is not bound in any meaningful way by the treaty, it should be the US government’s job to make sure that they abide by it. And this is an old document, treaty happened in I believe the 1960s right Jamie?
NW: 1967, good year. Essentially, it’s something that’s set in stone and no one’s tried to overturn, and people have just effectively been ignoring this like founding document in the space, because it was made very restrictively, but so restrictively that people don’t believe that it can even apply nowadays. So, for example, I was reading in 2015 Barack Obama just sort of passed a bill or an executive order or something that essentially claimed that—in one of its sub-clauses says that American citizens have the right to any resources that they claim from space, regardless of where they are. So if you found an asteroid and you managed to bring it back to the Earth you own it, you can sell it, you can do whatever the heck you want. If you went to the moon and stole some moon rocks and that sweet, sweet camera that they left up there when they sent all of those Apollo programs you own it—maybe not the camera, that’s not space stuff. And this caused some waves in the international community, because it essentially was seen as like all-out war against this idea that you cannot have sovereignty in space, you cannot own or militarize any part of space, for a presidential bill to essentially say “you can own this stuff and bring it back and sell it on Earth if you go out there and claim it.” Some scholars have argued over the years that this was not developed with the future in mind, it should not be followed. Some scholars have argued that because like, there’s this clause at the beginning that says any use of resources in space should be for the best—should be for the benefit of the human species, that literally anything can be argued to be for the benefit of the human species, so anyone’s allowed to do it, some soft arguments like that. But there’s been a lot of discussion that essentially from what I can tell, results in this really founding document of international law being largely ignored, and a couple subsequent documents that try to be more clear in their restrictions being ignored by the rest of—not ratified by the relevant countries.
So for example, the 1967 document we were talking about, that’s signed by over 100 countries, it’s well established international law. But there’s something colloquially referred to as the Moon Agreement that was proposed internationally–I’m not sure exactly the process for it—but it was proposed internationally, and it just strictly said no one can own any part of the moon, extract any part of the moon, do anything for it. This is solidifying the—a more restrictive understanding of the 1967 document, and I think 11 countries signed on to it, but none of the major countries you would expect and need to make it agreed international law, like any country that has a space program completely ignored it. Many of the developed countries—most of the developed countries ignored it as well. There’s been a lot of resistance to add any clarity, a lot of resistance to turn over any of this now 60-year-old legal precedent almost. Imagine the process, like the law—legal process involved in turning over a 67—53 year precedent—document for international law and replacing it. It would be insane, so all that seems to be happening is people are claiming to be abiding by the spirit of the original 1967 document, while sort of vaguely doing their own thing. That 2015 bill that the Obama administration helped push through really was seen as like a big step to say to industry, “Hey if you want to do space mining, we’ll protect you. We’ll stick out our necks for you. We’ve declared that this is a right.” And now because of this the industry is a whole lot less risky, so people can start considering investing in it. And right around that time, I’m not sure if it was well before the document was passed or after it, but if you guys remember when 2015 was around there was a lot of discussion about asteroid mining, a lot of discussion about space retrieval and that sort of thing, and it sort of goes in cycles since then, but there has been significantly more talk since that document signed in the United States than before it, because the industry is validated by it. At least in the United States. We’re seeing probably an acceleration event there in 2015 that’s going to result in a lot more of this interest in corporately owned space, and that’s something that we really have to decide ahead of time how we’re going to handle it, because we can see how difficult it is to overturn that 1967 document. No one’s even considering it because it’s just so weighty and hard to replace. But we’re also seeing how hard it is to put in a new rule and how willing everyone is to sort of go ahead with the status quo, which is just do whatever you want. And maybe we should talk about why it might be bad if people can just do whatever they want in space.
JM: Yeah. Thanks for that summary. So that was a summary, actually, of a couple of documents that we read before recording this—
BZ: To clarify, the 1967 treaty that is being referenced is the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, colloquially known as the Outer Space Treaty.
JM: And I also kind of want to clarify that it’s actually, like, very relevant in international space law, like to the extent that no one has tried to militarize space yet except for Donald Trump with the Space Force thing. For the most part, the demilitarization aspect has been very solidly abided by. It’s this whole commercialization and use aspect that’s a little bit more uncertain, and attempts to put the same kind of rigid boundaries around that via the Moon Agreement have not gone well.
One of the most, like, immediate concerns that I would think about with an increased interest in space and an increased interest in going to space and commercializing it, is simply how much pollution rocket launches cause. So far in terms of clearly in terms of like carbon dioxide emissions rocket launches have been somewhat of a negligible contributor to CO2 in the atmosphere because there are just so few of them. But, as you can imagine, if rocket launches to go to space for commercial reasons and for tourist reasons increase, so too will the contribution of rocket launches to CO2 emissions. And like, per event they are relatively massive contributors. There are also other considerations with rocket fuel in that it creates a lot of soot, and that soot goes in the upper, upper most layers of the atmosphere, beyond like the stuff that’s right around us, and beyond even the layer that like planes fly in. Currently there’s not a lot of pollution in the very upper layers of the atmosphere, but the more that we launch rockets up there, the more we have soot which is just little carbon particles, and like aluminum oxide and other pollutants in there, and scientists just don’t really know what effect that’s gonna have on the jet stream and the wind currents up in the upper atmosphere as well as on the temperatures for the world as a whole.
NW: I think another thing that is probably pretty mainstream now, but I remember hearing a few years back and really shocking me, was this idea that the energy that you put into space solutions for the problems we have on the planet: climate change, inequality, everything like that; tech people, billionaires, can wave at space and say “we can solve inequality, all the resources we need are out here in the stars,” or “we can find a new planet,” or “we can offload industry into space to save our planet from burning up,” ridiculous ideas like that, that are essentially hyper pipe dreams. The energy that you put into that distracts from real, fundamentally useful activism and efforts that we could do today. If you say “oh don’t worry, we can colonize Mars,” that’s going to be a huge tool used by people who don’t want to do anything about climate change now. And even people who do want to do stuff about climate change now could have a little bit of the wind pulled out of their sails with the idea that, “okay I need to support these climate change efforts, but also it’s another climate change effort everyone agrees on is finding a way to put all of our industry into space. That’s just a sane thing that people are talking about, so it must be a good climate change solution.” And in actuality it’s such a pipe dream that it sucks the energy out of any real environmentalism sales and causes huge damage. So popularizing space, not just the physical damage it does to the planet, but the—the mental brain rot the entire activism community can get from it is palpable, it’s real, and it’s one of the main things these tech bros like Elon Musk market in. It’s what they’re relying on for their brands. So it’s–it’s a real byproduct of them.
