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We Don’t Need Elon Musk to Explore the Solar System

Elon Musk is right to dream of humanity’s future as a multi-planet species. However, the multigenerational, millennia-long project of space colonization will be a public-sector endeavor, or it will not happen.

SpaceX owner and Tesla CEO Elon Musk poses as he arrives on the red carpet for the Axel Springer Awards ceremony in Berlin on December 1, 2020. (Britta Pedersen / POOL / AFP via Getty Images)

Elon Musk, the third-richest man in the world, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla (and dabbler in online edgelord provocation), issued a strange Twitter post last month in defense of his wealth.

“I am accumulating resources to help make life multiplanetary & extend the light of consciousness to the stars,” he declared.

And then, this week, the centibillionaire further provoked when he mentioned in an interview about Martian colonization that, while it would be a glorious experience, “a bunch of people will probably die in the beginning.”

All this within days of NASA’s Perseverance Mars mission achieving the first helicopter flight on another planet and producing five grams of oxygen from the planet’s carbon dioxide–dominant atmosphere — two major milestones in space exploration.

A reasonable critique of Musk’s SpaceX endeavors might begin by noting that, regardless of how noble an aim Musk may have for his centibillions, there simply should not be centibillionaires (or even regular millionaires and billionaires). One might also echo Neil Armstrong’s criticism of private space flight — a criticism that once made Elon cry when 60 Minutes asked him about his hero arguing against the privatization of space. We might note how space exploration during the Cold War, despite the militarist overtones of the Space Race, was explicitly intended to be for all mankind rather than in service of the jollies of ultrarich space tourists.

A democratic and public redirection of Elon Musk’s billions might be spent differently. One might further assert that, given the non-identity of the set of all things that are beneficial and the set of all things that are profitable, space colonization will be a public-sector endeavor, or it will not happen — as such a private space travel has no near-term, medium-term, or even long-term prospect of any return on financial investment beyond servicing low-earth, medium-earth, or geostationary orbit. And, finally, we might denounce the union-busting at Musk’s factories or even argue that his “accumulation of resources” is less the product of his own efforts than it is primarily an upward redistribution of value created by his workers.

That is to say that there are a raft of progressive critiques of Musk that could be made that nevertheless still value space exploration and, one day, human colonization of the cosmos.

Indeed, if one values space exploration and looks forward to the time, as astronomer Carl Sagan put it, “when most human cultures will be engaged in an activity you might describe as a dandelion going to seed,” then a socialist critique is all the more necessary, given the irrational limitations markets impose on human endeavor.

But instead, there are thousands of snark-drenched tweets sneering at how crackpot, masculinist, and even childish Elon’s dream is. They argue that space travel is a waste of resources that would be better spent solving problems here on Earth, and that space colonization is a repetition of the colonization of the New World.

Even Bernie Sanders responded to Musk by saying: “Space travel is an exciting idea, but right now we need to focus on Earth and create a progressive tax system so that children don’t go hungry, people are not homeless and all Americans have healthcare. The level of inequality in America is obscene and a threat to our democracy.” At the time of writing, the senator’s tweet had received some 95,000 likes.

Bernie is, in this case, wrong.

Space exploration, including space travel, is one of the grandest tasks humanity has ever set for itself. It is a false dichotomy — and an austerian one at that — to say that we do not have enough money for both a space program and social justice or environmental protection. We can more than afford to do both. NASA’s budget is but a fraction of the Pentagon’s. It should not be difficult to imagine a democratic socialist economy, or even just one a little less neoliberal, that permits much more space and much less war.

We can have public health care and science. We can end homelessness and explore the cosmos. We can have unionized, family-supporting jobs for all and, one day, almost certainly some considerable time from now, colonies on other worlds.

The Postcolonial Space Programs

Let me offer a personal anecdote about how I came to change my mind about this. A few years ago, I was researching the space programs of developing nations in Sub-Saharan Africa and South America for a feature article for a science magazine. While I have always been a cheerleader for space science, I had heard that, in some cases, the states concerned did not really have the capacity for such activities and were doing little more than rebranding British or American satellites launched from Russian spaceports.

