The Death of Outer Space Dreams: Hard Decisions and a War of Utopian Demands

By Savannah Mandel

Sometimes we have to make tough decisions as adults. That’s what I’m learning as I enter my mid-twenties. Maybe you’re debating between becoming a vegetarian so as not to support cruel and capitalist meat industries and savoring exotic cuisines sourced from god-only-knows-where. Maybe you’re deciding whether to pay off your ever-growing credit card debt or to take a vacation to Milan. Maybe the decision is less material and far more heartbreaking – maybe you’re debating whether to get married or have a child or get a divorce or forgive yourself for mistakes long past.

I’ve been facing one of those heartbreaking decisions recently; the one to leave Earth.

This is a utopian vision of course, a far-off reality, shrouded in speculation and conjecture. I haven’t actually been asked to leave Earth. But this is a utopian vision I encountered regularly throughout my time conducting ethnographic research in the space industry – a daydream shared by many. Kathi Weeks argues that utopian demands—such as a better world in outer space—are effective for advancing critical thinking, inspiring political imagination and inciting collective action (Weeks 2011). And indeed, this vision of leaving the Earth, part science fiction and part science reality, is powerful enough to propel an industry of commercial space entrepreneurs forward. Billions of dollars are being invested toward the perpetuation of human space exploration and for a variety of reasons (Highfill 2019). Resource acquisition. Medical research. Exploration. Colonization. To find “plan B”. To ensure the future of humankind.

Diagram of the Lunar Gateway showing all international partners and their contributions. Credit: European Space Agency

In this way, this utopian demand of human civilization extended into outer space, functions as a tool. A tool which is convincing enough to sponsor massive investment.

But in tandem with this Utopian demand I see another imperative.

The demand to stay.

This alternative vision of humanity focusing its attentions on Earth flows from the mouths of those I refer to as caretakers – those individuals who seek out the restoration of the planet our species was designed for (whether by deity or evolution). This vision argues that the money spent on advancing human space exploration might be better spent breathing life back into planet Earth.

I can’t deny that coming to terms with the prospect of staying home, on Planet Earth, is hard. The startling idea that human space exploration might not be the best decision for mankind destroys the part of me that yearns for voyages into the unknown. A restlessness creeps in, not unlike a restlessness I’ve felt through the COVID-19 quarantine. As someone who has researched the space industry for several years now, who has engaged deeply with futurist ideals related to the speculative and the imaginary, and as someone who intensely loves the legacy of science fiction, I struggle with letting go of some of these more transcendental dreams, just like anyone else. Specifically, letting go of visions of human civilizations sprouting up on far-off planets and moons.  And I recognize that a fallout will occur when I finally make my decision one way or another. If I side with Utopian demand number two – the caretaker’s demand that asks us not to explore the unknown but to focus our attentions on the problems here on our home planet—there goes my prospects of working in the space industry, there goes my LinkedIn network. If my fieldwork taught me anything, it was that admitting such a thing to the individuals that make up the space industry, is reason enough for exile.

Once before, I saw this alienation and approbation happen to another person – a young woman from the local University. She, an emblem of the younger generations, was invited to speak at an exclusive seminar that I was attending. She stood amidst private and public space industry elites, faced us with shoulders squared, and told us why we shouldn’t go to space. She explain how irresponsible it was, when there were so many issues here on Earth. Nobody clapped at the end of her commentary, and later after she left there was quiet condescension over the coffee table. A conversation about her naiveté and lack of passion for the cause. She would never make it they said. Not in this industry.

But we have to make tough decisions as adults, don’t we? And the decision to leave Earth is one our entire civilization is facing as we get closer and closer to the goals shared by so many commercial space companies and government space organizations. The goals to colonize or explore. To conduct microgravity research and mine resources off the surfaces of asteroids.  

It breaks my heart, it really does, but I find that the farther I step toward that vast inky blackness of outer space, the more I research space science as an anthropologist, and the more I read science fiction, the more I find myself… looking back.