BZ: As far as corporate interest in space, I think we could talk about existing corporate interest in space. So just like satellites, and you know, what kinds of new developments we’re seeing with private companies that are launching humans into space, or attempting to do so, and what’s–what’s different.
And I was hoping one of you might actually explain what is different about like SpaceX and Bezos’ efforts.
NW: Well I think, fundamentally, even the most future-reaching, future-minded companies looking towards space are still grounded in the idea of launching satellites and telecommunications and stuff like that. That’s still like the core of every company I can think of this that’s like financially relevant. SpaceX launches satellites, it just so happens to do a lot of other things on top of that, like making the actual launch vehicles that it has and designing them for NASA. Designing them to send crew to the international space station and to the moon. And smaller companies that are talking about space tourism and specifically just sending people to space, I think a lot of them are, business-wise, trying to also at least piggyback off of the same efforts that are sending satellites to space. Because fundamentally it’s not that different of a process. You’ve got a payload that you send up, and one of them has to come back down, the other one doesn’t come back down. That’s the main difference
BZ: So currently when a telecom company is launching a satellite into space, they’re like—Verizon is not building a rocket and launching it, they are asking NASA for space on their next launch to release their satellite? Or how does that work?
NW: It would be something like that. NASA–I’m not sure how many like commercial launches they still do. I know they did a lot of, like a lot of them back during the shuttle program when they were the main launch source in the western hemisphere. Essentially if you want to launch a satellite and you’re a telecommunications company, you’re right, you don’t make the rocket. You make your satellite—presumably you might even contract that out too—and you find a launch company. So SpaceX, or NASA if they do it, Blue Origin or anything else, and they provide the launch vehicle and the technicians to get it into space. But there’s also a different sort of like committee. Sort of, there’s a–there’s a coalition that you have to—before you even start all of this, if you want to launch a satellite into space and keep it there long term, you need to buy that location in space, that orbital trajectory, and that distance from any other satellite, so your satellite won’t eventually, after tens of years bump into another one. You have to buy–I’m not sure if it’s a unique orbit or—but certainly a unique path where it’s not going to run into any other satellite. So, there’s not just a market for who can build your satellite and who can send it to space, but there’s also a coalition which seems to be mostly for profit about literally selling you the space where you’re allowed to put your satellites.
BZ: Is that an international coalition or governing body?
NW: It is an international coalition.
BZ: Because that’s interesting. That already starts to infringe on some of the ideals of the 1967 space treaty, because that is literally real estate in space.
BZ: But what I’m hearing is that there’s definitely a distinction to be made, where previously NASA was the only entity in the United States that was capable of putting an object into orbit, and now SpaceX and Blue Origin are in fact able to launch their own rockets, manage their own space programs, without civilian oversight, without government oversight, without international treaty oversight.
JM: Right, and in fact this was brought up in the podcast, that increasingly NASA does not make the launch vehicles for space travel anymore. That like they have contracted that out to companies like SpaceX.
NW: And that’s been possible over the years because of a massive defunding of the sciences like space travel, like NASA, and a financial incentive for these companies to make these launch vehicles so they can make the profit of launching satellites into space, or maybe even have their own satellite communications companies that benefit from launching satellites into space. And it just so happens that they can get reimbursed for the R&D on these launch vehicles because NASA will pay heavy prices for the use of them. To give it a little bit of nuance, it hasn’t been all bad for the space sector. I mean, there have been, as much as it pains me to give SpaceX any credit, like there are some legitimate improvements here in the—the efficiency of launch vehicles.
Back in the 1980s, when we started the space shuttle program—which was introduced as a reusable rocket system, a system that could be reusable, had some reusable parts, as opposed to the Apollo program, and very specialized parts that were incredibly expensive—the space shuttle program was billed as a cost saving measure. And at the start of the space shuttle program, it cost $85,000 to put a kilogram of material into orbit—low Earth orbit. At the end of the space shuttle program, it went down from $85,000 to $26,000 per kilogram, so cut in fourth. And that ended in 1995, so a little under 15 years to cut down by a factor of four. 15 years after that—around 20 years after that, around 2016 it cost $5,000 to send one kilogram into space, so down by a factor of five. And that was the last rocket that NASA really was involved in the development of, the Atlas V 551, and that was in 2016. $5,000 going a kilogram into space. The very next year, SpaceX came out with its Falcon 9 launch vehicle, which could send material to space, one year after the—the Atlas V had its peak performance, it was sending material into space for $2,000 a kilogram, so a little more than half the cost. And then in 2020, SpaceX debuted the Falcon Heavy, which is sending material to space for $1,000 a kilogram, a little under, actually. If you look at the trend, every 15 years or so it looks like costs decreased by a factor of five. Just back of the envelope calculation, it seems to be accelerating with the introduction of the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy by SpaceX. Whether or not that’s anything that matters, or is real at all, or just scientific advancements that have happened, it’s hard to say. But it hasn’t been all bad, that specifically the Falcon rockets and the SpaceX launch vehicles that they’ve made are pretty impressive. Regardless of what you think about the company and its profit motive, there has been some scientific advancements here that otherwise would have happened at NASA.
BZ: Now, as far as the launch vehicles, the actual physical technology that is—was used by NASA for three-four decades to—as the only space program in the United States, it wasn’t NASA itself that was building those vehicles. They were still contracting that out to companies like Northrop Grumman and Boeing, I’m sure, who’s actually doing the, you know, engineering, design, construction. And I know, I’m sure that there were many, many different companies that were part of that. And you know, I’m sure there were small companies in Arkansas that were building, you know, a gasket. And another small company somewhere in Maryland that was building one small booster ring part or whatever. Is kind of the nature of how government contracting works. It seems like a lot of those cost savings might be the result of bringing things under one roof, like vertical integration of the process.
NW: I absolutely agree that a lot of that in the profit of these companies, absolutely. But the statistics I’ve mentioned are like cost of fuel, so there has been a decrease in cost of fuel to launch to space.
JM: How much of that comes from developments in fuel technology? Like, how much has that changed?
NW: It’s hard to say. There’s a surprisingly deep fuel technology. There’s so many different fuels that they run in in rockets. The standard like liquid oxygen and hydrogen is very, very, uh, there’s a lot more exotic options out there. I’m not entirely sure–I’m out of date on what SpaceX is using—but a lot of it certainly has been fuel development. But I wouldn’t discount—use that as like a cudgel to discount what SpaceX has done, because if they’ve developed the rocket, they’ve almost certainly developed the fuel—a lot of the fuel technology used to propel it. So, it’s not like the government has done this sort of research and found out that this particular fuel is going to be the best for that rocket, that’s still stuff that SpaceX and Blue Origin and etc. have done largely in-house.
