Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Space Is Too Hard for the Money Grubbers

After the tragic, lethal crash of Virgin Galactic [sic] SpaceShipTwo, celebrity CEO and for-profit LEO-tilt-a-whirl impresario Richard Branson declared that "Space is hard -- but worth it." By "space," we should remember that Branson is talking about low earth orbit, which isn't the space of real space programs. By "worth," we should remember that Branson is talking about money to be made, which isn't the worth of real space programs either.

Everybody knows that I am a NASA and a Star Trek queergeek from way back when. And it is because the exploration and discovery of the wonders of space, and the bravery and ingenuity demanded for this exploration and discovery, is indeed "worth it" -- and still worth it at a time when our society no longer deems it so, no longer supports a real space program at all, settling instead for a bargain-basement NASA and the vaporware and PR-repackaging of Virgin Galactic con artistry and SpaceX Space Cadets -- that I am offended by Branson's appropriation of that worthy sentiment in the face of this distress.

We have lost more than a brave test pilot. We should pause on the occasion of his loss to contemplate our loss of a real, well-funded, ambitious, public space program enabling human and other beings to explore our solar system and make endless discoveries for the benefit of us all.

From Adam Rogers' scathing and righteous editorial in Wired last night:
A brave test pilot is dead and another one critically injured—in the service of a millionaire boondoggle thrill ride... [I]n the wake of this tragedy out at Mojave -- not even the first time a SpaceShipTwo test has killed someone -- we’re going to hear a lot about exploration, about pioneers and frontiers. People are going to talk about Giant Leaps for Mankind and Boldly Going Where No One Has Gone Before. And we should call bullshit on that. SpaceShipTwo -- at least, the version that has the Virgin Galactic livery painted on its tail -- is not a Federation starship. It’s not a vehicle for the exploration of frontiers. This would be true even if Virgin Galactic did more than barely brush up against the bottom of space. Virgin Galactic is building the world’s most expensive roller coaster, the aerospace version of Beluga caviar. It’s a thing for rich people to do: pay $250,000 to not feel the weight of the world. People get rich; they spend money. Sometimes it’s vulgar, but it’s the system we all seem to accept. When it costs the lives of the workers building that system, we should stop accepting it.
Well, right on! But I must say, however, that I equally disapprove Elon Musk's variation on Branson's plutocratic con, which Rogers' clearly prefers when he writes:
[A] space program designed to get humanity off our native planet makes sense... Eventually this planet is going to be unlivable, either because of something we humans do to it or something natural. Asteroids have wiped Earth clean before, and presumably they’ll do it again. It’d be good to not be here when it happens. Elon Musk has made that part of his explicit rationale for SpaceX, his rocket company. Going to space is wondrous, difficult, and a testament to the human spirit. It’s also utterly, cynically practical. That’s being a pioneer. And it’s a mistake to lump that kind of endeavor with Virgin Galactic. Exploration and evacuation are not its value proposition.
Like Exxon-Mobil pretending that Exxon-Mobil can profitably geo-engineer the world to safety from the profitable destruction of the world by Exxon-Mobil, plutocratic elites looking for a space escape hatch from the suicidal waste, irrationality, and violence of earth are contemplating a violent, irrational, genocidal vanishing act of a small minority of the rich, influential culprits who are destroying it. That this minority would import all that destructive waste and violence with them wherever they go is palpable in the very contemplation of their escapist fantasy. There is no where in the universe that could be made more hospitable to a sustainable human civilization even now than this planet we evolved to flourish in. The aspiration to evacuate it instead of healing it is indeed a testament to the human spirit -- not to its capacity for wonder and exploration, but to its capacity for hostility to lived reality and the cowardly refusal of responsibility. If humanity ever leaves the cradle of earth, not just to better understand and explore our universe, but to live elsewhere and thus be made otherwise than ourselves -- then the precondition, both practical and principled, for that expansion is that we arrive first on earth at a sustainable, equitable, and diverse planetary civilization in which we are no longer a threat to the universe or to ourselves.

Again, I agree with Rogers' that "[w]hen various corporate representatives eulogize [their] pilots as pioneers who were helping to cross the Final Frontier, that should make [us] angry. That pilot died not for space but for a luxury service provider. His death doesn’t get us closer to Mars; it keeps rich people further away from weightlessness and a beautiful view." But I regard Elon Musk's vision of the profitable plutocratic privatization of space as no less enraging, as no less a betrayal of the Final Frontier. One rich asshole wants to transform the space program into a crappy parking-lot amusement-park thrill ride for other rich assholes to enjoy while they are profiting from the consumption and extraction making the world unlivable and the other rich asshole wants to transform the space program into an escape raft to an extraterrestrial gated-community of McMansions for the rich assholes to live in after they make the world unlivable. If human beings set foot on Mars, and beyond, it will not be as escapists but explorers, and there is no parochial profit-taking calculation that will support or sustain that vision: We need a public and planetary space program to inspire the world with hope and wonder at our capacity to work together and solve our shared problems and heal our shared wounds. Space is indeed hard. And it is utterly and permanently beyond the money grubbers to take on.


Anonymous said...

Ever see the movie Elysium? It's an excellent portrayal of what you have expressed in your blog.

Dale Carrico said...

I personally considered Elysium to be almost unwatchable, with unbearably implausible characters, painful dialogue, derivative themes, and actioned-up crap narrative, with visuals indistinguishable from stale up-scale real-estate development animations. I guess I am glad it introduces a new generation unfamiliar with better movies to arguments against the grain of neoliberal-neoconservative corporate-militarist techno-hype, but I still liked his earlier lower-budget less-Americanizined District 9 more than Elysium and hope for better things in the aftermath of his Hollywood flop.