02.05.2017

Keep the Red Planet Red

  • Keith A. Spencer

Sure, let's colonize Mars — but without Elon Musk's help.

Mars.la

As the Western liberal order continues to unravel, can you really blame anyone who wants to get off this planet? Since space travel became technologically feasible in the twentieth century, many thinkers — from Arthur C. Clarke to Buckminster Fuller — envisioned the human colonization of other planets as all but inevitable.

“Man will not always stay on Earth,” wrote Soviet rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, “the pursuit of light and space will lead him to penetrate the bounds of the atmosphere, timidly at first, but in the end to conquer the whole of solar space.”

In their heydays, both the American and Soviet space programs funded research into Mars colonization, viewing it as the next logical step for humanity. In the past two decades however, people have started to pin their hopes for intergalactic travel on private groups instead of public agencies.

While President Obama was privatizing much of the American space program, a flurry of ventures released competing proposals to visit and/or colonize the red planet. These schemes’ feasibility and harebrained-ness vary: the Mars Foundation, run by multimillionaire former investor Dennis Tito, is soliciting private donations to send a couple on a flyby of the red planet. Mars One, a Dutch nonprofit, wants to fund a permanent human colony through “merchandise sales, ads on video content, brand partnerships, speaking engagements, [b]roadcasting rights, intellectual property rights, games & apps, and events.”

The most famous — and perhaps most likely to succeed — comes from entrepreneur and engineer Elon Musk, the multibillionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors. Musk’s articulation of his Mars mission reveals not only what’s wrong with how we think about extraterrestrial colonies and resources, but also how little faith most people have in democracy here on Earth.

Interplanetary Technocracy

Given his reputation as an engineering genius, Musk’s vision for colonization seems the most plausible of the private missions to Mars. After all, SpaceX, which he admitted to founding specifically to colonize the solar system, became the first private company to successfully launch a rocket into orbit in 2008.

In September 2016, at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Musk laid out a detailed vision for his colonization project, including financial estimates, engineering specs for the reusable “Interplanetary Transit System,” and the price of a passenger ticket — around $200,000. Musk’s presentation even included a snazzy computer-animated video of the transit system in action and details about the long trip there, which would offer colonists games, restaurants, and entertainment.

“It’ll be, like, really fun to go . . . You’re gonna have a great time,” Musk said.

His approach to colonizing Mars comes straight out of Silicon Valley’s playbook: Musk has taken a “problem” — how to colonize Mars — and hacked a feasible “solution” that is one part engineering, one part moxie. Just add investors and we’ll be building cities on the red planet in no time.

Though vague, Musk reiterated that his vision would need funding. His talk of “tickets” implies that colonists will likely pay for much of the mission. Unlike a space agency’s astronaut selection process, then, his Mars mission will be limited to those who can afford it. In that sense, Musk’s colonization plan looks a lot like joining a country club or gated community — or any other model of private access to space for those who can afford it.

Musk’s proposal — heavy on the engineering and business details, light on the philosophical or political implications of colonization — epitomizes technocracy. He doesn’t seem interested in thinking through Mars’s policy or governance, the labor necessitated by building a civilization from scratch, or the problems that will arise from sending rich tourists to self-manage in a place with scant resources demanding communal organization and thinking.

The True Value of Mars

For some, sending a few rich folks off to Mars seems like a great idea. After all, it’s hardly an Eden waiting to be destroyed. Unlike previous colonial projects, there are no natives to exploit; no wildlife to hunt to extinction; no ecosystem to radically alter; no fossil fuels to extract; and no climate in danger of destruction from carbon emission. Mars’s atmosphere is already 96 percent carbon dioxide! Why not let Musk and his millionaire buddies take off for a few rounds of golf on the frosted dunes? If they get stuck there, all the better.

From a humanistic perspective, however, even a lifeless world like Mars holds incredible scientific, educational, and environmental value. To let private interests colonize, terraform, or populate it without considering this collective value would be short-sighted.

Indeed, when it comes to colonization, we should hope humanity has learned from its past mistakes and is ready to set upon a more democratic process. Perhaps Earth can agree to hold a public discussion before we set about strip-mining Mars’s glorious dunes, vistas, and mountains, lest the tallest mountain in the solar system become a trash heap like Everest.

Government space agencies have gone to great lengths to keep the scientific and social benefits of publicly funded exploration intact. This is why NASA makes all its mission data public, and also why it insists on sterilizing space probes to avoid contaminating other worlds with cellular life from Earth — one stray terrestrial extremophile could confuse the search for microbial life off-planet. The agency, recognizing its work’s educational value, has sent elementary school children’s experiments into space and hosted public naming competitions for geographic features. Likewise, NASA thinks beyond the engineering challenges: they also consider space travel’s psychological and biological effects, surely an important field of study in anticipation of the long space flights required for interplanetary travel.

Private industry will be unlikely to follow these collective practices, as its desire for profit or for exclusive property rights — physical and intellectual — will outweigh any public benefit.

I Want to Believe

The public and media reaction to Musk’s presentation — more than the presentation itself —reflects the current state of our politics.