I thought I would have a nice story of neoliberal regimes wasting what little money these countries had on vanity projects that were of dubious national provenance.

So I got in touch with some of the British and American engineers that had worked on these projects and interviewed them off the record. To varying degrees, they conceded that this was more or less what was happening in some places, but not in others, where a country was more advanced and did have at least some of the capacity necessary. Off the record, they told stories of corruption and incompetence, delays and malfunctions. But they also said that there was a learning process and there absolutely was a transfer of skills and knowledge. It was a mixed bag, they said.

More than this, what told me that made me completely rethink my attitude toward developing world space programs. They said that, however much they might have questioned the priority given to a space program for a country without functioning roads or sewage systems, everywhere they went, when they said why they were in the country, ordinary people would respond by bursting with pride that their country, too, was going into space.

For them, it symbolized that they were just as good as any developed nation, that modernity was coming, and that they, too, could be explorers and pioneers.

I put away my story and never wrote it.

Instead, I investigated the decline of mathematical training in Africa in the neoliberal era. During the postcolonial era, African socialist governments had been committed to developing a cadre of professionals schooled in advanced mathematics and science, sometimes with the assistance of the Soviet Union, sometimes with aid from the United States or France, depending on the contingencies of the Cold War.

But the indifference that followed the end of the Cold War and the advent of neoliberalism had gutted such training, and now, in many countries, the aging, mathematically trained professionals were retiring or dying with no one to replace them. Such training is essential not just for scientific research but for civil engineering, national budgeting, and enterprise planning.

Thankfully, a celebrated physicist, Neil Turok — also the son of the man who crafted the South African ANC’s armed struggle strategy, Ben Turok — had started a new institute expressly committed to reviving Africa’s mathematical capacity. I wrote about that instead.

We can today spend on both space exploration and mathematics education — and we could have in the 1960s. We don’t only need charity, but we need vaulting ambition as well: not just social programs but science.

Or, put another way: we want bread, but we want roses, too.

How Venus Helped Us Understand Global Warming

But even if Bernie made an unwittingly neoliberal argument by imagining there is not enough wealth in America to afford both an ambitious space program and luxuriant social programs, he did at least state that he thought space travel was exciting. It was a matter of prioritization rather than outright opposition.

There were others, however, who attacked the very idea of going into space, not least at a time of climate emergency. We should focus on this living planet rather than unfathomably distant dead ones, they said. This is not a one-off; Left critics of space programs repeatedly issue calls for a focus on the environmental challenges Earth faces instead of going to space.

But this is a second false dichotomy. Space science, in so many respects, is Earth science.

NASA is perhaps the premier Earth science research agency in the world. Its Landsat program, originally named the Earth Resources Technology Satellite and dating back to 1972, is the longest running effort to deliver satellite imagery of the planet. Its latest iteration, Landsat 8, launched in 2013 and delivers millions of images free of charge to researchers or any member of the public, tracking forest loss and degrowth, glacier and icecap melt, land-use change and agricultural water use.

Then there is AIRS, the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder, on NASA’s Aqua satellite, which gathers infrared energy emitted from Earth’s surface and atmosphere and measurements of temperature and water vapor that are used to assess the accuracy of climate models, detect volcanic plumes, and forecast droughts. The Geostationary Carbon Observatory (GeoCarb), yet to launch, will monitor greenhouse gas emissions, and the Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) mission will measure ice-sheet elevation, sea-ice thickness, and tree-canopy height to track changes in Greenland and Antarctica ice and assess changes in the total mass of the world’s vegetation. As of 2021, there are some forty different current and soon-to-launch Earth science missions performed by NASA.

When we send missions to other worlds, again, learning about them teaches us as much about Earth as they do about the Moon, Mars, Venus, Europa, Titan, or Enceladus. Let’s remember that climatologist James Hansen — whose 1988 congressional testimony on global warming was one of the main catalysts of early public and political awareness of the climate emergency — had his start studying the transfer of radiation through the Venusian atmosphere.

