Lost in Space | Boston Review
Billionaires such as Elon Musk and Richard Branson peddle the idea that space represents a public hope, all the while reaping big private profits.
Image: UK billionaire Richard Branson aboard his Virgin Galactic VSS Unity space rocket plane on July 11. (Photo by Pavlo Gonchar / Sipa USA via AP Images)
Having made enormous fortunes on Earth, billionaires are now racing each other to space. Former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the richest person on the planet, recently announced that he will be one of four “space tourists” on his private space company Blue Origin’s inaugural human spaceflight scheduled for July 20, 2021, the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The news caused Virgin Galactic owner Richard Branson to speed up his own planned space trip and launch himself into space this weekend, nine days before Bezos.
The history of celestial exploration reveals how the logics of capitalism, colonialism, and corporations have always been violently intertwined.
Fellow tech billionaire, and third richest person on Earth, Elon Musk is often the most vocal about his space company, SpaceX, and his plans to make humans an “interplanetary species.” Bezos, however, is just as obsessed with outer space as the Tesla founder is. The billionaires concur that it is humanity’s destiny to settle the stars. And, without much real public debate, private space corporations appear to have settled the matter: space will be humanity’s next frontier.
The notion that private corporations ought to achieve something that states have been able to do since the 1960s—fly to space—is a peculiarly U.S. one. It combines domestic libertarianism and its idolatry of private individuals’ entrepreneurship with the more global ethos of neoliberalism and government outsourcing. However, despite these motivating philosophies, private companies have launched their schemes for space colonization using massive amounts of public money through government contracts.
As previously examined in these pages, the space race of the Cold War was characterized by a triumphalism around the power and scientific capacity of nation-states. Today’s wave of space exploration, however, is being led by tech billionaires’ private space corporations for financial gain—and, if we believe Bezos and Musk, for the betterment of human civilization. But the rhetoric and history of celestial exploration reveal how the logics of capitalism, colonialism, and corporations have always been intimately, and violently, intertwined. And, as history shows us, allowing corporations the power to colonize space may result in outcomes that even states cannot control.
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In the early years of Blue Origin, Bezos personally funded his company (by selling one billion of Amazon stock per year, he revealed in 2017) and initially focused on space tourism as a potential source of revenue, as well as a way—he claimed—to acclimate people to the idea of space travel. But Bezos watched as Musk’s SpaceX quickly eclipsed his company, both in size and success. Musk had funded SpaceX through a combination of venture capital investment and billions in government contracts. While Blue Origin has never launched a rocket that achieved orbit, SpaceX has been flying NASA cargo to the International Space Station since 2012.
Bezos and Musk spend millions of dollars lobbying Congress to continue funding their projects, which already recieve massive amounts of public money through government contracts.
When Tesla received a $1.3 billion tax break to open a battery plant in Nevada in 2014, Bezos sent off an email to a fellow Amazon executive asking why Musk had been so successful at securing big government incentives. But now Bezos has nothing to complain about. Blue Origin routinely competes with SpaceX for contracts, and both companies spend millions lobbying Congress to continue funding these projects. After SpaceX initially won a contract to build a lunar lander, a short-lived amendment to the Endless Frontier Act which would have authorized $10 billion to NASA’s moon program and established a second award was even briefly nicknamed the “Bezos Bailout.”
It is true that Musk has a particular talent for securing government funding across his business ventures. In her book The Entrepreneurial State (2013), Mariana Mazzucato debunks the notion that free markets and small states, rather than government investment in technological innovation, create economic success. She documents how Musk’s companies SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity have received billions in government support, including grants, tax breaks, and subsidized loans. On top of that, they have also secured billions more in procurement contracts and direct investments in new technologies from NASA and the Department of Energy. (This government support is not marginal. Tesla only had its first full-year profit in 2020, although Musk has accumulated much of his personal fortune through ownership of the company’s stock.)
But this outsourcing of colonization efforts to private corporations is not just a feature of the neoliberal state; corporations have long been embedded in the history of colonization. In the early days of colonization, though companies’ home states often provided them money and legitimacy for their ventures overseas, governments did not always tightly control these endeavors. For instance, the British East India Company—a “company-state,” as coined by Philip Stern—maintained armed forces, waged and declared war, collected taxes, minted coin, and at one point “ruled” over more subjects than the British state itself. As J. C. Sharman and Andrew Phillips noted in Outsourcing Empire: How Company-States Made the Modern World (2020), “in some cases, company-states came to wield more military and political power than many monarchs of the day.”