JM: Okay so the SpaceX’s Falcon 9 uses kerosene, which produces—I was looking this up in in relation to the climate impacts of space travel—so yeah the Falcon 9 uses kerosene, which produces carbon dioxide, and it produces that soot I was mentioning that kind of gets trapped in the upper atmosphere. Liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen are actually only able to be used for the like, very lightweight and like close Earth orbit vehicles. And then somebody proposed using methane, which sounds bad.
NW: Methane is probably on the low end of the badness scale. There’s a lot of incredibly carcinogenic rocket fuels that are essentially just incredibly dangerous oxidizing agents, because that’s what you need in a rocket fuel: just the most aggressive oxidizing agent you can possibly make, along with something that needs to be oxidized and has a high energy density. So no matter where you turn with fuel, though, it’s going to be disgusting for the environment. There is no electric rocket on the horizon. Even if there was, we’d know that would come with problems, too.
JM: And even the liquid oxygen, liquid hydrogen fuel—even though that doesn’t create carbon dioxide directly in its combustion, actually it’s very CO2 intensive to make liquid hydrogen.
NW: Yeah, you—essentially the easiest way to isolate liquid hydrogen is essentially from a—a coal plant. Like you you, you boil the coal and isolate hydrogen from hydrocarbons. Other ways are also incredibly energy intensive, like hydrolysis. There’s no—just because it doesn’t make CO2 doesn’t mean it’s not very intensive.
This comes back to, like I mentioned earlier, two camps: people who think it’s great that billionaires are going to space, because that furthers this fundamentally good goal of getting more interest in space, and scientists that think it’s bad that we have billionaires going to space, because space is a fundamentally good thing and they’re corrupting them. But both of those camps that I mentioned implies that space is fundamentally good. But there’s really just a not often discussed conversation that maybe we shouldn’t be that ready for space. Maybe it’s not something that we should be focusing and wasting all these resources on, particularly when you think about how incredibly inefficient rockets are. Should we be having this space tourism industry, and plans to colonize and do all these different things that—actually, take the scientific endeavors off the table. Let’s assume those are good for the briefest of moments, just for sake of argument. But let’s say you want to just have commerce in space, and you’re going to use it via rockets that pollute and damage the planet. There’s a serious argument that I can see that, even though there could be some quote unquote benefit from that, it should be held off on because it damages the planet. And we should really be focusing—rather than building up a rocket industry, which is fundamentally carbon—a fossil fuel industry on steroids, we should be doing research into materials to make other ways to get to space. Rail guns, space elevators are the dream sci-fi thing everyone hears about. There are, at least in theory, other ways to get to space that don’t involve the incredible energy inefficiencies of rockets.
For those of you who don’t know how bad rockets are, your car has a low enough efficiency already, your gas combustion car that’s pushing off of a solid. Jets and planes need to push air off of air to propel themselves instead of solids off of solids. Rockets not only need to go straight up, which is very very bad, but once they get into space, they need to literally create the atmosphere that they are pushing off of. Their exhaust becomes the very diffuse atmosphere that they are pushing off of and generating thrust from by throwing particles behind them. It’s very energy inefficient.
BZ: Oh, I’ve never thought about that. That’s wild.
NW: Yeah, there’s huge diminishing returns when you change mediums. Solids pushing off of solids are very efficient, that’s why we will always have cars and trains. Boats are less efficient, planes are much less efficient. Even if you skip over the fact that rockets are going straight up, which is not something anything other transportation does, they eventually have to be able to push off of vacuum.
There’s a huge worry I have about building a very robust rocket industry: that it will become powerful enough, and corporate enough, that when the next best thing comes around, like a space elevator, or people talk about magnetic cannons to launch vehicles into space, handling a lot of the thrust by essentially the maglev system they have on Japanese hyper trains—right, doing stuff like that on steroids—when the next best idea comes around and is available, because these private space launch industries exist for their own profit and not just to have the most efficient way to get into space, just like we’re seeing with fossil fuels now, they will fight against it. And previously you had NASA, which did not have any real profit motive to stand by rockets, rockets were just what they did because that was the tool that they had. But SpaceX will stand by rockets until Elon Musk becomes a dominant leader in the space elevator field, which he doesn’t seem to have any obvious interest in. Possibly strengthening the whole space race right now is a foolish thing to do. You can make an argument against that, which I think is really really cool, that “hey we’re pretty stupid for basing this whole process on Earth at all, and if we start the space race now and start mining and building bases in outer space, we don’t have to launch anything at all. We can have an endless supply of materials right there already in space. We don’t have to spend all the energy to get it up into orbit, and we’re really ready to do that.” That would be the counter to my argument that we should wait until we can space elevator.
JM: Right, because there’s a lot less gravitational pull and atmosphere to cause friction, launching off of the moon. If you could set up a base up there to say, go to Mars, would be a lot less intensive in the initial launch phase than launching off of the Earth.
NW: Oh yeah. Or if you already have a spaceport in orbit, right, think of a city essentially in orbit around the Earth. That people’s whole job is to wrangle asteroids and bring them into this processing facility, where eventually they become the metals that become spaceships. They all are fundamentally in space. They never have to worry about orbit. And because they’ve been made in space, they don’t even have to look like the rockets we see nowadays. They can be much more sci-fi, because they don’t have to deal with atmosphere and aerodynamics and that sort of stuff. So there’s a huge benefit to being able to do it—have spaceports entirely in space, The only argument is: do we want to wait for something like a space elevator, a sane way to get to space without burning hundreds of thousands of kilograms of fuel to get there, or do we want to build the infrastructure for ourselves now? And I think a lot of the people who claim to be pro “everything space right now” sort of hide behind the idea that, “no no no we—this is the right step towards building the infrastructure, space tourism is the right step towards building the infrastructure.”
