Justin Nobel | Longreads | September 2018 | 12 minutes (3,068 words)
Earlier this year, as the climate crisis continued to spin out of control and our president divvied up our public lands and coastal waters to the oil and gas industry, many of us good happy Americans in the Resistance sat in our cubicles and living rooms to watch SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy hurtle toward our nearest red orb neighbor, gleefully convinced that this was the beginning of the thing that was going to save us. “One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event,” wrote the man behind the rocket, SpaceX founder Elon Musk, in 2017. “The alternative is to become a space-bearing civilization and a multi-planetary species, which I hope you would agree is the right way to go.”
I find myself disagreeing and wondering what mind-numbing drug everyone is smoking. Then I find myself realizing, oh wait, this is just American culture, and we’ve had this idea that this land is the best, that we are the greatest, that there is nowhere or nothing better rammed down our throats since birth. Sure, we’re great, I don’t discount our freedoms, but were not all the peoples and cultures trampled and annihilated to forge this county also great? And here is the point: We are going into space with the same domineering mind-set that colonists have had when they’ve entered every new continent and realm.
Even the language and rhetoric of the latest space wave, which Musk is happily at the helm of, is the same. Colonizing. Taking over a “dead” world. Bringing our wonderful gifts of technology and culture to some godforsaken place. The saving of a race, the saving of an entire world, the nationalistic pride, the promise of an unfettered new land, the promise of bounty, the extraction of new resources. I am sorry, this leads nowhere good, and the reason is that there is no spirituality involved. If we enter space without a spiritual reckoning for what we’ve done to the Earth, we will kill space just as we are killing Earth. In fact, our contamination of space is well on its way.
In 1959, an insectoid Soviet spacecraft called the Luna 2 crash-landed into a vast lava plain on the moon known as the Mare Imbrium, or Sea of Rains. The craft, which had been gathering data on the lunar atmosphere, was the first human-made object to reach the surface of another celestial body; it was also our first other-earthly junk pile. Since that time America has grown fond of crash-landing probes on moons and planets. For one, it’s an easy way to trash used equipment. And as our space vehicles smash into other orbs, they rip open the surface and reveal what’s beneath, allowing scientists an additional research opportunity. Combined, the United States and U.S.S.R./Russia have crashed more than 55 probes and crafts into the moon. There is an extraordinary belief rippling through our society, pushed by earthlings like Musk, that colonizing space will somehow help our species transcend the traits that have enabled us to pollute and imperil this planet. What rubbish! Our first baby steps into the solar system have already shown space to be yet another realm for humans — and especially Americans — to trash, abuse, mine, toxify, and torture.
On the Apollo 15 mission, in 1971, astronaut David Scott intentionally left a simple plaque the size of a beer coaster with the names of astronauts and cosmonauts that perished in the space race on the lunar surface. Charles Duke left a family portrait encased in plastic. Astronaut Alan Shepard decided to drive a pair of golf balls across the surface of the moon. Apparently for kicks, astronaut Edgar Mitchell hurled one of the support rods of a solar wind collector like a javelin through the lunar atmosphere. All these astronauts peed into sacks called urine bags then discarded them on the moon. (It reminds me of guys at a bachelor party in New Orleans.) Twelve men have walked on the moon, and zero women. It shows. The moon has become the solar system’s largest bro playground. Sure, it’s nice for Charles Duke that his family will live eternally on the moon, but why is there no plaque to the moon itself, one that acknowledges its own origin story, and its own aesthetic?
Our first baby steps into the solar system have already shown space to be yet another realm for humans — and especially Americans — to trash, abuse, mine, toxify, and torture.
The moon is behind human cycles and emotions. The moon is a center of magic and mystery for virtually every culture on earth. In the Baltics, there is Meness, a moon god “dressed in a starry gown and riding in a chariot drawn by gray horses,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica. In Sioux mythology, there is the moon Goddess Hanwi, whom the God of the sky gifted time; from this comes one of the Sioux’s measure of time, Moon time guards her people during the night. “How pure the moonlight / On the sand before the shrine,” wrote famous 17th-century haiku poet Matsuo Bashō. The examples are endless and beautiful. Yet when America goes to the moon we leave our own nuclear family portraits and urine sacks. No spirituality has been accorded the orb. Occasionally astronauts come home with squishy tales of enlightenment, but their actions up on the lunar surface do not bear that out. Space has become America’s most exclusive frat party. And Elon Musk certainly takes few steps to disavow this. “Mars will need everything from iron foundries to pizza joints,” he recently said. “I think Mars should really have great bars: the Mars Bar.” Sure, Musk. Unfortunately for him and his Mars explorers — unlike colonists before them — there’ll be no brothel above the Mars Bar populated by an indigenous race forced into sexual slavery.
And yet the legions pant and scream for Musk (I wonder if Christopher Columbus would have had a large Twitter following?). It just doesn’t add up. A bunch of highly trained, largely testosterone-spuming gearheads, drunk on the same supposed right to possess that drove the first European explorers and American frontiersmen to attempt to exterminate an entire continent of human beings, without any consideration that the landscape they are about to colonize and terraform might have a value all on its own, are somehow going to respect this new world and treat it kindly, even as their own world, run on the exact same rules they are now importing to space, crashes and burns?