Today states, not corporations, are perceived to be the truly dangerous actors in space exploration. But corporations have long been embedded in the history of colonization.
Company-states were predicated on an understanding of sovereignty as divisible and delegatory, defying what we today consider “public” and “private” power. Compared to company-states at their zenith, even the largest modern-day multinational corporation—and certainly SpaceX and Blue Origin—has significantly less authority, with absolutely no military might to speak of. The monarchies that first granted monopoly charters to these voyaging companies, having evolved into modern states, have also consolidated sovereign authority and gained far more power than their antecedents in previous centuries. Today states, not corporations, are perceived to be the truly dangerous actors in space exploration. Particularly in the context of worsening U.S.-China relations, the militarization of space by states is often posited as the most likely way that celestial encounters may become violent. On this view, if private U.S. companies were to extract commercial resources from asteroids, it would be a much more peaceful prospect than the U.S. Space Force establishing a military base on the moon.
However, this framing ignores corporations’ violent histories and the deep connection between private commercial pursuits and systems of capitalism and colonialism. Moreover, though states may help create and participate in these systems, they do not always control the forces they unleash. For example, there was nothing inevitable about the fact that the East India Company came under the control of the British state. Even when it did, it caused devastating impacts on both the places it claimed to “rule” as well as the state that had chartered and owned it, ushering in the age of the British Empire. As historian William Dalrymple, author of The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company (2019), noted, “It was not the British government that seized India at the end of the 18th century, but a dangerously unregulated private company. . . [that] executed a corporate coup unparalleled in history: the military conquest, subjugation and plunder of vast tracts of southern Asia. It almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history.” As contemporary companies set out to colonize space, we should ask whether modern states have a better grasp on how to control corporations and the violence that may result from battles over who ought to rule these settlers and resources.
Though Blue Origin and SpaceX are indebted to the U.S. government for funding, U.S. regulators’ ability to manage these corporations—especially Musk’s—already appears limited. Musk’s remarks toward U.S. regulators, even those investigating him, are infamous for being outrageous and crude—and his behavior is no less intransigent. For instance, in December of last year, SpaceX refused to comply with Federal Aviation Association (FAA) orders to abort a high-altitude test launch of its Starship rocket after the agency revoked its launch license due to atmospheric conditions. And this was not the first time Musk defied government authority. In May 2020 he re-opened his Tesla factory despite an Alameda county health order to shelter in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, requesting on Twitter that police “only arrest him” if law enforcement took action. His companies have been repeatedly investigated and fined for various other regulatory and safety violations. (Reports have claimed that the Tesla factory does not have proper hazard signage because Musk “does not like the color yellow.”) Is it simply the case that Musk, like many powerful men before him, receives preferential treatment from the state? Or are the state and its regulatory agencies truly unable to control him?
Colonial destruction was justified by a specific ideology that made a certain view of the world, and humanity’s role in it, appear natural and inevitable.
Musk, for his part, does not seem particularly cowed. After the December rocket launch incident, the FAA announced that additional measures, including having an FAA inspector on site, will be imposed on SpaceX during future launches. In response Musk tweeted on January 28 that the FAA “rules are meant for a handful of expendable launches per year from a few government facilities. Under those rules, humanity will never get to Mars.” For Musk, becoming an inter-planetary species is an existential matter for human civilization, far more important than rules and regulations.
Both Bezos and Musk use the language of moral imperative when talking about space colonization: humanity must not merely explore space, but settle it, too. The two engineers can easily explain the technical dimensions of their plans to colonize the cosmos. Though these plans differ—Bezos wants to establish artificial tube-like structures floating close to Earth, whereas Musk wants to terraform Mars—the political philosophies underpinning them are remarkably similar. Both offer utopian visions of humanity in space that attempt to provide technological solutions to the political problems that colonialism and capitalism have caused.
In 1982 Bezos said in his high school valedictorian speech that “the Earth is finite and if the world economy and population is to keep expanding, space is the only way to go.” His views have not changed much since then. “[Within a few centuries] we’ll be using all of the solar energy that impacts the Earth,” he told a crowd at an event hosted by Blue Origin. “That’s an actual limit.” This Malthusian logic underpins his arguments about the inevitability of humanity’s growth and the necessity of expanding into space. There are short-term problems, he explains, such as poverty and pollution, and there are long-term problems, such as running out of energy. If we do not want to become “a civilization of rationing and stasis,” Bezos warns, we must expand to the stars where “resources are, for all practical purposes, infinite.”