JM: Yeah, I mean, that I’m a little bit suspicious of. I don’t see how rich people taking joy rides to space—if we say for a moment that like the goal is to have these like spaceports that will make it a lot easier to get around without the hindrance of the Earth’s gravity and atmosphere—I don’t see how like people paying millions of dollars to like, go to space for an hour and a half is going to like lead towards that. Which is, I think, where the profit motive of this, these companies is coming from, because like people just paying to like take a joy ride this space is almost pure profit. You just—
BZ: Well you just answered your own question. I mean, that is that is capitalist logic 101. You can make a profit off of joy ride–it’s not pure profit, because the cost of the fuel, and everybody that you have to employ to make the launch successful, assuming that you’re able to recover the vehicle. Yeah, it’s definitely not pure profit, but you know capitalist logic 101 is: if we can make this profitable as a business, we can use the profits to reinvest into the company for the next project, which might be actually having a corporately owned space station that you go to. And now you are actually not just taking a joy ride, but you actually go on a vacation in space. From there, you start, you know, possibly having people living there longer term, possibly having people working there, you know, entertainment sectors or whatever. But also potentially starting to develop infrastructure that would be potentially corporately owned to do some of the things Nick’s talking about: actual manufacturing in space, for example.
NW: And a quick aside, there’s—back when—the many, many times when NASA was seeking funding and recognition and a little bit more of a kickback from the government, I’m not sure if anything like this actually happened, but there was always talk about NASA keeping itself afloat by offering private joy rides for a certain kickback to the agency. Kind of like how some countries will give you a hunting license to hunt a very rare and impressive animal with the understanding that that incredibly high license cost goes back to doing some conserve—conservation good. I don’t entirely think the idea of joy rides to space has to be evil and bad, but it’s certainly sacrificing the environment for some monetary gain, which is very hard to trust in the hands of a random corporation that’s goal is profit. At least with NASA, their goal was funding the next scientific mission, which is a little more tangible than “we just need to kick back to our investors.”
JM: Can we talk about some of the potential issues with like, having all this infrastructure in space be corporately owned? If that’s the trend away from like government entities and towards private corporations owning these like hypothetical spaceports and stuff.
BZ: Sure. Also, before we get there, I just want to point out: it is significantly, like, as much as you know maybe SpaceX is making, you know, technological advancements, which is making the cost of launching into space cheaper so that it is now cheaper to make more launches—which you know, side note, also causes more carbon emissions and other pollutants—it is also less efficient overall to have a profit driven project that is dependent on these various phases, in which “oh first we have joy rides, so now we’re making rocket launches purely for joy rides” in order to create a profit to go on to the next step of the project, which would be whatever, building a base or whatever. And then there has to be rocket launches just to get people up to the base to make that profitable etc. So like there are—it is significantly less efficient than a state sponsored project such as like a NASA project to just say “hey we want to just build a base in space,” and they just have to go get the funding and then they carry it out. They don’t have to go through these different steps and make a profit at every step. And extra launches along the way in order to in order to make a profit.
NW: A good example of that—maybe not lost profit, but sort of what we lose with all this contracting out besides profit is–I’m not sure if you heard, but a couple years back NASA announced a mission to the moon with the goal of eventually having a long-term moon base there, I believe was the idea. I remember hearing something along the lines of, it will take them, just planning the mission, 10 to 15 years to get there, for a country that visited the moon with some regularity up until the 80s, I think it was, and then decided to stop, because there wasn’t any scientific reason to go there anymore, we thought. It’s going to now take us 10 years of planning to build the sorts of launch vehicles and systems to get us back there, just because SpaceX has gotten really, really good at doing some heavy lifting of satellites into near or mid-Earth orbit. We’ve lost a massive amount of the expertise because there’s been no monetary reason to build launch vehicles like this that are capable of going to Earth. Up until recently SpaceX hasn’t developed that. There’s no replacement for the Saturn V; there’s going to be, but SpaceX wasn’t planning that until recently because they’re only just now became an incentive to do it.
BZ: Which is really SpaceX competing with Boeing. Like it’s actually still a corporation that is behind the launch vehicle that NASA uses, that is contracted out by the government.
NW: Of course.
BZ: Which is not me saying that, you know, it comes out in the wash and then everything’s okay. It’s me saying actually, this has been going on for a long time. It’s just that SpaceX is sort of playing this disruptor role in the aerospace technology market, which has been more or less captured by a handful of corporations that were already deeply embedded in the military industrial complex of the United States. And now they are competing with the likes of the Boeings and the Raytheons and the Northrop Grummans to potentially also get US government contracts for their vehicles.
NW: So let’s play some devil’s advocate. Is it good that SpaceX is disrupting the market with the methods that they find, because they’re driving costs down?
JM: I mean, I think for me the issue comes in that like, SpaceX is not behaving exactly like a Boeing, in that Boeing like, made the vehicles under government contract and was making a profit off of that, but they then didn’t really have control over what happened after that. Then the rocket was being used for a government-funded research mission, right? With SpaceX, the entire thing is profit driven, not just the production of the rocket for use by some governmental entity, but also the travel to space is driven by profit, and what you can get from space is driven by profit, and not by the well-being of people or like scientific pursuits.
BZ: I don’t know that the difference is specifically that they’re driven by profit, so much as that SpaceX seems to have ambitions other than just fulfilling government contracts. Like, they are specifically, it seems, seeking to carve out a little corporate niche for themselves in space, like carve out a portion of space that would be the SpaceX space station, or the SpaceX—
JM: Like that—yes, that’s what I meant stated more eloquently. That it’s not just that they’re making a profit off of the government contracts, they are then like, going to go own something in space that they can continue—
NW: Which gets all the way back to our 1967 space treaty, which claims—at least way back in the 60s where they weren’t thinking long term about satellites and orbits and space real estate—that this is not supposed to be militarized and colonized, and we’ve sort of ignored it. I think for real good reason, as we’ve recognized that there’s a limited amount of space you can put reasonable satellites. We certainly have plenty of room, but every satellite you orbit makes it harder to fit another satellite up there because of space debris, and just physically there’s a higher chance you will run into a satellite if you don’t plan your launch carefully.
BZ: Right, weren’t you also bringing up having more objects orbiting the Earth also makes it harder to leave Earth’s atmosphere on future occasions, because now there are more things in your trajectory that you could crash into and cause a catastrophic—
NW: And it’s a—as far as I’m aware—an exponential problem. Not just because the more objects you put up, the more satellites there are that you have to prepare and avoid—but let’s say a satellite, due to some accident, is hit by a meteor and now you’ve got debris traveling around space in unpredictable patterns. The more satellites you have up there, the more likelihood that that one explosion is going to result in more destroyed and off-course satellites, and there becomes a point where you reach a critical density where it is actually dangerous to have a certain amount of satellites up there, because they could propagate and destroy all of them, or destroy a significant number of these satellites and create a debris cloud that you actually cannot predict worth a damn when you’re trying to send a rocket into space. It’s not just a linear “we have this much space, we can’t fill it up,” it’s “every satellite we put up increases the risk of putting up the next one.”