It was his work investigating Venus — a planet with a runaway greenhouse effect — that led him to work on climate change on Earth. Indeed, the study of the atmospheres of both Venus and Mars is a key part of the story of how we discovered global warming.

Robots vs. Humans

One might respond that all of this is unmanned space exploration. Surely steady advances in robotics and miniaturization have weakened the case for manned spaceflight. Robots like the Perseverance rover (nicknamed Percy), which recently landed in Jezero Crater on Mars aiming, among other goals, to search for evidence of ancient microbial life, are much more able to access extreme environments inhospitable to humans and at a much lower cost.

But while there are many things robots can do that humans cannot, there are also many things humans can do that robots cannot and will never be able to (at least until the advent of artificial general intelligence). As British planetary scientist Ian Crawford argues, humans have the advantage over robots with respect to on-the-spot decision-making and flexibility and thus increased probability of making serendipitous discoveries. There is also greater efficiency of sample collection and return with humans (382 kg of moon rocks returned by Apollo vs the 0.32 kg from the sample returns of the Soviet Union’s robotic Luna missions), and greater potential for large-scale exploratory activity, deployment, and maintenance of complex equipment. But it is the universal problem-solving capability of humans that is key.

Crawford quotes Steve Squyres, the principal investigator for the Mars exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity, who concluded in 2005: “The unfortunate truth is that most things our rovers can do in a perfect sol [a Martian day] a human explorer can do in less than a minute.”

An artist’s rendering of the Perseverance rover on Mars. (Tim Tim / Wikimedia Commons)

And we see this in the scientific literature. Comparing the number of refereed publications resulting from the Apollo moon missions (the only human exploration missions) with those from robotic missions to the Moon and Mars, Crawford finds the former has produced a much greater volume. Dividing the cumulative number of publications by days of fieldwork on the surface, Crawford gauges that the Apollo project was three orders of magnitude more efficient in producing scientific papers per day than its unmanned counterparts, while being about one or two orders of magnitude more expensive. He notes that the next most productive missions are the Luna sample return missions.

This shows how important sample return is, and indeed, one of Percy’s goals is to collect rock and regolith (“soil”) samples that, at some point in the early 2030s, will be retrieved by a “fetch rover” mission and sent back to Earth via a Mars Ascent Vehicle, a miniature rocket whose design has yet to be agreed. One of the main reasons robotic missions have been cheaper is that they do not return. The return mission thus bumps up the cost. But the quantity and diversity of samples will not be as high as a human mission could deliver.

He is keen to stress that none of this should downplay the importance of robotic Martian sample return, which is necessary until humans can safely be sent to Mars and back. The point is to correct the erroneous notion that manned space missions are merely white elephants servicing national pride in contests with geopolitical rivals such as the USSR or China but have no real scientific purpose.

Even though the priority should be, and very much is, on robotic exploration, we will learn more if we do both over time than if we depend upon robotic exploration alone. Robots enhance rather than replace human exploration.

The Prison of the Possible

One might then argue, nevertheless, that, given the exorbitant cost of space travel, whether by human, robot, or satellite (a robot of a sort), we should still, as Bernie’s tweet stated, focus instead on hunger, homelessness, and health care on Earth.

Prioritization of spending will always be necessary, but a strictly utilitarian approach that demands we cannot spend on large scientific endeavors until poverty and inequality are eradicated would likewise have to rule out other big-ticket but curiosity-driven science efforts such as the Large Hadron Collider. Indeed, it also follows that any scholarship that is not applied research with a demonstrably near-term human benefit should be halted until all other problems are solved, expensive or not.

Of course, applied research would sooner or later come to a halt as well under such a utilitarian research regime as, by definition, applied research is an application of basic research. Those in the seventeenth century who thought, “Isn’t it kind of neat and weird that when I rub a piece of amber against a cat’s fur, the amber can pick up a feather? I wonder why this is,” had no notion that any investigation into the phenomenon of what we now call electricity would one day result in applications that power much of the world. And the demand that we only engage in activities with clear utility requires that all resources allocated to art and music be shifted elsewhere.

How like the university administration philistines we see today slashing humanities funding to deliver more to STEM subjects, mothballing language courses and classics programs!