For Musk space colonization is also a means to preserve human civilization, albeit as a hedge against eventual extinction. “I don’t have an immediate doomsday prophecy,” he told an international conference in 2016, “but history suggests that there will be some extinction event. The alternative is to become a space-faring civilization and multi-planetary species.” Whereas Bezos emphasizes the cyclical logic of capitalist growth—we must expand, in order to keep expanding—Musk is more explicit in his plans for colonial settlement. One of his proposals—to allow individuals to purchase one-way tickets to Mars which can be paid off through promised jobs in the new colony— has been called Martian indentured servitude. “Mars would have a labor shortage for a long time,” Musk explained, so “jobs would not be in short supply.” And while Bezos imagines that humans will be able to travel between Earth and space often, Musk contends that the Mars colony should be self-sufficient, able “to survive if the resupply ships stop coming from Earth for any reason.”
Imperialist conceptions of ownership transform space into an “empty frontier” where certain individuals can project their political dreams.
For two entrepreneurs whose businesses have been lauded as exceptionally visionary, their celestial utopias stand out for their lack of political creativity and awareness. Bezos’s notion that imperial expansion is the only way to support an ever-growing population is an old colonialist appeal, now repackaged for the stars. The infinite need for resources, as well as the “poverty and pollution” that Bezos dismisses as short-term problems, are deeply enmeshed in capitalism’s cycles of extraction and are currently causing Earth’s climate crisis.
Given the green-orientation of his enterprises, Musk is presumably aware of the climate crisis—or at least the opportunities it presents for government funding. Yet he has not explicitly named climate change as one of the potential “extinction events” that a Mars colony might protect against. Putting aside the question of whether terraforming Mars is actually feasible—for the record, a Nature Astronomy article suggests it is not—settling space won’t be cost-free to Earth. As science writer Shannon Stirone pointed out in The Atlantic, “Mars has a very thin atmosphere; it has no magnetic field to help protect its surface from radiation from the sun or galactic cosmic rays; it has no breathable air and the average surface temperature is a deadly 80 degrees below zero . . . . For humans to live there in any capacity they would need to build tunnels and live underground.” The environmental and human destruction necessary to make space habitable would dwarf any technological or political response needed to stop the climate crisis now.
And—like capitalism and climate change—the impacts of colonizing space will be far worse for some rather than others, particularly in the Global South. For example, when Indonesian president Joko Widodo offered SpaceX the island of Biak in Papua New Guinea, home to an ongoing secessionist campaign, local communities protested that the building of the launch station would cause vast ecological damage and community displacement. They had reason to worry. This is precisely what happened in Boca Chica, a small town on the southern tip of Texas where SpaceX had built a previous launch site. After SpaceX moved into town, residents of the Texas community were pushed out from their homes as the area became unsafe due to rocket activity, which has since damaged a wildlife refuge in the area. SpaceX has offered to purchase residents’ homes, but below the price many think is fair. An email from SpaceX to Boca Chica holdouts stated, “As the scale and frequency of spaceflight activities at the site continue to accelerate, your property will frequently fall within established hazard zones in which no civilians will be permitted to remain, in order to comply with all federal and other public safety regulations.” SpaceX’s impact on the area demonstrated little concern for its displacement and damage of the local community.
While we all may use, explore, or research space, no state can claim to own it—though this does not mean states will not try.
Musk and Bezos rely on the notion that colonizing space somehow differs from colonizing Earth. Implicit in their arguments is the belief that it was not the systems of colonial-capitalism, but rather the context surrounding their implementation, that wreaked havoc in the past. On this view, although previous colonization attempts often unleashed genocidal violence, that history cannot be repeated in space. After all, no one lives there. This perspective ignores the fact that colonial destruction was justified by a specific ideology that made a certain view of the world, and humanity’s role in it, appear natural and inevitable. The idea that space is open for the taking simply because “no one is there” finds root in the exact colonial logics that have justified settler genocide for centuries: that only certain people, using resources in certain ways, have a claim to land and ownership. Imperialist conceptions of ownership thus transform space into an “empty frontier” where certain individuals can project their political dreams, whether they be extractive manufacturing industries or settler colonies.
In his recent book Theft is Property! (2019), Robert Nichols interrogates the recursive logic of colonial dispossession, which relies on the simultaneous processes of transformation and theft. As he puts it:
Colonization entails the large-scale transfer of land that simultaneously recodes the object of exchange in question such that it appears retrospectively to be a form of theft in the ordinary sense. . . ‘dispossession’ may be coherently reconstructed to refer to a process in which new proprietary relations are generated but under structural conditions that demand their simultaneous negation.