Here I’m prompted to revisit a novel by Kim Stanley Robinson (one of my favorites), known as Aurora. (Spoilers incoming). Aurora tells the tale of a starship headed toward the farthest regions of space. A starship whose residents will live and die for three generations before reaching its destination – a potentially habitable planet. In the book, this is their Plan B. The next step. A new home. The first generation of starship residents is hand-picked. They are extraordinarily intelligent, multi-skilled, and desperate to go on this adventure. They are the cream of the crop, chosen from millions of applicants. Their children (the second generation) are reflections of their parents—they understand the mission and for the honor of the first generation, hope to achieve it. But… they were not handpicked and they’ve fallen prey to that damned thing we call genetics. Despite their dedication to the mission, they are not necessarily the smartest. They’re not necessarily multi-skilled. And maybe some of them don’t even like space. The third generation comes along as the starship nears Aurora – that beautiful, untouched, potentially colonizable planet. The future of human civilization. But the third generation is not a reflection of the first—they are a reflection of the second. Even more changed, even more factioned. And they are sick of being in space. They’re sick of isolation and crop failures and social limitations and metal walls. They don’t care what mission they’re on. They just want to be off ship already. And they arrive, and discover Aurora.

Aurora is harsh. Aurora is windy. Aurora is barren and, what is more, Aurora’s only inhabitants – small microbes – turn out to be an allergen lethal to humans.

So, what do the 2,000 inhabitants of the starship do?

They go home.

To put it lightly, the current inhabitants of planet Earth are pissed when they find out the starship is returning.

That starship was meant to ensure the multi-planetary residency of human civilization. They were supposed to secure a human future off-world in case things went wrong back on Earth. They were the back-up plan and nowhere in this plan was there an option for failure. But the starship residents came home anyway and they essentially  said, “this is stupid. What have we done to our home? Our planet? The one we are designed for? Why did we abandon it?” (I’m paraphrasing here)

I think the answer to these questions has something to do with the kind of bandage culture American’s cling to so fervently. This desire to leave our mistakes behind rather than fix them. To cut off the leaves of social issues rather than yank them out by the roots like the weeds they are. In Haraway’s work, and much of contemporary feminist literature, we see examples of countering this superficial approach to healing and resolution, and her idea of the Chthulucene speaks directly to my idea of a caretaker’s demand (Haraway 2016).

Sometimes, when I’m sitting in on meetings, or attending happy hours, or speaking with Fortune 500 commercial space companies as part of my fieldwork, I feel like I’m on Robinson’s Aurora. I feel like I’m on my knees, at the edge of a sheer cliff face, with waves cresting hundreds of meters high before me – breathing in air infected by poisonous microbes. And I wonder, is it worth it to leave Earth? Will it be worth it? Or are these billion dollar Utopian demands selfish?

What would it do to humankind’s collective psyche if we let the dreams of expanding human civilization into space go? On November 20, 1998, the International Space Station (ISS) was launched into space. The ISS has been inhabited for the majority of my life and before it, there were other space stations, such as Skylab and Mir. Each station is a space habitat, used primarily for unique research experiments which cannot be performed on Earth. My mother used to wake us up to go trace the ISS with our fingers as it passed above our home and I used to think, “there they are. People in space. Always watching. Always there. Always above us.” The astronauts up there were the only angels I ever had it in my heart to believe in. Now there’s talk of the ISS’s imminent demise- due to its age, the maintenance it requires, and its expensive upkeep – and its replacement with the Lunar Gateway, and though the prospect of its end shakes me, I’m left wondering what would happen if we didn’t replace it (NASA Artemis n.d.). What if, like any other bad, crumbling, expensive relationship… we let it go. And instead of jumping into another bad, crumbling, expensive relationship what if Mother Earth just stayed single for a while and focused on herself?

What if we stopped seeking out poisonous atmospheres and bad relationships with foreign bodies, and focused on the wreckage in front of us? That absolutely decimated, overpopulated, polluted planet we were born into. What if we focused, not on three generations, but every generation? What if Earth became our billion-dollar project? What if instead of looking up and always begging for more more more, we stopped, accepted what we were given, and spent all that pent up passion and wonder and curiosity on harnessing the deepest, hottest hydrothermal vents, the blistering desert sun, windswept northern oceans, and frozen tundras. What if we found new ways of existing in the harsh places we’ve ruled out on our homeworld, before forcing ourselves into the ecosystems of others? What if we revisited the ways of the ancient sea-faring cultures and the desert nomads? Drawing inspiration not from the speculative but from the real, the here, the now, the pragmatic and the historic.

