The smartest way to get back into space travel is not the easiest way.

By: Daniel Mackisack

Special to News Talk Florida

I watched Space Force last week. It made me sad.

Not because it was a disappointing mess. It was. But because all of the bits of it that were half decent, were also terrifyingly accurate. Militarisation, politicization, animal abuse.

Last month I watched SpaceX launch the first manned mission to space from American soil since 2011. From Florida no less, home of the Apollo program. But that also made me sad.

Not because I don’t absolutely love space exploration or have the deepest admiration for the engineers, scientists and astronauts involved. I do. But because it feels like we’re sitting on top of half a million kilos of explosives ready to blast us straight to a dystopian hellscape.

For the last few decades starry eyed billionaires have increasingly been setting their sites on the heavens, with dreams of Mars colonies, Moon bases, asteroid mining and a future as lords of the final frontier.

Part of this is our fault. We’ve set them up for it.

In our feckless bickering over government budgets we have played into a political and media narrative that pits space exploration against healthcare and education and other obvious false choice scenarios. We ask ourselves “But what about all the problems here on Earth?”, rather than simply (cough) defunding war, police violence and other forms of senseless brutality and spending the resulting trillions on doing something decent for a change.

But it is also a rational problem of trust. Concentrations of money and power, wherever they may lie, be it private enterprise, or government, present problems of corruption, inefficiency and at the end of the day, inequality.

Think of the most powerful companies and industries in the history of the world. The Dutch East India Company, Standard Oil, Apple. Logistics, primary resources, tech. Now think of the most powerful nations and empires in the history of the world.

Having stuff is one thing, but controlling the means by which everyone accesses it (via land, air, sea, net and now space) is something else entirely. Having both, is what empires are made of.

FILE – In this Monday, Oct. 28, 2019 file photo, Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, poses for a photo outside the New York Stock Exchange as fireworks are exploded before his company’s IPO. In 2020, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said space is currently a $400 billion market, including satellites. Opening up spaceflight to paying customers, he said, could expand the market to $1 trillion. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

With these tools they were able to not just rule, but dominate, granting unprecedented power and wealth to small collections of individuals, at the expense of pretty much everyone and everything else.

This is terrifying. It should terrify you. Because it’s happening. The first rocket has already launched.

And here’s the thing. Space, as it turns out, is exceptionally big. A lot bigger than the Atlantic. So all of that wealth. All of that power. All of that history of dominance and inequality that’s played out on this planet time and time again. That. But interplanetary. Interstellar. And uninterrupted.

Musk. Bezos. Branson et al. They’ve done the math and they’ve realised that even a fraction of a percent of infinity is, well, infinity. They know that even a piece of the pie is an empire in the making. Whoever is holding the knife is basically Genghis Victoria Caesar.

One asteroid, called ’16 Psyche’, is said to be a solid hunk of metal worth 700 quintillion dollars. What is a quintillion you say? Well, 700 of them is roughly 7 million times the value of the entire world economy. Every company. Every country. Everything. One asteroid.

Now I know that’s absurd. Nothing is worth that much. And it’s a practically meaningless number, because you have to be able to turn it into stuff and transport it places and even then you can’t just flood the market, or the value drops to nothing (just ask the diamond industry).

That’s true. So I guess what you’d have to do is control the resources, the logistics and the tech. Then you could effectively bend the human race over your knee.

Earth has resources too of course, but they’re increasingly buried deep, in parts per million. Also the increasing pressure to protect the environment is thankfully causing some movement, albeit not nearly enough. The result is that despite the enormous expense and investment associated with space based industry, it’s very clear which way the wind is ultimately blowing. Earth based resourcing operations are going to continue getting difficult, more heavily regulated and terrible for publicity. While in space, no one cares how much of a mess you make or how many landscapes you carve to bits. They’ll probably applaud the proud display of human (nay colonial) spirit.

Beyond resources, we have the troubling lean towards space militarization. It is understood that any new ‘space’ constitutes a new theatre and it would be naive to assume that weapons in space are not going to be a thing at some point, somehow. But good lord, we need to do everything we possibly can to avoid it. Not charge head first into starship troopers with a phaser sticking out of our pants.