Boiling Oceans

All this is just space science, though. Elon Musk wants humans to be a multi-planetary species. Surely that, at least, is lunacy, a billionaire’s childish fantasy.

One must distinguish here between the near-term impossibility of Musk’s dreams of cities on Mars and the very long-term necessity of humanity spreading itself throughout the cosmos sometime within the next eon in order to ensure our survival.

Earth as seen from space in 2007. (NASA)

We do not need to escape Earth due to climate change or biodiversity loss. Resolving these two issues (and other environmental challenges) are far easier to solve than terraforming other worlds. Even at 6ºC of global warming — the upper but low-probability bound of the increase in average global temperature by century’s end that is projected by climate models — Earth would be far more inhabitable for humans than a Martian colony that would remain, for the foreseeable future, tethered to Earth-based life support systems. Even a terraformed Mars would still be less habitable for humans due to its incorrigibly low gravity.

In fact, if astronomers tomorrow discovered an Earth analogue exoplanet in a distant solar system that had similar or even identical atmospheric chemistry, mass, biospheric signatures, tectonic and magnetospheric activity — but was an average six degrees warmer than Holocene-era Earth, then this world would be hailed as eminently habitable.

And while near-Earth asteroids do present an ongoing existential threat, the technology required to track and divert them would again be a doddle compared to making a permanent, self-sustaining habitation on another planet viable.

The real existential threat is not anywhere close near-term. But it is real, and a legitimate reason why, at some point, humanity does need to spread itself beyond Earth.

In about 600 million years, the Sun’s increase in luminosity will in turn increase the weathering of silicate minerals — what make up about 90 percent of Earth’s crust. This will upset the carbonate-silicate cycle, which removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as weathered minerals are washed into rivers and oceans, buried in sediments and ultimately recycled back into the mantle as tectonic plates subduct at continental margins. The CO2 is then returned back to the atmosphere through volcanism. Also known as the inorganic (or slow) carbon cycle, it takes place over millions of years, while the organic (or fast) carbon cycle that cycles carbon from the biosphere to the atmosphere and back takes place on the scale of years. The shinier sun’s acceleration of silicate weathering will result in a sharp drop in the concentration of atmospheric CO2 (opposite to the problem we face with global warming), below the amount needed for trees and some other plants to live. Eventually, plant life as a whole will die off, and with it most animals. Within a billion years, the oceans will boil off, and the planet will return to a microbial world.

The reason we are acting to prevent climate change and biodiversity loss right now on this planet is to preserve the conditions that allow humans to flourish. It is not to save the planet. The planet has experienced far more extreme conditions in the deep past than what we are doing to it. Indeed, past mass extinction events were necessary for subsequent evolutionary radiation (increase in biodiversity as a result of speciation), just as death is for life. Without dinosaur extinction, mammals would never have filled all those ecological niches the dinosaurs left behind.

Instead, the purpose of preventing climate change and biodiversity loss is to arrest global change and preserve indefinitely a set of conditions that have existed only since the start of the Holocene epoch (since the end of the last ice age, about 11,000 years ago) and that are currently optimal for us humans.

Thus, for the same reason of human species preservation with respect to the climate and biodiversity emergencies, at some point within the next eon, but due to the solar-produced terminus of habitable conditions on Earth, humans need to establish themselves on other worlds. And on as many as possible — for those worlds, too, face their own limited span of habitability, and at any point, a star exploding as a supernova at the end of its life could sterilize any nearby biospheres (perhaps some extremophile microbes might survive, but the game would certainly be over for humanity).

Of course, we have a whopping 600 million years to worry about boiling oceans and the plant-pocalypse. There is no urgency at all, even if the moral imperative to prevent climate change and to colonize other worlds is the same.

But over the very long term, the cosmos is a dangerous place. Humans need to be a multi-planetary — and ultimately multi-solar-system — species in order to increase the chances of our survival. Musk is right to embrace this goal. That is not what he needs to be challenged on. Instead, we should ask whether his actions serve that laudable goal.

Venus or Mars?