Soviet space art by Andrei Sokolov, printed in Future Life, November 1981.

Don’t mistake me, in my previous work “Lunar Imperialism (and How to Avoid it)” (Mandel 2019), I argued for commercial space exploration as a way to democratize access to outer space—I’m not trying to claim that no good can come from outer space exploration. I’ve just decided that it’s time to make some hard decisions for the future of the human race.

I’m making a caretaker’s demand – that we focus our attention on Earth before exploring outer space -which might be just as hard to imagine as expanding human civilization into the stars, but let’s try just for a second to hope for such a future. Because as Weeks said, “Hope will haunt” (Weeks 2011).

Just like Assata Shakur’s call for collective action—which seeks not just reform but revolution, working to upend current systems that fail to value Black lives—the caretaker’s demand must conjure up a vastly different world without apologizing for radical social changes (Carruthers 2018).  A world where planet Earth takes priority in research, and the collective mission to ensure the sustainability of the human species works from home. As Victor Papek once wrote:

We are all together on this small spaceship called “Earth,” 9,700 miles in diameter and sailing through the vast oceans of space. It’s a small spaceship and 50 to 60 percent of the population cannot help run it through no fault of their own. Where hunger and poverty lead small children to eat the paint off walls and die of lead poisoning in Chicago and New York ghettos. Where children in Los Angeles and Boston die of infected rat bites. To deprive ourselves of the brain and potential of any person on our spaceship is wrong and no longer acceptable. (Papek 1971: 59)

How do we accomplish the caretaker’s demand? Perhaps I’m not the best person to offer solutions. I’m still learning after all, and still returning from my journey through outer space, figuratively and scholastically, back to my homeworld. But economists present us with visions of post-scarcity worlds (Benanav 2020) and historians teach us ways to learn from past mistakes (Gordon 2016), perhaps even science fiction writers help in their own way – offering glimpses of the outcomes of these demands. But no matter how our end goals are met, the first step is to harness the tool of utopian demands and to make some hard decisions.

Savannah Mandel is an anthropologist whose research has primarily focused on human space exploration. Some of her published topics include: a cultural addendum to the Drake Equation, lunar imperialism, and the social implications of asteroid mining. She is currently a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at Virginia Tech, and previously earned a MS in Social Anthropology. In her spare time she plays Dungeons & Dragons, video games, and writes science fiction.

Bibliography

Benanav, Aaron. Automation and the Future of Work. New York: Verso, 2020.

Carruthers, Charlene. “Hearing Assata Shakur’s Call” Women’s Studies Quarterly. Vol. 46, No. 3 & 4 (2018): 222-225.

Gordon, Robert. The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.

Haraway, Donna. Staying With the Trouble. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

Highfill, Tina, Georgi, Patrick, and Dubria, Dominique.  “Measuring the Value of the U.S. Space Economy”. The Journal of the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. 2019. 99(12).

Mandel, Savannah. “Lunar Imperialism (and how to avoid it)” Anthropology News. July 12, 2019.NASA Artemis, n.d. “Artemis”. Accessed February 16, 2021. https://www.nasa.gov/specials/artemis/Papenek, Victor. “Do it yourself murder: the social and moral responsibilities of the designer” from Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. New York: Pantheon Books.

Robinson, Kim Stanley. Aurora. London: Orbit, 2015.

Weeks, Kathi. “The Future is Now: Utopian Demands and Temporalities of Hope” The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

About emmalouisebackeanthro

I am a PhD candidate in the Anthropology Department of George Washington University, with an MA in Medical Anthropology. My research deals with the politics of care for survivors of gender-based violence in the United States and South Africa, and I do consulting work in international development and global health related to gender. I regularly tweet at @EmmaLouiseBacke.

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