The new issue of Catalyst journal is out now. Subscribe today!

Back on the Moon

Capitalism isn't just killing the planet — it's keeping us on it.

(pet_r / flickr)

The death of the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, has unleashed wistful, “Where is my jetpack?” lamentation in some parts of the press, shocked into a realization that it’s been over forty years since one of the greatest achievements of mankind — a bold feat of engineering in the service of irrepressible human curiosity and wanderlust. There’s been little advance out into the solar system since.

Martin Robbins in the Guardian issued a brilliant polemic attacking our abandonment of space, reminding us: “Nobody born since 1935 has stepped on another world,” and, sadder still: “The first man on the Moon will never meet the first man on Mars.”

Similar regret can found in the words of the second man on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, on the passing of his friend: “I had truly hoped that on July 20th, 2019, Neil, Mike and I would be standing together to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of our moon landing, as we also anticipated the continued expansion of humanity into space, that our small mission helped make possible. Regrettably, this is not to be.”

But that’s all it is: lament. Nobody is asking why it is that the high point of manned spaceflight was reached at the end of the sixties, wondering whether there might be a reason for this drop in ambition, this retreat from humanity’s destiny in space. It’s not as if the planet has abandoned its love of space. The international excitement over the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory hints at a yearning to be thrilled about the possibility of life on other planets.

At the same time, a kind of left-wing cynicism about  space exploration has bubbled up. Wasn’t this simply a distraction from the crisis? How can we be spending money on space while the Earth burns? How can we care about the improbable chance that we find possible evidence of the conditions for microbes having aeons ago existed on Mars when thousands of Americans are losing their homes to repossession, when half of all Spanish youth are without work?

This is nothing new.

The otherwise first-rate Gil Scott Heron put out the dreadful “Whitey on the Moon” after the moon landing, complaining that he can’t pay the doctor’s bill after a rat bit and infected his sister, “But Whitey’s on the moon.”

Was all that money I made las’ year
(for Whitey on the moon?)
How come there ain’t no money here?
(Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon)

The anger might have come from a good place. The same country that placed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in the Sea of Tranquility was massacring Vietnamese women, children and the elderly at My Lai and six months later would gun down Black Panther Fred Hampton, the latest in a string of assassinated civil rights leaders.

But the target was wrong then, just as it is today.

Because these questioners might as well be asking: “Why bother exploring at all? What has curiosity ever done for us?” And this way of thinking is itself unwittingly framed by a neoliberal set of metrics, demanding immediate return on investment, and accepting the falsehood that we have an extremely limited reserve of public revenues, the greatest share of which must be directed to those areas with the highest priority.

The first point is obvious. We don’t know what benefits will be achieved when one sets off to investigate distant terrain. The adventure of exploration of the unknown is its own reward.

The demand that space exploration tell us what it will discover before it discovers it is identical to the neoliberal preference for applied rather than basic research; and of venture capital (contrary to legend) for low technological complexity, low-risk and high potential growth endeavors at the last moment of the development process (where evidence of market viability is essentially already proven) rather than at the high-risk early exploratory phase.

But for those who still remain sceptical of blue-sky thinking, here in any case are some practical, applied, Blairite-style metrics, measurements, league tables and return-on-investment data for what space exploration achieves and why it’s necessary.

  1. Today, as a result of the space race, over a thousand satellites orbit the planet. Satellite technology has transformed human lives overwhelmingly for the better, with thousands of applications. Meteorological tracking allows farmers to better plan thereby boosting yields and saves thousands of lives every year through storm and hurricane prediction. GPS allows for better ship navigation and search and rescue, in addition to wider consumer application.
  2. There has been a range of unexpected and innovative technology spin-offs, producing whole new industries and transforming existing ones — an effect that always come from such endeavors. The Apollo program, for example, gave us cooling suits whose technology is now used by shipyard workers, nuclear reactor technicians, people with multiple sclerosis and rare disorders that inhibit their ability to cool themselves. Technology used to recycle fluids for space missions led to the development of critical-care dialysis machines. Astronaut conditioning equipment is now commonly used by professional athletes, sports clinics and medical rehabilitation centers.How your running shoes are constructed owes a great deal to space suit design. Apollo also gave us improved housing insulation, reflective clothing, water purification technology, extended food preservation, hazardous-gas detectors, better roofing technology, and a whole bunch of fire-retardant shit.
  3. As we are undergoing radical climate change from increased presence of greenhouse gases, we need to know more about both Venus, which underwent its own runaway greenhouse effect, and Mars, whose atmosphere is pretty thin, in order to understand more about our own planet, what we’re doing to it and what the future might be like. There are many other examples of how exploration of other planets and moons is as much about understanding our own world as understanding distant worlds.And there is something of a false dichotomy in the robotic versus manned missions: we need both. Robots can’t do everything. Here’s Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute: “A human explorer could survey that world’s rusty landscape at least 10 times faster than a rover. If we want to know if life is a miracle or merely a cosmic commonplace, human exploration may be essential.”
  4. We need to understand more about asteroids, how to land on them and mine them, but also what we can do to respond to civilization destroying asteroids. This is one of the most vital tasks, given that, for example, there is a slim but real chance that the 450m diameter Apophis near-Earth object may hit the planet in 2036. Not going extinct would be pretty high on my list of Important Space Program Achievements.
  5. Humanity has spread to almost every possible ecosystem on our own planet, from the Antarctic to the bottom of the sea to above the clouds, even though essentially we’re just designed for tropical climates. We’ve gone everywhere on our own planet. So I’m confident that we are going to go many places on other planets too. If we’re going to study other planets involving both robotic and manned missions, we needed to start somewhere – and the Moon was closest.
  6. Humanity at some point will need to leave the solar system. We’ve got a loooong time yet — seven billion years – to worry about the Sun entering its red giant phase and consuming us, but we might as well get started now on learning how to go about getting out of the galactic boondocks we’re stuck in.