We can get a more detailed understanding of what Musk means than his tweet or his interview commentary provide in his detailed, sixteen-page paper that appeared in 2017 in the academic journal New Space, which is dedicated to the burgeoning commercial space sector, “Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species.”

He opens the paper with a recognition that, at some point, if we stay on Earth, we will confront an eventual extinction event. “The alternative is to become a spacefaring civilization and a multi-planetary species.”

He alights upon Mars as the obvious first option for establishing a “self-sustaining city — a city that is not merely an outpost, but which can become a planet in its own right.” He rejects Venus due to it being, as he correctly puts it, a super-high-pressure, hot acid bath. He rejects Mercury due to it being too close to the Sun, and the Moon for lack of atmosphere and its twenty-eight-day “day” (a Martian day, or “sol,” for comparison, is an Earthling-friendly 24.5 hours). And he rejects, at least for now, the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, as they are much harder to get to.

Mars has more than its own share of habitability issues, but Musk does not mention them, other than to say that, while Mars is “a little cold” (in reality, -63ºC, or -81ºF, compared to Earth’s balmy 16ºC, or 57ºF), “we can warm it up.” The Martian atmosphere is “very helpful” because it’s primarily CO2, with some nitrogen and argon, meaning that “we can grow plants on Mars just by compressing the atmosphere.” Most cheery of all, Musk says it would be “quite fun” to be on Mars, because the gravity is about 38 percent that of Earth, making it easy to lift heavy things and “bound around.”

Mars, as seen from space. (WikiImages via Pixabay)

It’s all so simple. “We just need to change the populations because currently we have seven billion people on Earth and none on Mars.”

And so the paper is primarily devoted to explaining how to solve that sole problem: how to lower the cost of a trip to Mars from the current roughly $10 billion per person down to the median cost of a house in the United States. By making rockets reusable, refilling in orbit, producing propellant on Mars, choosing the right propellant, and improving system design and performance, Musk reckons he can get the cost of a ticket down to $200,000, perhaps as little as $100,000.

And Musk’s SpaceX has done a tremendous job so far of sharply reducing the cost of escaping Earth’s gravity well, primarily via deep vertical integration of the firm. It produces a whopping 70 percent of its components in-house, as opposed to the 1,200 different suppliers in the outsourced supply chain of its main competitor, the Boeing–Lockheed Martin partnership known as the United Space Alliance. Each of these suppliers extracts their own profit margin from every contract in the chain, jacking up the cost per launch to $460 million. SpaceX, by comparison, charges NASA and its other clients just $62 million per launch, and Musk says he has slashed the marginal cost of a reused Falcon 9 booster launch to a mere $15 million.

Well done, Elon. Or, rather, well done to all the engineers, logistical experts, and other workers who have done most of the labor, allowing SpaceX to revolutionize the business model of getting to space.

There is not really any mention of the enormous challenges of the atmosphere’s low pressure and toxic composition, the preponderance of deadly perchlorates in the soil, or the lack of magnetosphere to protect against solar and cosmic radiation. The current atmosphere of Mars is too thin to support most life: its pressure is only about 1 percent that of Earth. Only hypopiezotolerant microbes (those that live in low-pressure environments), such as ones that are lofted by winds into Earth’s stratosphere, would be able to survive. The atmosphere is also 95 percent carbon dioxide — fine for plants (if the pressure were able to be raised) but not for animals.

Musk does say that once Mars is warmed up, “we would once again have a thick atmosphere and liquid oceans.” Bioremediation using bacteria to clean up perchlorates already occurs on Earth, but we are talking about an entire planet here. There is no discussion of how any of this might happen, over what time period, and who would pay for it. Same with the construction of an artificial magnetosphere. Dealing with the perchlorates alone would likely be profoundly more challenging and expensive than the relatively straightforward process of decarbonizing Earth’s economy.

