It’s a familiar story, even if it technically hasn’t happened yet—the intrepid explorers of humanity finally taking flight to other worlds, establishing colonies on the moon, then on Mars, then outside of the solar system, then in other galaxies entirely. The forward march of progress, but on a cosmic scale. Star Trek famously called space “the final frontier.” If you looked at our pop culture alone, you would probably think space exploration was inevitable. Science fiction has always posited interconnected, intergalactic societies, at a point that recedes ever further into the future. But, somehow, that promised future has never materialized.
There are good reasons for that. Space exploration is an expensive, resource-intensive project, and nation-states don’t have the political will or the money to spend on it. Plus, there are bigger problems on Earth we need to solve. Although we don’t have the intergalactic travel that pop culture promised us, the quest for the stars arguably created the society we do have, for better or worse. Without space exploration, we wouldn’t have, for example, camera phones. Moreover, much of the knowledge that we have about our own planet—including the existence of the climate crisis—comes from studying other ones and comparing them with ours.
But some argue that space exploration is humanity’s only chance for a future at all. Books like Robert Zubrin’s The Case for Mars or Martin Rees’s On the Future pose intergalactic exploration as a stark dilemma: either we expand into space or our species dies out on Earth, wiped out by any number of ills—climate catastrophe, a virus, nuclear war. As they see it, there will be a point in time when Earth will no longer be able to support life and humanity will eventually die out. Our only chance to delay that end as long as possible is to colonize other worlds as we have colonized our own.
A recent popular history, Beyond the Known, by SpaceX mission manager Andrew Rader, joins the chorus advocating for our spacefaring future. Rader’s book is not so much a history of space travel as it is a history of humanity as explorers, from our earliest origins to the present and into the future. Rader’s main argument is that what has enriched our species is not our intelligence per se but our capacity for curiosity and our willingness to venture into the unknown. Through exploration, we have built our civilizations, learned from one another, and adapted to—even thrived in—harsh environments. Thus, he makes the case for space exploration and colonization not only as necessary for human survival but also as the next logical step in our biological and cultural destiny.
It’s a sweeping argument, to be sure, and there’s much to appreciate in Rader’s optimistic view of humanity and our achievements. In an era when it seems like every day brings another catastrophe, it’s refreshing to read a book that suggests we have both a brighter future and the know-how to get there. Millennials like me know that we probably won’t be better off than our parents. Far from living in a time when governments and people dream big, we are forced to aspire to less and less every day. We don’t dream of the stars; we dream of economic stability. For some of us, those dreams can seem as far away as Mars, especially now, when we appear to be heading into a pandemic-induced recession or depression. I am revising this essay in self-isolation because my risk of death or severe complications from COVID-19 is too high. My current dream is to visit a coffee shop with a friend, not to see the universe.
But, while Rader’s optimism is refreshing, it also reveals the problem at the root of our approach to exploring space, which mirrors our troubling historical approaches to exploring our planet. Colonization as destiny is not an experiment that has ended well the many times we’ve tried it, and Rader’s perhaps unavoidable simplification of human history carries with it some disturbing implications—all the more so when juxtaposed with the current anticolonial movements happening in Canada and elsewhere. His decision to characterize any time humans made contact with other humans, including in conquest or war, as “exploration” is lazy at best and disingenuous at worst. Granted, Rader does not see this drive to explore as the special inheritance of any race or country. But he fails to adequately reckon with the damage done to some humans by others in the name of exploring—and conquering—the unknown. We have barely begun to reckon with the legacies of colonialism, racism, and imperialism on Earth. Must we now export these things wholesale to the stars?
Exploration has traditionally been shaped by two key motives, mentioned in Rader’s book but not foregrounded: money and power. Exploration was an avenue for social mobility and power in eras when there were few opportunities to improve one’s station. And climbing to the top meant that these would-be conquerors needed others to rule over.