BZ: So one of the potential downsides of a corporately claimed space would be that they can theoretically potentially bypass some of these existing norms and treaties about purchasing real estate in space for the trajectory of your satellite? And then, if it’s profit driven, I mean I could like—I could foresee like—I could like come up with like a Black Mirror episode where, you know, everybody has their own personal satellite out in space, because you know obviously they need the fastest possible satellite like Wi-Fi connection like, no matter where they are in the world. There’s an incentive that seems potentially limitless to have more and more and more space objects. If it’s purely driven by profit, might just expand without limit.
JM: There’s a short-term incentive to go like “well, we can put all this stuff here so we’re going to put as much stuff as we can, because more stuff is more profit,” but that’s ignoring, is putting the short-term interests ahead of the long-term consideration of like, one catastrophic event will set off this whole like escalating domino effect of space debris.
NW: Corporations are wont to follow their highest profit margins, and in a world where there aren’t strong restrictions stopping them, they just get away with it. We’re sort of realizing, as we started out in this episode, that there’s a really strong document that people respect and are not going to do away with, that could be argued for: “hey you can’t do any of this stuff that is probably not in the best interest of humanity.” And we’re probably at a tipping point as a global community, where we’re going to have to decide what that original 1967 document means, how we’re going to interpret it, and how do you think we should interpret it?
JM: There was an article that I found in in doing research for this that was about establishing an institutional framework for this new era of space travel and interest in space. And I don’t necessarily agree with everything that the author says in this manuscript, entitled Institutional Framework for the Province of All Mankind: Lessons from the International Seabed Authority for the Governance of Commercial Space Mining. And basically it’s saying we actually have a globalinstitution called the International Seabed Authority that governs the use, exploration, andextraction of resources from like the deep sea floor, which is kind of a similar—analogous to space in that it’s not owned by any nation, or it’s not like under the jurisdiction of any nation, and it’s kind of—it has extreme scientific value, and it’s not really–it’s still like very unexplored.
BZ: And also has huge risks that are potentially impacting many, many people, or like the entire planet: oil drilling, deep sea waters potentially causing oil spills, because it has increasing risk and difficulty the deeper you drill.
JM: Yeah, which touches on the other thing I was about to mention, is that it’s all of these things but it’s also rich in resources that corporations understandably want to extract for profit. And like this again is not perfect, and I don’t agree with everything in the article, but there were some interesting points laid out, which was that it set up regulation in phases, where the initial exploration of an area of space or the seabed floor is not exclusive—like multiple interests, be they like governmental agencies or corporations or whatever, can be exploring the seafloor or an area of space at a time. And then the second phase was like applying for an exclusive contract once they had identified an area of interest. But they have to identify actually two equivalent areas of interest, and one of them gets set aside. And the reason that one of them gets set aside is because there is a concern about like developing countries that don’t currently have the technology to like go to the seafloor or go up into space, and that like they would kind of get shut out of this endeavor because they don’t currently have the capability. So like, one of these two areas that Agency A finds would be for them to do with whatever they want—I mean not whatever they want, but like going to do something with—and the other one would get set aside for like developing countries to apply for a grant to go explore, or like set aside for the future.
And then another stipulation was like special considerations for areas of like particular scientific value. So one thing that was mentioned for space is that the dark side of the moon is of particular scientific value because it’s the only place in the solar system that’s radio silent. It’s completely shielded from the radio emissions that are coming from Earth because it’s on the other side of the moon. For example, like ideally like the far side of the moon would be protected for like radio astronomy—scientific reasons, because if you set up a bunch of corporations over on that side of the moon, all of a sudden it’s not radio silent anymore.
I guess that’s sort of taking a more quote unquote realist perspective that probably corporations are going to continue wanting to invest in space and so, if they’re going to do that we ought to have some kind of framework in place. Personally, I think that like it’s still a terrible idea to have corporations be in space at all. But I thought it was an interesting framework to model it after how they’re governing the use of like the deep sea floor.
NW: Another thing I’ve heard—I saw in the article you’re mentioning—is that they have plans, I don’t think they have any contracts in the second contracting phase yet, where first you discover an area, you set aside one of the two, and then you apply for a contract to use the one area you get to keep, and you ask the organization for terms and how you get to use it and that sort of thing. And the profit that the organization makes, they have plans to share equitably with essentially the global community. This is all arbitrary and up in the air, but it’s really an interesting framework for, “we’re trying to profit share as much as possible.” I was kind of surprised that something like this existed. They haven’t created any contracts yet, but just the goal of it sounds very very interesting. And from what I’ve heard, they’ve gotten some real serious like, kickback about the idea of doing this profit sharing already. Like, they think because deep sea mining is such a new field, they should be full on give all the profit back to the corporations so you can foster even more development in the sector, which is always an argument people are going to say.
JM: Right. A corporation is never going to say, “Oh, we have enough money, we don’t need any more of that money.” But I think it’s great that, to the extent that this Seabed Authority can, that they’re trying to mitigate that.
BZ: I wanted to talk about the symbolic move that happens politically when we are choosing to privatize space travel and militarize space travel, the use of space. Because I guess the impression that I got, the understanding of the history that I learned, at least as a teenager, about you know the space race and international treaties governing space, and the establishment of the international space station, was that it was—there was certainly a lot of like nationalistic competition involved, but I guess it was framed sort of like the Olympics where it’s kind of a friendly competition, and at the end of the day, the idea of humans leaving our planet, going to space, discovering the mystery space has to unfurl to us, and potentially even, you know, all the science fiction fantasies of meeting other terrestrial, you know, sentient life forms or leaving our solar system, etc. Like, there’s this great sense of unification of human purpose and ambition that is greater than national borders or identities, and we are transcending those differences in order to like further our scientific understanding and our progress as a species.
It seems really like, unfortunately apropos of like, 2019-2020 to be abandoning these like globalist ideals in favor of like corporations now being the primary drivers of like space travel, or militaries being the primary drivers of, you know, the use of space. Injecting a lot more like privatization and like competition, drive for profit over knowledge or well-being or progress into this. I don’t know, it seems to me like it is very cynical and very—and I guess that is kind of the camp that you’re referring to earlier Nick, of like the people who have this like idealistic version of space that is supposed to be for like the greater good of all humanity etc.