Of course, space exploration is expensive, risky and it is difficult to say at the outset what specific benefits it will deliver. All of which makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for the market to enter into this area.

Apart from a handful of billionaire dilettantes, space exploration can only be done by the public sector. Virgin Galactic space tourism and out-sourcing cargo payload traffic to SpaceX are not the same as a serious, properly funded search for life on Enceladus, Europa, Mars, Titan and Io — the five best bets for extraterrestrial life in the solar system.

The West only got as far as we did as the result of a push from the Soviet Union, which obviously was a monstrous system, but which did have a clear understanding of why space exploration is vital. Once Thatcherite-Reaganite neoliberalism took hold in the eighties and as soon as the competition dropped out in 1991, America lost most of its interest.

And yet however expensive it is, what we’re spending at the moment is a pittance compared to what we spend on the military (or, one might add, on bank bailouts). According to astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson, the annual US military budget is equivalent to Nasa’s entire 50-year running budget. “I think if you double [the budget], to a penny on the dollar, that’s enough to take us in bold visions in a shorter time scale to Mars, visit asteroids, to study the status of all the planets.”.

There was some excitement last week when NASA announced another Mars mission to launch in 2016 as part of its Discovery Program, this time to listen for “marsquakes” and determine whether Mars has a solid or liquid core and why its crust is not composed of tectonic plates as Earth’s crust is. But the Discovery Program, established in 1992, aims to provide in the era of budget restraint a series of lower-cost planetary missions. In the words of then NASA chief Daniel Goldin:  “faster, better, cheaper.”

And it was not widely reported that the Marsquake mission (InSight is its name), was the winner out of a trio of finalist projects that included a mission to Saturnian moon Titan, for the first nautical exploration of an extra-terrestrial sea, floating on its hydrocarbon lakes. The cost? Just $425 million. But why can’t we have both? And with the funding that’s needed, not capped at an arbitrary sum? As wiseacre astronomer friend of mine told me, they have a joke: “Faster, better, cheaper: pick two.”

Of course, if there were a limited pie of public resources, then a prioritization of other areas would be legitimate — Gil Scott Heron would be right. At the moment, there are other areas in more dire need. But money can be found.

The UK’s Tax Justice Network in July published research showing that revenues lost to public coffers by the super-rich hiding these sums in tax havens amounted to $21 trillion as of 2010 — as much as the US and Japanese economies combined, and the figure could be as high as $32 trillion.

There is more than enough money out there to have decent social services – and new ones, guaranteed incomes, well-funded pensions, a transformation to a low-carbon (or even carbon-negative) economy, and investment in space exploration. It’s a false choice to say: either space or everything else. The choice is actually between the current crop of political ideologies clustered around the neoliberal center, and something genuinely transformative on a global scale.

But we should admit that space is indeed vastly expensive and requires the kind of state-led economy coordination that the near-sighted and risk-averse market will never be able to deliver. The Apollo programme cost $109 billion in 2010 dollars, $18 billion per each of its six landings.

Contrary to what we are commonly told, market actors are lumbering elephants of conservatism. In almost every major new society-transforming technological development, it is the public, not the private sector that has done all the heavy lifting in terms of investment and shepherding them through to commercialization.

Computers, the internet, biotech, nanotech, telecoms, electric power infrastructure, containerization — all would not be possible without the resolute role of the public sector. As Mariana Mazzucato, an economist specialising in innovation policy, asks in a recent pamphlet for Demos, a UK think-tank: “How many people know that the algorithm that led to Google’s success was funded by a public-sector National Science Foundation grant?”

A commitment to any full-blooded exploration and colonization of the solar system will not be achievable until we supersede the current primitive economic system that isn’t only unjust, but also retards exploration and technological development.

Capitalism isn’t just killing the planet. Capitalism is keeping us stuck on the planet.

Historically, there were two arguments for socialism: Capitalism is unjust and prone to crisis, exploiting the working majority of humanity. And the profit motive retards and distorts scientific and technological advance, retarding human progress.

For some reason, somewhere in the 1960s, the Left stopped making the second argument. We need to reclaim it.

In his Fall Revolution quartet, Scottish libertarian socialist science fiction author Ken MacLeod describes the development of a “Space Movement” similar to the environmental movement. We could do with a non-fictional materialization of this concept. As it happens, there are actually already a handful of fusty old groups dating back decades pushing for greater spending on space, such as America’s largely ignored National Space Society. But they only hint at the edges of the discussion’s connection to what should be a robust argument about how we structure our economy — an argument that has returned with a vengeance in the last few years. We need a space movement with the gumption of Occupy Wall Street.

Occupy . . . space?

To liberally paraphrase Billy Bragg: Capitalism is killing space exploration.