The logic of colonialism figures prominently in Rader’s book. He lauds the societies he sees as possessing the attributes he prizes—an appetite for adventure, a desire both to know and to settle the world, and the advancement of technological “progress”—and dismisses the ones that don’t as “stagnant.” Civilizations that go places win, and those that don’t are eventually conquered by the ones that do. But the explorers Rader praises caused generations of suffering for the societies they visited. Though he does acknowledge the immediate damage done to the lives of locals, there’s no serious attempt to engage with the longer-term harms of colonialism.
Not only does Rader fail to reckon with the destructive legacy of colonialism, but he equates it with the can-do spirit he lauds. According to Rader, “The short-term impacts of human reunification were often catastrophic, but in the long run, the indomitable human resolve to understand differences, heal old wounds, forge new relationships, and share ideas can’t help but brighten our prospects for the future.” He argues that conquest and empire, far from being unfortunate by-products of these explorations, are ultimately what made them possible and shaped humanity into the species we are today. Rader does find the deeds of some of his subjects abhorrent—he writes, for example, about how even Christopher Columbus’s contemporaries found his racism appalling, and that he was stripped of his title and privilege because of his torture and enslavement of Indigenous people—but he spends more time discussing Columbus’s reputation than the immediate or lasting consequences of those deeds.
On the other hand, Rader’s treatment of Wernher von Braun, a former member of the SS and the head of Nazi Germany’s rocket program, lacks a serious reckoning with von Braun’s work for the Nazi regime. Von Braun and other German scientists were repatriated to the United States, in 1945, as part of Operation Paperclip, an effort by American intelligence to obtain Germany’s scientific resources. As the man who was responsible for much of the work that led to NASA’s Saturn V rocket launcher, von Braun was instrumental both to American efforts at space exploration and to popularizing the science of it in the decades following the Second World War.
According to Rader, von Braun had spacefaring aspirations but lacked the funding to get there. “Serving the Nazis until the end of the war,” Rader writes, “[von Braun] had a complicated relationship with the regime. He needed their support but considered the relationship a means to an end. Although he enjoyed favour at the highest levels of Nazi leadership, he was also considered a flight risk and was once arrested by the Gestapo for questioning.” Rader presents von Braun’s pragmatism and ambivalence as though they make him less culpable, but really, aren’t they part of the problem? Pragmatic evil is still evil, and “the ends justify the means” is an argument often used to continue perpetuating evil. Rader mentions von Braun’s many valuable contributions to scientific progress but does not mention the deaths he was responsible for as head of the Nazi rocket program or the use of slave labour in his work camps.
For Rader, war is a necessary result of exploration, as is the diaspora of people displaced by slavery across centuries. To present something like the African diaspora—the fact that some descendants of enslaved people still live in the areas their ancestors were brought to during the transatlantic slave trade—as an eventual victory for the power of exploration despite its atrocities, as Rader does, is difficult to stomach.
The problem with Rader’s formulation is that the “old wounds” of colonialism and slavery, as he calls them, have not healed. We are still living in their aftermath, with white supremacy and systemic discrimination woven into the fabric of our institutions. If we do one day leave our solar system, there’s no guarantee we will ever encounter other thinking species, but we may. It would be good to approach whatever we find out there with a little humility and a desire to learn. We should not advance humanity by building on our worst behaviour toward our fellow human beings. But how can we know what that looks like if we’ve never pulled it off here on Earth?
Despite zeal like Rader’s, the era of the space race is over. It’s unlikely that we will ever again see the combination of nationalistic fervour, existential threat, and pride in scientific progress that pushed nations to invest in their space programs and got humanity into orbit and on the moon. While NASA and other space agencies continue to do work that expands our knowledge of the universe, they simply don’t have the kind of funding needed to meaningfully advance space exploration. More and more, we are seeing private companies, such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and “space tourism” venture Virgin Galactic taking up that banner.
The contemporary version of the Cold War space race is a race between two billionaires: Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, and Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin. Both of these companies focus on building reusable rockets, which will make space missions more cost-effective and environmentally sustainable. Both men wish to make space livable—Musk has even expressed a wish “to die on Mars, just not on impact.” The rhetoric used to describe these missions is virtually the same as the old language of colonization: colonists will be “forced to innovate” because of the sparse conditions on Mars, which will lead to profit for all of humanity—but, more to the point, for Bezos and Musk. It seems increasingly likely that whatever advances into space we make in the next few decades will be by the rich, for the rich.