I mean, I think even as like an interesting little example of this, the United States Space Force chose a symbol that is strangely reminiscent of the Star Trek Starfleet Command symbol. To me it just says America first, and like America is going to, I don’t know, perhaps lead the world in the next age of space exploration and travel, and it’s going to be the power that subsumes the rest of the planet to become the United Federation of Planets. [Laughter] To me, for like one country to kind of project that sort of dominance over the ideals of like space travel, it seems selfish, short-sighted. The idea of just kind of abandoning existing international treaties and norms in favor of national and private interests is really—seems like a step back in a—I guess in a symbolic or idealistic way, but you know, also in a legal in a material way.
NW: I agree profoundly. I would say that like the space race the real space race of the Cold War was militaristic, even if it was never weapons and lasers and overt breaking of the space treaty in space. Even if it wasn’t overtly militaristic, it was military driven. But there was always this understanding, this veneer. It was seen as both a political cudgel, obviously, but also a step forward for humanity, the chance to step out into the stars and be something bigger. And it was seen as something really pure because it was being handled with great gravity by these massive organizations that at least could claim that they were working for the best of their people. And I feel like sending Elon Musk’s Tesla into orbit, that’s something that’s going to be in orbit forever now, something that’s obviously a craven marketing strategy that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to pull off and noticeably polluted our planet to do—just to put a Tesla in orbit for the rest of time, or however many years it takes for it to de-orbit: very very long time. That’s so obviously just the machinations of someone who loves his own brand and is trying to be a capitalist. There’s no way you can look at a Tesla in space and think “Wow, this is momentous as sending Sputnik up, or even sending our regular everyday satellites, or hell a mission to Mars or a mission to the moon.” You look at that and it serves literally no purpose. It’s a car in space. It’s an ego project. And as we have the possibility for space to become ego projects, to become tourism, it really mines out the ground from underneath the promise that space is a somber, bigger moment than us.
I mean, think about all the people who were asking Jeff Bezos, when he came back down, if he had the “pale blue dot effect,” if he had been changed and like, believed in humanity now, and wasn’t going to grind people up in his factories, and he sort of responded with like “that was cool, it definitely it touched me, you know it touched me a lot. Yeah, no no, it was the most profound part of my life.” He sort of fell into this like pattern of “yeah I’m supposed to be lying about how this made me feel,” when it was just an ego trip for him in the way that an astronaut who trained for this, a scientist who went up for this won’t approach space. And do we want to have those eyes coloring and controlling what space is, not just for them but for everyone on this planet? For the future?
JM: No, I think it’s really telling. So in the article I mentioned about using the International Seabed Authority as a framework, the author mentioned that one of the phrases in the aforementioned Moon Agreement that hasn’t really been taken up by very many of the major players on the world stage—one of the phrases in it that people seem to have a lot of opposition to was the phrase: “the common heritage of mankind,” to refer to space. Which is referring to exactly what you, Brendan, were talking about with space being this thing that’s bigger than corporations or individual countries, that’s kind of this aspiration of humanity as a whole. There was objection to the phrase the common heritage of mankind because it—people felt that it epitomized a “communist ideology.”
BZ: What year was this Moon Treaty?
BZ: So still very much height of the Cold War.
JM: Yes. Still like, I mean there still, there would have been potentially like opposition because you know “Soviet Union, communist,” but that it still has not been ratified by major players since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, I think speaks a lot to how people are viewing space as a potential for corporate interest, and that it’s sort of only a matter of time, and that it’s not in fact going to be the common heritage of mankind, but something that’s divvied up among corporations and then sold back to people for a profit.
BZ: Yeah, I wonder if there is a progression whereby capitalist interests stake claims, divvy up, and start, you know, monetizing space closer into Earth that are, you know, increasingly within the grasp of their rockets and their satellites and etc. You know it’s the next—is that sort of just a natural progression of late stage capitalism? And is there any sort of you know, hope, I suppose for an internationalist, globalist you know, optimistic, idealistic mission to Mars that like transcends, you know, corporate interests and unites humanity? Or you know, is the is there like a next stage of space that is more inaccessible that like you know, maybe we symbolically like hope for you know, uniting around? Is the mystique of space like sullied and we are no longer kind of like in awe of it and now it is just like up for—all of it is just up for grabs? Like have we like just turned a point in human history where we’re just sort of like on a trajectory towards dystopian corporate space science fiction novel?
JM: I’ve not been super optimistic lately, but I think that that’s why it’s important for people to pay more attention to the trends in the corporatization of space beyond the big news stories about like Elon Musk going to space or whatever. I think that’s why it’s important to pay attention to as a trend in global politics, because even though it’s not something that’s impacting people as directly right now, it will be very difficult to stop once corporations establish their like, their own bases in space, once they establish bases on the moon, once they start like doing all these things it’d be very difficult to like say, “No here’s the line in the sand.” There will just—like that’s the nature of corporations is to continue to grab for more and more and more. And I mean it’s already starting, so it’s already difficult to stop, but it’s one of the things where I feel like this is something that like, to actually take a stand early enough and prevent the progression into this kind of dystopian—the dystopian future kind of novel where space is divvied up between corporations and everybody’s fighting.
BZ: As you’re saying that, it’s occurring to me that I’m having some trouble conceptualizing what there is to lose by allowing this new trend in corporate and military control of space to like continue. I think that there’s a lot more that we lose than we’ve been able to like enumerate here, and I think a good example of that is you know, what you said, Jamie, about the you know, radio silence on the dark side of the moon. You know I am someone who’s never done a ton of research into kind of space and astronomy and stuff other than just kind of the pop science, the very basic pop science of it, so I don’t really know what sort of scientific opportunities we would be losing out on by like beginning to like pollute space in a way. Ultimately from this conversation I’m hearing that like I want to hear more smart people talking about lines in the sand we should be drawing in space in like our—in our political movements, as we are conceptualizing like what demands we’d be making on governments to preserve the common space—the “commons of space,” if you will.
JM: Yeah absolutely. Something else from the article that I keep mentioning that kind of alarmed me, actually was framed as like corporations having a sustainability interest in extracting resources from space, in that said resources could be used to better people’s lives on Earth. But the thing that concerns me about that—so one of the things that was mentioned was like harvesting the water that is on the moon and in asteroids, to harvest the water there as a source of fresh water for Earth potentially, like as such sources become more and more scarce. And I mean that scares me for a number of reasons, because you could have SpaceX selling you moon water. [Laughter] That seems bad, as opposed to trying to protect water sources here on Earth, and keep them as public goods.
