The Geography of Space Exploration: It’s Always Political

Is Outer Space for Science and Exploration or Consumption, Escapism, and Conflict?

The past few weeks have been a good reminder that everything that happens in space is political. Though less often discussed, these recent events and various other topics also reflect that space activities are always geographical.

After SpaceX launched a sports car into the Asteroid Belt, there has been significant reflections around whether that was indeed the best use of the Falcon heavy’s upper stage. Similar conversations in the space community have revolved around NASA’s budget and the purpose of publicly funded national space agencies. And, in the last week, there has been discussion regarding the International Space Station and its role in fostering cooperation, often surrounded by praise for the ISS as an ‘apolitical’ venture of human enterprise.

The International Space Agency’s funding has recently become a topic of debate, with some calls for the station to be sold to private investors. (Image Credit: Canadian Space Agency)

Many of these discussions have linked to ongoing debates of what exactly, as a place of human endeavour, space is for. Such debates are music to my ears. I’m a (human) geographer, and as a geographer, I study how humans interact with places. To a geographer, a place like outer space is more than an empty container in which things happen. Space is what we make of it.

This is equally true for outer space as for the spaces of our everyday lives on Earth. Through processes of what geographers call ‘place-making’, different parts of the world, large and small, are given meaning, assigned value, or put to use. This is not an objective process, place-making is often based on subjective experience, values, and desires for the site in question. We experience this all the time; for example, what to one person is simply a residential bungalow, is to another a cherished childhood home.

There can also be shared place meanings, so, what to one group is a site of economic production, is to others a priceless ecosystem. What to some is a wretched hive of scum and villainy is to others a quaint cantina. As a result, place-making is contested and ever changing. Many geographers concern themselves with how places get made, contested, remade, and the ramifications of these processes for equality and justice. Like everything, geography is political.

As a geographer interested in outer space, I’m concerned with the place-making processes of non-Earth sites. For those interested, there are (at least) three very good books, by Dr. Maria Lane (Geographies of Mars), Dr. Lisa Messari (Placing Outer Space) and Dr. Julie Klinger (Rare Earth Frontiers), that explore how outer space is being, or has been, transformed into specific places, with specific values, through human activity.

Place Making in Outer Space

Of course, one of the most important place-making processes for non-Earth sites has been the Outer Space Treaty, which is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, and has been signed by every major space-faring country in the world.

As discussed by James Clay Moltz in his book Crowded Orbits: Conflict and Cooperation in Space, the treaty emerged amid Cold War tensions as both the Americans and Soviets recognized common interests in space. Among other things, this was the result of observed negative impacts from high altitude nuclear weapons testing. Yes, setting off nukes in Earth orbit is as bad of an idea as it sounds.

The flash of a nuclear explosion in space. (Image Credit: US Air Force, Public Domain)

I wont go into the details of the treaty, they have been effectively summarized in a number of pieces written to commemorate the 50th anniversary. However, some of the major rules for all signatories to follow are:

  • The exploration and use of outer space shall benefit all peoples and nations
  • Space, and bodies in it, are not subject to territorial claim or appropriation
  • International laws (such as the UN Charter and UN Declaration of Human Rights) apply in space
  • No nukes or weapons of mass destruction are allowed in space
  • Non-governmental entities are to act in accordance as overseen by their governments
  • Actors in space must avoid the harmful contamination of sites in space or on the Earth

In a nutshell, the OST makes outer space for cooperative and peaceful human activity focused heavily on two key themes of exploration and cooperation. Aside from some legalese, the OST reads almost like the Prime Directive of space exploration, aiming to reduce negative impacts of human actions and collectively increase knowledge of ourselves and the universe for the benefit of all.

But, place-making is inherently political, and today, as there has always been, there are other values and visions for non-Earth sites being promoted within the space community (or at least on its fringes). As a result, advocates of these visions have called for the altering, updating, or outright dismissal of the OST. Three popular reasons for such calls are: visions of asteroids as sites of mining for ‘rare earth elements’ (which are in fact not rare); Mars as a site of colonization and escape from the coming apocalypse; and Earth orbit (or beyond) as a site of increased militarization. Each of these claims remakes space as a much different place than for science and exploration and largely contradicts the spirit of the OST. In my humble opinion, considering all the possibilities for investment into outer space, all three are less-than-stellar ideas.

For a geographer, such calls are actually disputes about what (and who) non-Earth places are for; discussions of place…in space. This process is no different than environmental politics here on Earth, and despite many utopian narratives in science fiction, politics don’t stop in outer space. In short, people are typically gonna argue about who, and what, a place is for, that’s a good thing, that’s the political process. Further, as we go to space, we bring with us any prejudices and flaws in the politics from which we launched.