In one move, land is both transformed into property, and taken away.
The same logic allows Musk and Bezos to claim that space is both “empty” and free for the taking. Of course, that we do not use space is a lie, even if no one owns or occupies a plot of land on the moon. Just as we all use waterways and air, “ownership” cannot determined by whose territory these resources reside in. For example, the increased light pollution (or “light graffiti”) caused by the thousands of orbiting satellites has affected many communities on Earth, from astronomers and their scientific research to indigenous communities who rely on celestial navigation for cultural practices and survival. But because these communities aren’t “properly” using or appropriating space’s resources, they aren’t considered its rightful owners—and therefore have no claim to space.
But these communities have no less of a claim to the skies than Musk and Bezos, according to international law. The Outer Space Treaty states that the “exploration and use of outer space . . . shall be the province of all mankind.” While we all may use, explore, or research space, no state can claim to own it—though this does not mean states will not try. For example, in 2015 President Barack Obama signed the SPACE Act. The law allowed private U.S. citizens to claim ownership of resources extracted from space and defend their property rights in U.S. courts. International legal experts have pointed out that the SPACE Act may theoretically violate the Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits states from claiming sovereignty over any celestial body. The law, however, specifically notes that the United States is not claiming sovereignty over any extraterrestrial territory, only ownership of resources. Critics dismiss this defense; states cannot claim ownership unless they first claim sovereignty over territory. Territoriality, after all, makes states. Even in the stars, it is difficult to imagine any other principle as a basis for governing.
Yet territorial borders have never acted as a hard limit to the exercise of power. The United States frequently exerts power over people and property outside of its own(ed) territory. Akin to Benedict Anderson’s logo map, territoriality operates as an imagined associational identity: it legitimates state power, but it does not really create or limit it.
Tech entrepreneurs often envision ways to cede from the state, both territorially and politically.
Still, utopian visions of political communities—as Philip Steinberg, Elizabeth Nyman and Mauro Caraccioli pointed out—from Plato’s solitary city-state to Martian colonies, often fail to imagine any method beyond territorial sovereignty as a way to escape the state and start afresh. For example, the Seasteading Institute is a “sister project” of Bezos’s and Musk’s space colonization projects, spearheaded by another tech billionaire Peter Thiel. Thiel, Musk’s co-founder at Paypal, and Patri Friedman, a former Google engineer (and Milton Friedman’s grandson), established the Seasteading Institute in order to “further the establishment and growth of permanent, autonomous ocean communities, enabling innovations with new political and social systems” through floating ocean platforms. Like the space colonizers, seasteaders imagine that human engineering will be able to create new, virgin territories—in the sea or stars—which will provide the “space” to solve political problems. “If we can solve the engineering challenges of seasteading, two-thirds of the Earth’s surface becomes open for these political start-ups,” Friedman explained. Thiel has referred to these floating island nations as using a “space colonies model”—but, closer to Earth, the technology to build them is more feasible.
For some Silicon Valley elites, the point of these “start-up nations” is that states will not be able to control them. Tech entrepreneurs often envision ways to cede from the state, both territorially and politically. For example, venture capitalist Balaji Srinivasan briefly achieved notoriety for his manifesto “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit” in which he advocated the region cede from the United States to become its own corporate city-state. Moreover, Mark Zuckerberg was asked at a staff meeting during the start of the pandemic whether Facebook could buy a COVID-free island to shelter its employees. Silicon Valley executives are also notorious offshore doomsday preppers, with figures such as Thiel and Y Combinator’s Sam Altman buying and building extravagant apocalypse shelters in New Zealand. But these visions of state secession are not ideologically unmoored.
While techno-utopian predictions about the demise of the territorial state are often associated with John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (1996), another political manifesto predicting the end of sovereign nations is also highly influential among Silicon Valley elites—The Sovereign Individual (1997), co-authored by William Rees-Mogg and James Dale Davidson. Despite his reputation for failed political predictions in the United Kingdom, Rees-Mogg has dedicated tech entrepreneur fans, including Thiel, Srinivasan, and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. It is easy to see why the book appeals to Silicon Valley types; it predicted the rise of cryptocurrency, as well as the death of the nation-state due to technological innovation. But the demise of the state is no cause for concern, Rees-Mogg contends, as it will “liberate individuals as never before.” He states that the new Sovereign Individual “will operate like the gods of myth in the same physical environment as the ordinary, subject citizen, but in a separate realm politically.”