‘Space Force’ (the actual thing, not the show), is an absolute atrocity and has not received nearly enough condemnation. Honestly the fact that they poached the starfleet logo for their nonsense is about enough to make me side with the Borg.

But that too is now happening. A new division of military personnel. A revival of the ‘Star Wars’ type programs from the 1980s. The US is not the only ones to blame here. Other nations are equally amped up for the incoming arms race. But it is precisely for that reason, that the so called leadership of the free world should be focussed on soft power solutions that include a significant update to the ‘Outer Space Treaty’ (initially set up to prevent the use or placement of nuclear weapons), that includes stipulations on small arms, non nuclear weapons, military operations, resource use, land claims and the very real possibility of corporate nation or even planethood.

A failure to do so, is to allow the eternal corruption of our future. The humanity that goes to space doesn’t need to be perfect. It doesn’t even need to have solved all the major problems. But it does need to be humanity.

Just like the colonialism of the past, whatever we take with us, will stick around. Greed. Bigotry. Oppression. A future in space that includes only a certain kind of person is not a future at all. Leaving the earth can not be an act of abandonment.

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken, left, and Doug Hurley wave as they leave a news conference after they arrived at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Wednesday, May 20, 2020. The two astronauts will fly on the SpaceX Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station scheduled for launch on May 27. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

How we go, is just as important as going.

There have been plenty of folks claiming that the success of SpaceX proves the success of privatisation and the ‘incredible’ US system of free market capitalism — yes, the same one that can cripple a global economy and starve millions based on how a fraction of the population feels on any particular day. During the launch, one of the commentators even claimed that the launch proved what private industry could accomplish when it was “given the freedom” to do so. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I didn’t realise that anyone had been holding private industry back. If anything, private industry needed NASA (a public institution) to offer them a contract before they could get the whole thing off the ground. I have no doubt that private industry can (and probably will) take us to the Moon. But it will be 50 something years after the public sector already did it. So let’s just cool our jets.

What the SpaceX launch actually proves is not the glorious possibilities of private industry, but the inglorious failure of politics and a complicit media. An unassailable empire of budget commitments to a vast military industrial complex and a corruption and conflagration of public interest is responsible for more that just a misappropriation of funds, but the hijacking of democracy and the pitting of worthwhile endeavour vs worthwhile endeavour — of good vs good, while awful is free to do as it pleases. It is the same failure that results in up to 40% of city budgets being spent on militarised policing, while community development, support work and other preventative solutions receive single digits or less. We have been led to believe that privatisation is the only way to get things done, by the same folks that actively thwart our public institutions from doing anything useful. Yet another symptom of a democracy that simply isn’t quite democratic enough.

Because of the dependency on public infrastructure and training, private industry is, for now, tied to public institutions. NASA works in cooperation with contractors from SpaceX to Lockheed Martin and ostensibly it is NASA that will once again put “boots on the moon” sometime in the next decade, albeit with private sector assistance. But make no mistake. It’s a launching pad. NASA needs approval for budgets that will dwindle as lawmakers and others decide the job is being done elsewhere so “why bother?” while private industry just needs to prove capability and then fire up the engines.

Once that occurs, we are looking at a future dominated by corporate interests on a scale never before seen. I know that sounds strange given the corporatised world we live in at the moment. But the sky is no longer the limit.

Mackisack is a sociologist, social entrepreneur and former diplomat, having worked with both UK and NZ governments and served on the board of the British New Zealand Business Association. As a fellow with the American University in Cairo during the Arab Spring, he studied how relationship networks shape democracy and authoritarianism. He has assisted research into the effect of international trade organizations on developing countries and worked on a World Bank study of infrastructure in South Asia. More recently he is a co-founder of media transparency start-up ‘Write In Stone’ and leads workshops on collaborative decision making. A massive sci-fi nerd and belligerent optimist, he is also bent on making Star Trek a reality.