NW: Not to mention it’s huge energy expenses for any of this sort of mining, asteroid mining is insane. And you also add an even bigger expense if you aren’t just going to keep those resources in orbit for sustaining orbital colonies, but if you want to deorbit those resources, that takes energy. You don’t just say to your rockets that your—or your satellite that has the 10 million gallons of water in it: “okay I’m done orbiting now.” You have to burn a rocket retrograde to slow yourself down, assuming you don’t have a space elevator or something like that, right? You need to burn fuel to deorbit this material, and then spend a lot of energy making sure it doesn’t go kersplat where you collect it. To imagine a world where we’re doing space mining, saying we’re going to help the planet with these resources we mine is kind of idealistic. If we do space mining, the way any profit driven corporation would eventually take it as soon as they could was to keep those resources in orbit, in a local location where they have complete control over them, and they never go back to Earth. Earth comes to them. Maybe I’m thinking incorrectly here, but I am really skeptical of any long-term solution that brings resources to the surface of the planet from space.
JM: Yeah, and the article was also talking about setting up that kind of like, in situ economy in space, where the resources extracted stay there in some kind of space base—SpaceX space base—so I guess even supposing that like that water and those minerals are used for an economy in space and not brought back down to Earth, I think you run the risk of, if corporations dominate space, then you might just end up with corporate towns but in space, where corporations can basically just charge whoever they have working and living up there whatever amount of money that they want to. And it’s even worse because you’re in space, you don’t really have a really easy way to go back to Earth.
NW: But I don’t think that’s a goal any corporation is working with, “we’re going to create these workers towns with our new space society,” I think their goal is just to monopolize space and maybe—
JM: Doesn’t that come with the territory? You have to have workers if you’re going to have space economies.
NW: Sure, sure, I agree, I just don’t think that like the thing to worry about here that Jeff Bezos is rubbing his hands and thinking about every night is, “I’m going to create corporate towns in space.” He makes—he can do that on Earth. I think the interesting thing for most of these companies is, maybe the corporate towns will come later, but “I’m going to monopolize space, I’m going to make this new market that I’m in control of.” They’re more worried about the market than what happens to the labor force they exert for some—
BZ: So I think we kind of brushed over Space Force earlier with, you know, saying “oh you know I don’t think they’re really doing much.” But actually, there’s a lot going on with Space Force. They were authorized a budget in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, it was officially established as the sixth armed service branch, and they are eventually going to have a, you know, general—four star general on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I did not know this until doing some reading today, that there was already existing an Air Force Space Command that’s been, you know, in existence since the Cold War, and parallel to a Russian and a Chinese equivalent militarized force that dealt with space, mostly in the form of—as far as I understand it, mostly these folks dealt with having like satellites that were assisting in other forms of engagements and operations, and people to like guard their space capabilities to like launch these satellites, etc.
NW: Also ICBMs [Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles].
BZ: Apparently, there were 16,000 active duty and civilian personnel that were transferred from the Air Force Space Command to Space Force. So they already have like tens of thousands of employees. I checked Space Force’s website and they have 146 active job listings. They have six different bases: three in Colorado, two in California, and one in Florida. You cannot enlist as a Space Force member yet, although there is a waiting list that you can join, or a newsletter to get updates, which is interestingly under an air force website. Like, it seems like there’s still kind of a blurry line between Air Force and Space Force as they’re establishing them as an independent organization. I did see an article saying that they’re hoping to, I guess, be fully functional as an independent branch of the military within 18 months. In September 2020 there was a memorandum of understanding signed between Space Force and NASA formally acknowledging the joint role of both agencies, replacing a 2006 document that had a similar nature of understanding between NASA and the Air Force Space Command. And Space Force has already been part of a military engagement: in 2020 it was part of an early warning system regarding the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force missile strikes that hit Al-Asad airbase. Currently, Space Force administers GPS, like GPS as we know it on our phones is actually a military—US military tool that is made available to the world/public, somewhat similar to the internet, I suppose, is actually a US military installation. But GPS is apparently under the auspices of Space Force now. Military satellite communication systems, US missile warning system, US space surveillance network, satellite control network, they do have a Boeing orbital test vehicle, which is a reusable robotic spacecraft. So, Space Force is doing shit.
NW: Obviously take them seriously, but it’s hard to see them as a serious influencing force in the space community right now. Obviously they are going to bring a militaristic aspect to it, but I don’t see anything they’re doing is fundamentally new yet. I don’t think anyone who has heard about Space Force has thought, “oh that’s a new thing they’re doing,” or something like that. I think they’re just changing stuff that was always done under the Air Force Strategic Command—Space Command—putting it under its own branch with the intention of growing and becoming worse and scarier. But I don’t see any of their acts right now as being relevant to the larger space community.
JM: Well I mean, I don’t think it’s something that we should sleep on or discount. It becoming its own branch, like you said, is an intention to grow, and an intention to potentially do things that would violate the non-militarization of space. It also probably entails a justification for increased military spending, which is problematic in terms of how we’re just generally spending money on things in the United States.
BZ: I don’t know that it’s done anything new per se. As of—they have a 2022 authorized budget of 18 billion dollars. You know they are certainly playing a major role, though. I mean they’re already administering like the GPS service, and they are already involved in, I guess administering US military satellites, that’s already a very significant military role, even if they’re not specifically weaponized satellites as far as we know. They certainly have a major geopolitical role already, even if they’re not specifically doing anything in terms of like, armed hot warfare in space at the moment.
NW: I think the Space Force, the creation and official designation of it, assuming we have a government that’s trying to get as much space warfare done under the rug without telling us about it—I think Space Force was a governmental mistake to announce, because I think all the stuff that Space Force is doing now, and is going to do for next significant number of years, could have/already was being done under the Air Force Space Command. I don’t see Space Force, like the designation of the new branch, as anything that couldn’t have happened, just under the Air Force. For that end, assuming an antagonistic government, I think they made a mistake popularizing and bringing about this Space Force concept. And I think the left, who is against this militarization of space, and the right and anyone who’s against militarization of space, should really pounce on that bad PR, that we now have a very funny concept called Space Force in our heads, that we know is kind of bad, that we can, we can attack. And I think we should use it to say, “hey, we want to seriously limit the scope of this branch of the military, and make it fundamentally committed to not expanding and not putting weapons in that cool place where Buzz Aldrin went.”