To a certain extent, this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. If Elon Musk wants to spend his fortune testing reusable rockets (a project Rader has worked on and one he describes in his book), it’s no worse than many other ways he could spend his money and much better than some. The rest of humanity could benefit from his work, and it seems Musk does view this work as a public service, not just a hobby for his own satisfaction. One of his primary motivations for “mak[ing] Mars his calling,” as Robert Zubrin put it in National Review, is so that humanity will have a backup plan in case of a catastrophe on Earth that would otherwise wipe out our species. But, in the event of such a disaster, who gets a seat on the ship escaping the planet? Probably only those who can afford it.
That was part of the problem with the Mars One colony mission. Mars One was a proposed one-way trip to colonize the red planet and turn it into a reality TV show. Co-founded by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, the concept drew thousands of applications despite warnings from scientists that it was a virtual suicide mission. Later, it became apparent that the mission would never materialize, and evidence has mounted that it was a scam all along. It was never clear where the resources for such a trip would come from, and much of the project’s funding came from the would-be colonists themselves, as well as supporters among the general public. At best, the company had no idea of the challenges it would face, and at worst, it knew its mission would never leave Earth and was happy to exploit people’s dreams of space exploration for money.
Similar planned missions are also causing harm in the present—as reported in The Atlantic, Musk’s SpaceX has already displaced residents of Boca Chica, Texas, where its operations are based. Residents have been warned of broken windows, have complained of noise, and were in some cases even driven out of their homes. SpaceX says it offered to purchase their houses at three times their market value, but according to some residents who sought their own appraisals, those figures were inaccurate. Perhaps this is the price of progress. But it’s strange that we, as a society, seem to have decided that space can serve as a private playground for the rich—a frontier to be tamed, a resource to be used—never mind who gets hurt along the way or left behind entirely.
I still personally want to go to space (sometime after I venture to the wilds of the coffee shop), and I want humanity as a species to explore it too. But I don’t want this billionaires’ race for profit to be the story that gets us there. Surely, with the ingenuity we will need to make space exploration a reality, we can come up with some better narratives. I would like to think that there can be exploration without suffering—that we can challenge our ideas of who gets to go to space and what they get to do there. I agree wholeheartedly with Rader that exploration is a defining trait of our species and that we’ll always want to see what’s around the corner. But I also think that exploration does not have to mean exploitation. We can be visitors without becoming conquerors.
Building a better future will require all of us. That will mean opening our minds to other stories, not just ones of conquest. We can look to science fiction for cues—the genre is less about trying to accurately predict the future and more about commenting on the present and our conception of ourselves. But science fiction can, and often does, reinforce narratives of colonization and empire. This despite recent counterexamples, like Lipan Apache writer Darcie Little Badger’s “Né łe,” a story about a lesbian veterinarian who finds both love and adventure in space, or Nigerian American writer Nnedi Okorafor’s Africanfuturist Binti novellas, about a girl who is the first of the Himba people to attend the intergalactic Oomza University and who encounters hostile aliens on the way there. Clearly, stories about space that do not centre narratives of exploration and human conquest do exist, and these are the ideas we need to prioritize.
But, when I think of new and different stories about humans, I think of a certain subgenre of Tumblr post. Generally titled “Humans Are Weird” or “Humans as Space Orcs,” these little stories tend to show us the way we imagine aliens seeing us. They typically portray us as silly and gentle—perhaps not that bright, but primarily good and loyal friends who are excited about the universe. Like all good stories, they deal with the world in front of us while imagining a new one. (One post, “Humans Will Packbond with Anything,” teaches social skills to confused aliens—and confused humans.) They aren’t about humans imposing their ways on others; they’re about us learning to critique our own norms through interaction with other intelligent beings. These stories don’t pretend to be high art, but they are different lenses we can use to envision the future. We will need all kinds of stories to share with the galaxy. It’s lucky we’re so good at coming up with them.