As Bezos and Musk extol the virtues of using public money to move humanity into the stars, we should ask: Who are these colonies for?
Not everyone on Earth will become a Sovereign Individual, however, according to Rees-Mogg. Only the “cognitive elite . . . persons of superior skills and intelligence” will be so fortunate. On this view, as modern states decline due to dwindling tax revenues, these superior individuals will cede from states entirely to form their own micro-enclaves, causing “a radical restructuring of the nature of sovereignty.” Most ominously, Rees-Mogg notes, “The lower classes will be walled out. The move to gated communities is all but inevitable.” As Bezos and Musk extol the virtues of using public money to move humanity into the stars, we should ask: Who are these colonies for?
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The ideals guiding billionaires’ race to space are not new. Lofty utopian visions have often obscured violent processes that prioritize abstract visions of “human civilization” over some human lives. For his part, Bezos looks at this as a utilitarian calculation, a numbers game. If humanity expands into space, he urges, “trillions of humans” can prosper, “which means thousands of Einsteins or Mozarts.” He fails to acknowledge that the genius of those future Einsteins and Mozarts exists now, on Earth, but unrealized and unrecognized in the very cycles of poverty Bezos dismisses as a short-term problem. Furthermore, and more importantly, the value of human life should not be based on some arbitrary utilitarian calculation of humans’ intellectual contribution to “civilization” or their ability to replicate the legacies of two white men.
Lofty utopian visions have often obscured violent processes that prioritize abstract visions of “human civilization” over some human lives.
Musk is more explicit about his willingness to sacrifice human life. Mars is “not for the faint of heart,” he has pronounced. There’s a “good chance you’ll die. And it’s going to be tough, tough going. But it’ll be pretty glorious if it works out.” In fact, his belief in the necessity of human sacrifice for this glorious future was openly celebrated in his Saturday Night Live skit “Chad on Mars” in which a Martian settler embarks on a suicide mission after a technical malfunction in the colony’s oxygen distribution systems. In the clip Musk remains safely in command back on Earth, thanking the doomed settler on behalf of humanity as his demise is broadcast live worldwide. When the settler perishes at the end of the skit, Musk shrugs his shoulders and walks away, nonchalantly reminding his team, “Well, I did say people were going to die.”
While Bezos and Musk are right that colonizing space will not result in the genocide of nonexistent extraterrestrial populations, the colonial destruction of indigenous communities was but one component in a global regime of racial violence. Indeed, the labor needed to support the system of colonial-capitalism in the United States fueled the atrocities of the Atlantic slave trade. In pursuit of America’s “manifest destiny” along the Western frontier, white railroad company owners brutally exploited Asian migrants. One in ten Chinese laborers died building the transcontinental railroad. It is no coincidence that casual discussions of colonization are happening in an industry that is still dominated by white men.
Bezos has said that he first became obsessed with space when he was five years old, watching the Apollo moon landing on television exactly fifty-two years before his plans to launch himself into space. Listening to Bezos and Musk speak about their childhood obsession with rocket ships to adoring crowds, one perceives another reason why two of the richest men on Earth are spending billions in public money to get to space: they think it’s cool. One wonders what the five-year-old Bezos would have thought upon learning that Wernher von Braun, whose work was foundational to the Apollo program, was a former Nazi, or that he used slaves to build his rockets in wartime Germany—20,000 of whom died in his factory. Utopian dreams, even in space, always have a human cost.
Utopian dreams, even in space, always have a human cost. Remember that the labor needed to support colonial-capitalism in the United States fueled the atrocities of the Atlantic slave trade.
Bezos and Musk’s technological visions of becoming an “interplanetary species” do not answer the political question of what kind of future awaits us (whoever “us” is) in space. Will we find, like the British East India Company, that SpaceX and Blue Origin’s space colonies are ultimately incorporated into an arm of the state, inadvertently transforming the United States into an intergalactic empire? Will space corporations, following the Virginia or Massachusetts Bay Companies, break free of their home states (and planets) and become independent governing entities on the moon or Mars? Or will Bezos and Musk, in the image of King Leopold’s horrifically violent Belgian Congo, wrangle their way into becoming personal kings of princely celestial estates? And will states be able to stop them?
The language of inevitability that proponents of space colonization deploy obscures another, better option: that we do not colonize space at all.