While I respect the right to alternative visions of outer space, I also reserve my own right to resist those ideas for which I have not yet, or am unlikely to be, convinced of their merit. To me, asteroids aren’t places that facilitate conspicuous consumption, Mars isn’t a place for colonization or escapism, and space, as a whole, isn’t a place for aggressive military endeavours. While I am open to being convinced otherwise, below are the reasons I, as a geographer, don’t subscribe to place-making processes around the aforementioned ideas.

Consumption, Escape, and Conflict

When it comes to mining rare earth elements in space, it essentially comes down to the fact that it is unnecessary and encourages ongoing wasteful resource consumption and disposal here on Earth (though accessing water from asteroids for fuel is a slightly different issue). Given all the other things we could be doing in space, rather than mining these materials, we should be looking to reduce needless consumption of them, mandating ethical mining practices on Earth, practicing responsible e-waste remediation, and funding the development of recycling technologies.

In my opinion, we should instead focus on the most necessary uses of these materials rather than ignore their externalities and remain wasteful just to buy new phones every six months. Is it truly more sensible to fly to outer space and mine asteroids than address waste and consumption here on Earth? As every grade school student knows: reduce, reuse, recycle.

E-waste disposal sites such as this are growing at alarming rates with massive environmental impacts (Image Credit: United Nations Environment Program)

As for escaping to Mars. While humans exploring Mars for scientific reasons some time in the future sounds okay to me, investing in ‘colonization’ and permanent residency on the Red Planet is an escape from reality. Frankly, I have yet to be thoroughly convinced that humans going to Mars is a worthwhile venture. I can’t help but think this perspective isn’t related to my work in climate change policy where the researchers and government officials I speak with are uniformly, and chronically, underfunded.

Bluntly, no claim of ‘needing to be a multi-planetary species’ makes any sense, or is worth a dollar of public investment. Invest in Martian exploration for science, yes, for residency, no. Even if you believe an imminent event will somehow make Earth worse to live on than Mars (which it wont) we should confront the realities of things like human caused climate change, or potential asteroid impacts, and make the changes needed so that we all survive and thrive.

Currently, we don’t need to fantasize about, or invest public funds into, Mars colonies as an escape from Armageddon. There are much better, more equitable, things to spend our money on (not to mention the entire issue of planetary contamination).

Exploring Mars has been invaluable, but its unclear what benefits would come from investing in permanent residency (Photo Credit: NASA, ESA, The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), J. Bell (ASU), M. Wolff (Space Science Institute))

Finally, as the Outer Space Treaty suggests, we need to continue with diplomacy as the means to avoid space-based conflict. There is no need to promote a tax-payer funded cosmic arms race that benefits the same old war profiteers and foreign policy hawks. Militarization of space is a long-discussed topic, and frankly not something I could consider myself an expert on compared to those who study it everyday.

While security is important, if any nation really wants to invest billions into orbital infrastructure to “protect their assets” I vote they do so through continued investment into navigation, communications, and Earth observation satellites. Technologies that help prevent disasters, connect communities, and address climate change.

Space Advocacy: Now Contains Ethics

Arguments of place in space are not ‘making space exploration political’, but more accurately, making the politics of space exploration more transparent, and opening the processes to more voices. In doing so, I am open to questions of whether outer space can have sites for both science and commodification, peace and conflict, or unappropriated and appropriated territory. Space is, after all, quite large…but in my opinion, things like private property, escapism, and increasing military activity are Pandora’s Boxes, so to speak, once they are opened there is probably no going back (same for planetary contamination).

Any activities that might lead to these problematic processes need to be heavily reviewed and debated democratically by international and local communities before they occur. They need to go through a very political process which reflects the very political place-making ideas that they are. Luckily, a sort of international framework already exists in the form of the Outer Space Treaty, and the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs. Domestically, national space agencies need to reflect the interests of all voters, not just space advocates (or people like me: space science and exploration advocates).

For myself, the Outer Space Treaty gets it right when it comes to what, and who, space is for (for the most part, as orbital debris is a bit complicated). To me, space is for everyone willing to abide by international law, space is for non-exclusive scientific inquiry and exploration. Space, fundamentally, is a place for answering questions such as: how we (and everything else in the solar system) got here, how we stay here without destroying ourselves or the species around us, how we make the Earth a better place for everyone…oh…and, yes astrobiologists, whether or not we are alone in the universe.

Personally, I like science and exploration, and to me, that’s what space is for. This position is a reflection of my own ideological perspectives, because place-making is political. In my opinion, space science advocates should never insist that space exploration is apolitical; it never has been and never will be. In making outer space in the 21st Century my very political vote goes to preserving the Moon, Mars, and other bodies, as places of cooperative, non-exclusive, scientific investigation. Frankly, I vote that we give the Outer Space Treaty many more anniversaries.

What humans do in space will always be intimately connected with what humans do on Earth. (Image Credit Albin Berlin)

Danny Bednar (Twitter: @SpaceProfessor2) is a PhD candidate and instructor in the Department of Geography at Western University in London, ON, Canada. He researches and teaches courses on climate change adaptation, geopolitics, and space exploration. All views are his own.