As my partner, a woman, explained to me: Space has become the perfect new virgin frontier for men in their interminable desire to be everywhere and their ceaseless conviction that they have a right to be. “I can’t escape my suspicion that there’s something penile about the entire concept of a space race, with its talk of rocket erections and thrust and maiden flights,” Lauren Groff wrote recently in Oxford American, one of the rare space-critical essays to emerge in these Musky times. “The idea of colonizing Mars when we are so thoroughly fucking up our own stunning planet,” Groff adds, “seems … morally fraught.”
Yes, let’s talk about morals. We have ejected into space the same cruelty that hinders our species here on earth. In 1947, on captured V2 Nazi rockets, the United States launched the first animals into space: fruit flies. A year later we launched Albert I, a rhesus monkey. He likely died of suffocation, but he would have perished regardless — not only did the rocket’s valve fail, so did its parachute system. The following year, the United States launched another rhesus monkey, Albert II. He reached low-earth orbit but died upon return, when his parachute failed to open. Albert III and Albert IV perished as well. In 1951, Albert VI, also known as Yorick, survived his trip to low-earth orbit, only to die from heat exhaustion in the blazing New Mexico desert while waiting to be released from his cramped, metal space capsule. The United States has launched squirrel monkeys, pigtailed monkeys, rabbits, dogs, turtles, frog eggs, spiders, jellyfish, and even a chimpanzee into space. Russia has flown dogs, France flew a cat. How sick are we? It’s as if we’ve been given this golden key to a mysterious new chamber, and the first thing we do is pollute it with torture. Lately, our extraterrestrial kidnappings have accelerated. Initially the goal was to leave the animals alone and see if they survived. Now the game is much more invasive.
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In 2015, SpaceX’s highly buzzed-about Dragon spacecraft successfully delivered cargo to the International Space Station. One recent Dragon resupply mission contained 4,300 pounds of goods — food, water, oxygen, medication, washcloths — as well as, according to Scott Kelly, an astronaut who spent a year at the space station “a small population of live mice for a study … on how weightlessness affects bone and muscle.” The International Space Station has become an otherworldly hub for animal experimentation. Rats and mice are the favored subjects. In 2010 and 2011 alone, more than two dozen animal experiments were conducted on the space station. Researchers examined issues such as “spaceflight-induced skeletal fragility in mice” and effects of “long-term spaceflight on female reproductive health.” Oh, here’s a fun one, and I want researchers across the board to weigh in here and tell me what we are truly learning from these experiments other than the confirmation that we’ve now successfully launched our own moral vacuousness into the vacuum of space: “rodent tail and brain deconditioning after 10–15 days of microgravity.”
Just like humans have done on Earth, we have deemed the other species of the planet ours to use and abuse in space, so long as it suits our needs. And even as these delusional anthropocentric methods have literally crashed ecosystems back on our home world and poisoned that world’s water and air, in our fetish to conquer a new realm we have brought the same poisonous mind-set into space. It’s astonishing. We bumble into the cosmos just like we have bumbled across the earth. The idea that space will become some green paradise is a sick joke. If we want to abandon the bad ways of earth and build something new and beautiful, bravo, but should we not start with a new more spiritually charged and ecologically conscious set of principles?
“A wild-eyed investment pitch, pumped up by the enthusiasm of credulous fanboys brought up on comic book sci-fi, wrapped in evangelism of saving humanity from itself & the problems we’ve wrought on this planet, a kind of modern day manifest destiny,” Mark McCaughrean, senior science advisor at the European Space Agency, recently tweeted of Musk’s plan to colonize Mars. This is the truth of it. And with companies already lining up to mine minerals from asteroids and moons, I would emphasize that what we are really talking about is a manifest corporate destiny. Back on Earth, “companies are taking over our country, and companies now have more rights than citizens do,” writes Groff. “Do we want companies to govern space?” These are the sticky questions that Musk fanboys often appear to gloss over. Who will own the titanium-rich moon rocks? The water-ice of Europa? The red dirt of Mars? Do you really think it will be the people? For all Musk’s gusto, his intrepid Martian explorers appear to forget that really, they’ll just be living in a very remote company town.
Who will own the titanium-rich moon rocks? The water-ice of Europa? The red dirt of Mars? Do you really think it will be the people?
And sure, somehow Musk can make even mineral extraction seem sexy, but as his efforts succeed and the cost of space travel drops, how long until Americans think to take our beaucoup amounts of industrial waste we now largely inject deep into the earth — which I wrote about in my last column — and start shipping it into space? One can already foresee the same industrial ghettoizing and environmental injustices that have become so common here occurring in space. Certain moons may well be designated waste moons, or at least certain parts and certain colonies. How long until the first toxic waste injection well is drilled into the moon’s Sea of Rains, or Mars’ Valles Marineris? Oh right, but by then there will be a new Musk, and that person will be selling an updated pitch: To save the dying solar system, humans must travel beyond! Alpha Centauri, here we come! With our drill rigs and toxic incinerators and urine bags!