A 2018 NASA study found that there is insufficient CO2 and H2O from the Martian soil, polar ice caps, and minerals in the upper crust to get anywhere close to thickening the atmosphere and using it like a blanket to warm up the planet. All these sources combined would still only boost the pressure to about 7 percent of that of Earth. Carbon-bearing minerals deep in the crust might have enough CO2 to achieve the needed pressure, but nothing is known about their extent, and recovering them with current technology would be colossally energy intensive. Another idea is to direct comets or asteroids to crash into Mars and release their greenhouse gases that way. Again, these are fantastical ideas that will be impractical for many, many generations yet to come.

NASA astronauts in space. (NASA)

And there is likely no way of ever overcoming Mars’s low gravity. If you added all the mass of Venus to that of Mars, smashing the planets together, even then, you would still not quite achieve Earth’s gravity. It is true that we do not know what the physiological effects of 38 percent of Earth’s gravity are, either on humans or other life. We have two data points: Earth gravity, what we call 1G, and the 0G microgravity of the International Space Station (ISS). But from studies of astronauts who have spent extended periods aboard the ISS, we know that 0G is extremely bad for human health.

Muscles atrophy. Tendons and ligaments begin to fail. Facial and finger muscles, which cannot be worked out via onboard gyms or treadmills, weaken. The spine lengthens, with astronauts gaining an inch or two in height and suffering from back pain. Bones demineralize, losing density at a rate of 1 percent per month.

As Christopher Wanjek, a former NASA science writer and author of 2020 book Spacefarers — which is an optimistic volume on the viability of manned space travel — notes: “To visualize how bad that bone loss is, consider the fact that the major obstacle to fully recycling urine into drinking water on the ISS is that the filters get clogged daily with calcium deposits.” Wanjek writes how the rate of vision loss is such that a crew to Mars would need to pack eyeglasses with various prescriptions for “each phase of their gradual, inevitable, and permanent vision loss.”

Kidneys get confused by blood not being where it’s supposed to be and think there is an excess, so they start to remove what they believe to be excess water. The blood thickens, driving a reduced production of red blood cells, which in turn drives anemia, shortness of breath, lethargy, and greater likelihood of infection. Perhaps worst of all, brain compression resulting from microgravity negatively impacts regions responsible for fine motor movement and executive function — deteriorations that could be permanent.

A range of interventions, including exercise, drugs, and compression clothing can shave the sharp edges off some of these effects, but ultimately, the solution on a spacecraft is the simulation of gravity via centrifugal force — a spinning ship. This is not something that you can do with a whole planet.

It is for this reason that Venus, with its gravity not too far off that of Earth, may actually be a better terraforming candidate than Mars — one day — despite its currently inhospitable atmosphere.

The Real Business of SpaceX Isn’t Mars

One has to suspect that Musk knows all this. We have a hint of this when, at one point in his paper, Musk concedes that it will be difficult to fund his vision just by slashing the cost of getting to space. He admits that SpaceX expects to generate substantial cash flow from launching lots of satellites and servicing the International Space Station for NASA. Additional help for bankrolling the Mars project might come from the emergence of a market for really fast transportation of things or people around the world by rocket: cargo could be transported anywhere on Earth in forty-five minutes, and a trip from New York to Tokyo could take a mere twenty-five minutes (so long as takeoff and landing takes place where the tremendous noise, as he puts it in hip-CEO-speak, “is not a super-big deal”).

As a result, one gets the impression by reading between the lines that a self-sustaining Martian city is all just an impressive marketing maneuver taking advantage of most people’s sense of adventure and wonder; of our species’ ancient need to wander and explore. The real business of SpaceX was never a Martian colony but rather servicing a mature satellite market, stealing government space contracts from the likes of Boeing, and kicking off a terrestrial rocket transport sector. The dream of Mars is, in this case, not really any different from the adman’s fiction of romance and aspiration that sells a can of Pepsi or a Jeep.

None of this is to suggest that establishing an outpost on Mars for the purposes of scientific exploration should not be attempted, even in the next couple of decades. But an outpost, as Musk himself makes clear, does not approach a self-sustaining city, and still less a multi-planetary species.

Because humans do need to exit Earth at some point in order to maintain the species, if we are to establish genuinely self-sustaining colonies, then terraforming will likely be necessary one day, as well as interstellar generation ships that take us to habitable exoplanets far beyond the solar system. For all of this, we will have to figure out how to take our ecology with us.