BZ: It definitely felt at the time that it was announced like a, you know, Trump move to you know, rattle a saber a little bit and show that we were beating China and Russia, even though China and Russia have already, you know parallel branches of their air forces or independent branches of their military that are akin to a Space Force. It definitely, it felt like a PR move on that front. The impression I’ve had is that the US population is either on the like liberal side of things, kind of just dismissive and like, guffaws at the idea, but doesn’t actually pay much particular attention to what Space Force is or does, and that people—people who are already interested in like military affairs, and you know this is not just people who are in the military, but also like young people who are into like first person shooter games, you know people who are like impressionable, who are coming up right now, who are hearing that like you know Space Force is actually in some ways seems like a promising avenue towards a way to be in the military and also be an astronaut, potentially. Like it seems like it might even like democratize the idea of like becoming an astronaut. You don’t just–it’s not just like 10 people, but like possibly hundreds, thousands of like—you know like there’s a, I think, as a PR move, it seems to me it was pretty successful at energizing a sector of the US population who are excited about a new frontier of war, of combat, of like a new military organization that’s kind of combining some of their interests. I don’t agree that it was a PR blunder, I think it actually worked the way it was supposed to, and because of that, all the more reason that people who are concerned about space being militarized, and space being a frontier of escalating cold or hot war, that they should be closely monitoring what Space Force does and critical and limiting its capacities, its budget.
NW: I was real curious for everyone’s opinion on like, just in general, what the purpose of space should be for humanity? Like, do you see our future as a species as a space faring conglomerate nation, coalition of planets, coalition of solar systems that branches out to the Milky Way? Or is that in itself like something that is glamorized a lot by Star Trek and everything? But like, but like something that fundamentally is like exploitative, and capitalist, and maybe bad, and maybe the future of humanity is colonizing the solar system and staying there, never branching out farther.
JM: I would be lying if I said I didn’t get very invested in the idea of space as part of humanity, as quote unquote destiny, or something that could be used for the common good. There is a really great book, or series of books, for people who haven’t read them by Octavia Butler called The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents, and one of the sort of central ideas of the book is that like humanity is going to take root among the stars, and that’s sort of like our destiny, where we’re headed, to put it in like those kinds of terms. I mean I think scientifically there’s quite a lot to be gained from being able to branch out farther into space, from knowing more about the universe and our place in it, to potentially discovering other life, to potentially discovering—discovering other Earth like planets. I mean in a very very very long term, Earth will eventually become uninhabitable. Who knows if there will be humanity by that point, but like I personally do ascribe to the idea that like if it can be done non-exploitatively and non—like not in a colonialist or capitalist manner, I like the idea of it. I think in a very near term, I do very much think that we ought to continue exploring space for like purely scientific purposes, for discovery of new planets, or discovery of new things about planets in our solar system that we didn’t know, sending out satellites to the gas giants and to the moons orbiting the gas giants and all that kind of stuff. In the near term, that’s sort of the interest in what I think that our investment so to speak in space ought to be.
BZ: Cosmologically I think there’s something special about life, as opposed to inorganic, inert, chemical you know compositions, and that something appeals to me about the idea of, if there were places that could support life that don’t already have existing forms of life, either, I don’t know, preserving them for the possibility of the development of like completely new alternative forms of life, or possibly seeding them with like a biodiverse biosphere of life. Both of those ideas are kind of like interesting intriguing to me, and I think that humans certainly will have a role in that. I’m personally invested in like humanity taking a broader view of like life, and maybe not seeing itself as a dominant species on the planet, but part of a much broader like ecosystem, and a web of life. And I don’t know what that means in terms of like space travel specifically, but certainly I am concerned about the idea of like investing a ton of resources into space travel at the expense of like accelerating the collapse of Earth as a habitable biosphere. And I’m definitely ideologically, politically opposed to what I think is a trend in some circles of super wealthy people to see Earth as uninhabitable sooner rather than later, and therefore sort of accelerating space travel because they’re looking for an out for themselves, or like a limited number of people, to sort of be a, you know, sort of this nihilistic view on Earth and the current trajectory with climate change etc., that perhaps they can like put themselves on an arc to another planet. I’m very suspicious of space for the few, and if we’re going to go to space, I say space for the many, and that means like biodiverse many, not just human many. But like—and that means also respecting, I guess developing an analysis of the—political analysis of colonialism that’s not just human political colonialism, but like starting to think about like ecological colonialism. What are the impacts of like seeding life on a planet? Are we cutting off the possibility of a completely different kind of biodiversity arising on that planet if we’re seeding Terran life on that planet? So I think that there’s a lot of like exciting ideas there.
BZ: When I was younger and first thinking about space travel, I thought that the only future for humanity was spreading out to the solar system, and then there’d be a great barrier there where eventually there would be a transition out to the nearest solar system outside of our own, and then an inevitable colonization in the most brutal wild western sense, of the entirety of the galaxy if it was possible. I think those sorts of stories are really important to humanity, particularly humanity right now. We love our stories of, no matter what happens we are manifest destiny, and we find a way out of the shitty situation with our star that’s going to blow up in five billion years, or something else that’s going wrong, we will eventually find a path forward. And it might come with tragic, romantic losses like the loss of our home planet but humanity is bigger than that, and it will continue on. And I think those stories are incredibly important. But for the long term fate of something like humanity, it’s really hard not to get existential for me now, and to think, “do we have a claim to places beyond our solar system, and is it good to have a story that never ends?” Or is it always going to end up leading back to these sorts of wild west moments, where exploitation is maybe not unavoidable, but certainly easier to experience than to not experience. So more recent years I’ve really thought about the idea of humanity expanding to its solar system, claiming what we know does not have life on it for its own, maybe terraforming, maybe not terraforming, but finding a end to its story and becoming comfortable as a civilization with the idea that there is an end, as opposed to a permanent next location to expand out into, to keep railing against the dying of light. I think it’s really beautiful to have ends to stories.
JM: On that poetic note I think we’re going to wrap up this rather impromptu conversation about space, and space politics, and our place in it. We’ve been talking with Nick Wolslegel, who was on the fourth episode of In Plain English, and who does cool engineering things, and also with Brendan Ziebarth, who was on the very first episode, and is about to be a super awesome nurse. So thank you both for joining me for this very fun and kind of existential conversation.
BZ: Thanks for having us!
JM: You can find the sources referenced in this episode on my website at inplainenglishpod.org. You can also follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at plainenglishsci, that’s p-l-a-i-n-e-n-g-l-i-s-h-s-c-i. Make sure to subscribe to In Plain English on Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcast so that you never miss an episode, and you can become a supporter of this podcast on Patreon. Thanks again for listening, and tune in next month for another episode of In Plain English. [Outro music]