Sure, there is beauty to the exploration and pursuit of knowledge. There is beauty to space. I get the wonder, I get the desire to explore. But my point is that scientific exploration without a spiritual understanding, a sort of mythological humbleness over the awe and natural wealth that lies before us, whether it be a mountain range or a new planet or our own cells, leads to contamination, evil, and destruction. In our short time on earth, we have eliminated uncounted thousands of species, altered the atmosphere, injected the air, ground, and waterways of our world with toxic chemicals and now suddenly, with no reckoning of our defilement of this planet, we are going gung ho streaming forward to new worlds. Space! Yes, much can be inspired from that voyage, but space without a spiritual reckoning will only ensure the same defilement we’ve inflicted upon earth.
Here’s another thing. Many people generally assume that Mars is a dead world — do you really believe that? Do we even know what dead is? So far, in virtually every realm of Earth we imagined we’d find no life, we have found life. Miles beneath the ocean: actually teaming with life. Miles into the atmosphere: even insects go here. Miles beneath the ground: tons of bacteria, even tiny worms, probably other things too. Smoldering volcano vents, seemingly dead salt lakes, scorching chemical hot springs — they all have life. There certainly is enough evidence at this point to suggest the remote possibility of life on Mars. Now let’s just say that there is, and let’s say it’s unicellular, invisible to the naked human eye — need we ask its permission to colonize it? But we’re size-obsessed here in the United States, so let’s say the organisms on Mars are the size of a large dog, but of course they’re strange and perhaps gooey and like nothing we’ve ever seen before — need we ask this creature’s permission to colonize it? And what if Mars truly were a dead world, at least dead in the way spiritually detached Western science defines the word. We know for a fact the planet is latent with 4-billion-year-old rocks, need we ask permission of these rocks to colonize their home?
You might say, well that’s a stupid game, Justin, but I ask you to consider the words of Christopher Stone, in his brilliant 1972 essay on the rights of nature: “The fact is, that each time there is a movement to confer rights onto some new ‘entity,’ the proposal is bound to sound odd or frightening or laughable,” wrote Stone. “This is partly because until the rightless thing receives its rights, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of ‘us’ — those who are holding rights at the time.” Now I ask you, I truly ask you my fellow human who will exist for maybe 50 or 100 years when this Mars rock may exist for another 5 billion, why again do you have more rights than the rock? Why again should a valley of billion-year-old Martian rocks have any less right to exist in this universe than a bunch of warmongering mutated chimps?
One final point, and this is something any traveler knows. Before entering new realms and cultures one should always bring a gift to your host, yet we have brought no gift, we have brought nothing into space but our own fat agenda. Oh right, Musk brought a car — one of his cars of course. Some gift. “The Tesla will cross the orbit of Mars sometime in July, swing past the orbit of Earth in August 2019, and repeat this roughly nine-month-long cosmic loop for thousands or even millions of years,” reported Business Insider. As Musk recently explained to a crowd at the South by Southwest festival, he arranged for a Tesla to be the payload for the Falcon Heavy because he “wanted to get the public here to wonder, to get excited about the possibility of something new happening in space — of the space frontier getting pushed forward.” That people digested this rot without calling bullshit conveys our worrisome tendency to fall in line behind shiny cult leaders. But he gets people to dream! Musk fans tell me. And I am not saying don’t dream. I am not saying don’t make telescopes, or look to the stars, or wish to one day be among them. I am saying that to preach that Mars will save Earth while we wreck, ravage, and scorch Earth with no sense of spiritual decorum or ecological humility, and somehow then expect that space won’t be wrecked ravaged and scorched too is completely misguided.
And that brings us to the Big Island of Hawaii, where native Hawaiians are involved in a bitter battle to prevent the construction of a massive $1.4 billion telescope called the Thirty Meter Telescope. The telescope is to be built atop a spectacular volcano called Mauna Kea, a sacred native Hawaiian site. Mauna Kea is already peppered with telescopes, serving the seemingly noble task of helping humanity understand the cosmos and our own origin. What’s one more telescope? wonder astronomers who have been caught blindsided by the native Hawaiian resistance to the project. Indigenous peoples across America have boldly stepped forward to declare again that they too have a cosmology, and that they too should have a say in defining what is sacred and what happens at their own sacred sites. “We are not here to protest astronomy,” native Hawaiian leader Lanakila Mangauil said at a rally in 2015. “The mountain is simply a poor choice of location. … Before we look into space, we need to take care of this place, this land.”
Perfect. A new tone must be set. New paths followed. New idols worshipped, or better yet, new ways of worshipping without idols at all. New voices listened to, like that of Lanakila Mangauil. And this is actually happening more and more, and that is wonderful. Still, the American colonization machine fights back hard, here on Earth, and now in space.
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Justin Nobel’s stories have appeared in Rolling Stone, Popular Mechanics, Oxford American, Virginia Quarterly Review and been published in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014, and Best American Travel Writing 2011, and 2016. A book he co-wrote, The Story of Dan Bright, tells the life story of a New Orleans man wrongfully convicted of murder, and was published last year with University of New Orleans Press.