We are not really the collection of individuals we thought we were, but rather are deeply embedded within our ecosystems. Indeed, each of us is a microbial ecosystem whose edges are vague. Where does the bacterial, fungal, and viral multitude that is “me” stop and my equally microbiological environment begin? This does not mean that Earth will be the only home we ever have, but it does mean that the antiseptic, forestless, riverless Starship Enterprise would leave its inhabitants very sick before too long.

How much of our ecology do we need to take with us, though? We just don’t know yet. The science of ecology is very much still a young discipline. This is where fantastical science-fiction conceptions of vast ships made from hollowed out asteroids and packed with different biomes fills the gap of what we do not know. Likewise for novels like Becky Chambers’s To be Taught, if Fortunate, in which, instead of terraforming other worlds, adapting them to our needs, we genetically alter our bodies via “somaforming” to adapt ourselves to their conditions.

Plainly, then, there is no rush for any of this, even as there is a moral imperative for us, one day in the distant future, to permanently exit Earth. Our colonization of other worlds is akin to the building of the grandest cathedral we have ever envisaged: a project that will take centuries, or more likely millennia, many millennia. This is nothing that a private company can deliver. There is no near-term return on investment; indeed, there is no aim of profitability at all, but rather of our species’ survival through the eons.

Rocks Are Not People

There are those who argue, perhaps because space colonization and colonization of the New World have a word in common, that the desire to journey into space is expressive of a colonial mentality.

From a trivial point of view, it is indeed colonial, insofar as the object is to build colonies. But there is a big difference between the conquest of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and the Antipodes: the Moon and Mars are rocks, not human beings.

A view of Earth from the Moon’s surface.

Indeed, the equivalence of rocks and people, or rather the notion that the human inhabitants of these lands did not count as people, is precisely the moral calculus that was made by the genocidaires of colonialism.

If we find microbial life on Mars, again, microbes are not people. We, of course, must be very careful upon our early visits to other worlds that we do not accidentally introduce terrestrial microbes. We have one chance to see whether life evolved elsewhere. If we contaminate Mars with bacteria or archaea from Earth before we make this assessment, it may be difficult to tell Martian and Earth microbes apart.

Such contamination protocols, however, only need be carried out until the otherwise pristine conditions have been sufficiently studied. The only question here is how long and how much effort should be made. Following such research, there is no distinction between terrestrial microbes establishing themselves on Mars (or any other world) and what would have occurred had microbes caught a ride on a meteor from one world to another without any human contribution.

And, if terrestrial microbes later outcompeted Martian microbes as a result, again, this would be no different from competition for resources between species on Earth, which, along with predation and symbiosis and other inter-species interactions, form the basis for many ecosystem properties and processes. Again, that’s not colonialism. That’s life!

Carl Sagan’s Dream

In our critiques of centibillionaires like Elon Musk, we should be very careful not to argue that, whatever he wants, we simply want the opposite. That’s the case for much recent popular writing critical of the private space sector.

It’s true that our vision of space — as a commons for all humanity, driven by democratic states — is very different from that of Musk, and that, indeed, the capitalist class’s power is a barrier to that vision. But we should reject what the late philosopher Mark Fisher called capitalist realism: not merely the concession that there is no alternative to the current order but the inability to conceive that there can be one.

Market ideology is so ingrained even in the minds of its opponents that a public-sector program of space exploration, travel, resource extraction, and, at some point in the future, colonization, cannot be fathomed. The critique surrounding space should instead be that, so long as it is for profit or national pride, space programs will never be able to live up to Carl Sagan’s dream of our species as the dandelion of the cosmos.

We can learn something from the technological and humanist optimism of the first person in space. “Nothing will stop us. The road to the stars is steep and dangerous. But we’re not afraid,” Yuri Gagarin told Space World magazine. “Spaceflights can’t be stopped. This isn’t the work of any one man or even a group of men. It is a historical process which mankind is carrying out in accordance with the natural laws of human development.”

More Sputnik and less SpaceX, maybe, but ad astra per aspera nevertheless.