“The mood at the conference was almost as giddy as a rock concert or the launch of a new Apple product, with people lining up for Mr. Musk’s presentation a couple of hours in advance,” wrote Kenneth Chang in the New York Times, who devoted 1,200 words to it. “Elon Musk finally told the world his vision for colonizing Mars, and it turned out to be one hell of a show,” exclaimed Loren Grush in a video article for the Verge. Grush noted that Musk drew an “insane crowd,” describing how “people actually stampeded into the hall where his lecture was in order to get a good seat.”

He began in lofty tones: “I want to . . . make Mars seem possible. Make it seem as though it is something we can do in our lifetimes.” This statement implied that we needed some great technological leap forward before embarking on this adventure, but, in fact, travel to Mars has been possible for well over half a century. Given the political will, we can go right now.

The subtext of Musk’s message, then, was that our democratic governments will never execute big science and engineering projects. People should trust in the private vision for colonization and space travel instead.

In Earth politics, this lack of faith in democratic institutions is nothing new. This idea’s policy implications — that collectively we can’t have big public projects or any sort of real democratic decision-making, and must cede our whims to privately funded foundations and technocratic “experts” — have already taken hold of most countries.

As far as I could find, none of the magazines that covered Musk’s announcement mentioned this metatheme, namely, that a public and democratically organized colonization of Mars will never happen. No one questioned the premise that we must let billionaires decide how and when to go to Mars — or that it is the only possible way to get there.

Musk’s tech-industry social circle benefits from branding technology as synonymous with progress. As a result, many tech employees work long hours to achieve this invisible notion of progress, but their work just fattens their employer’s profit margins.

One can imagine the grueling labor required to make an inhospitable planet habitable. On Mars,  employees would exhaust themselves for a corporation under the guise of “survival.” After all, regardless of whether a foundation or a corporation spearheads the colonization effort, they will be incentivized, even forty million miles away, to squeeze as much labor out of their workers at the lowest cost.

Further, the question of who is allowed to go to Mars will become as important as the question of who isn’t. If, as Musk proposes, the trip requires a “ticket” — which, as he claims, will eventually drop to only $100,000 — it seems probable that those who can afford to go will mostly resemble, ethnically and politically, Earth’s ruling class. Imagine: the red planet turned racist country club.

These questions matter more than how to engineer a rocket or how to build greenhouses or how to harvest water. In fact, state-funded research has already largely solved these technical problems — or, at the least, led to numerous creative ideas about making a Mars colony self-sufficient.

The Martian Commons

Any colonization effort on Mars — even if only a small number of humans go — will present huge political challenges in terms of the labor and personal rights of its citizens. To wit: what kinds of reproductive restrictions will exist on a planet of scarce resources? How will colonists ration food and activity? What about personal privacy? If Martian citizens are working in a life-or-death situation, can the workers strike?

At least in its early years, Mars would have a scarcity economy — in other words, resources would likely have to be rationed in order for the collective to survive. A private colony would be unlikely to make any kind of egalitarian guarantee — after all, if there’s a ticket price, there will certainly be a Martian service economy pampering the space tourists. Inequalities will emerge in terms of labor, housing, food, and access to other resources.

In fact, we already know what a privatized Mars might resemble: Mount Everest. At higher elevations, it becomes a barren, lifeless, cold world, where climbers require oxygen tanks to survive. The cost of ascending is as steep as the mountain: between $30,000 to $100,000. Climbers’ journeys are only made possible by their Sherpas’ exploited labor, many of whom die in accidents and are paid as little as $5,000 a year by Western companies.

Now imagine this situation replicated forty million miles off, on a lifeless planet, where two-way Earth communication takes almost an hour, and you can envision how dire things could get.

A New Hope

Musk spent nearly an hour of his speech detailing the technological aspects of Mars travel: the landers, the rockets, the fuel costs, and so on. Musk takes a technology-first approach and rarely mentions the numerous social aspects. His speech and its collective reactions attest to a naïve, John Galt fantasy about how policy and engineering come to pass: through the mind of the lone genius, who alone holds the key to humanity’s future.

We saw the same fantasy at work last week when, in the wake of President Trump’s executive order banning emigration from seven majority-Muslim countries, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced his plan to hire ten thousand refugees and was immediately hailed as a liberal hero. The message was clear: we can’t hope to help refugees ourselves, or on a democratic basis — we must rely on the whims of the rich to push forward progressive causes.

Alas, the reaction to Musk’s speech also demonstrates how public sentiment has changed: collectively, we no longer believe in public space exploration. Even if we know state agencies can launch a Mars mission, few think it will happen.

This doesn’t bode well for how we think of the commons. Are rich people and their foundations the only ones who can save us? The plethora of private Mars proposals reflects a lack of faith in democracy on Earth, in particular in our democratic influence over the directions science and engineering research take. And while faith in public institutions sits at an all-time low, we seem more than happy to hear what the rich can make possible and to believe their promises.

Musk is just one of many technocrats who think of a Mars voyage as a technological problem. Not only is it not a technological problem, it’s not even a problem. Colonization of Mars should be seen as a complex social and political policy, with so much potential to create inequality and oppression that it cannot rationally be undertaken without political consensus and a stratagem for maintaining democracy and egalitarianism.

We are ready to colonize Mars, and have been for half a century. Doing so without a democratic plan will present unimaginable dangers for the planet and colonists alike. As socialists, our rallying cry should be this: Keep the red planet red!