Mission Mars, or mission Earth?
Donald Trump’s budget for Nasa contains no swingeing cuts. There will, though, be a change of focus - away from Earth and, instead, towards deep space and sending people to Mars. Jack Conrad says we would be well advised not to welcome such a hugely expensive diversion
First launch of Orion spacecraft, December 5 2014. Next time, in November 2018, it will be from the Space Launch System
Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” did not end the space race. The US is, and is set to remain, the space hegemon, for the foreseeable future. Donald Trump has just signed the bill authorising Nasa to spend $19.5 billion in 2017-18 (it passed through Congress with bipartisan support1). Nasa will not suffer the swingeing cuts being imposed on other science and medical agencies. There are, however, changed priorities. Nasa will be focused on deep space, not the Earth.
Trump has cancelled the Asteroid Redirect Mission - it aimed to bring an asteroid into moon orbit, not only with a view to studying it, but developing the technology necessary to head off an asteroid that threatens to hit the Earth (65 million years ago an asteroid smashed into what is now the Gulf of Mexico, sent a huge plume of ash and debris into the high atmosphere and led to the extinction of roughly three-quarters of all animal species, including the dinosaurs2). No less myopically, Trump wants to cut the exceedingly modest Earth science programme by $100 million. The DSCOVER, OCO-3, PACE and CLARREO Pathfinder missions are to be axed - all devoted to monitoring global warming.3 But, when it comes to the militarisation of space, Trump will, presumably, seek an expansion (overall he proposes a 10% increase in the defence budget).
Last year alone, under Barack Obama, the US spent a grand total of $40 billion on its space programme. Russia, China, India, the EU and Japan all try to compete and each country now has “fully independent capabilities”.4 Russia, of course, remains a major player, with regular manned flights, rocket launchers, satellites, etc, although only spending roughly $8.6 billion annually. China has, however, gone to extraordinary lengths to make it into the big league. In October 2003 the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft orbited the Earth 21 times. Yang Liwei became the country’s first astronaut. In September 2011 China established its first space laboratory (abandoned in 2013) and plans for putting into orbit the Tiangong permanent space station are on schedule for 2020. Displaying an impressive confidence in the future, Chinese officials have talked of a moon base in the 2030s - the stepping stone for an eventual manned landing on Mars. Admittedly, this owes rather more to science vagary than science fact. China’s Mars time frame lies somewhere between 2040 and 2060. Nevertheless, towards such ends, China now outspends Russia. Its space programme now comes in at around $11 billion annually. Despite that, US expenditure on space more than equals the rest of the world put together.5
Private capital has already established a lucrative space industry and Trump is keen on promoting joint ventures. His bill contains a stipulation that Nasa cannot acquire space flight services from a “foreign entity” unless there are no Nasa vehicles or US commercial providers available (since the end of the Shuttle programme the US has been forced to rely on Russian launchers). It also directs Nasa to “look into ways to boost the private space industry”.6 NewSpaceGlobal, Catapult Satellite Provider, Deep Space Industries, Virgin Galactica, Boeing, Blue Origin, Excalibur Alamz, Space X, etc, are busily working on reusable launchers, “big data” transmission satellites and small, cheap, “disposable” satellites.7
Space tourism is being mooted as the next big business opportunity - that despite Richard Branson’s VSS Enterprise crashing in 2014 and the death of the co-pilot. A cash-strapped Russia has, meanwhile, been selling the super-rich rides to the International Space Station. Each ticket costs a cool $40-45 million.8 The 2008-12 great recession notwithstanding, there is a huge pool of surplus capital available, and hence ever more obscene examples of ‘how to spend it’ - conspicuous consumption.
There are other, far more ambitious, commercial plans afoot. Planetary Resources has a number of well connected billionaire investors and proposes to land highly sophisticated vehicles on mineral-rich asteroids, where, using 3D printing techniques, machines will “create tools, construction equipment and self-replication activities in space”.9 The Obayashi Corporation makes the case for a space elevator (an idea that has been around since 1895, when the celebrated Russian scientist, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, wrote a paper suggesting the construction of a super-high Eiffel Tower, from where humans could escape the Earth’s gravity). The space elevator would be anchored somewhere on the equator and have a 60,000-mile-long tether, made from something like graphene, secured by a geostationary counterweight located in near space. A climber would journey up the stationary tether and after 7.5 days release their 20-ton payload into orbit. This would “give a 95% cost advantage” over competitors who still depend on rocket launchers.10 The money needed for the space elevator, however, remains something of a mystery. Nevertheless, it is a serious suggestion.
The same cannot be said for private plans for colonising Mars. Eg, the Dutch-based company, Mars One, proposes to begin one-way trips to the red planet commencing in 2025. Many thousands have applied, the official website giving an almost immediate figure of 200,000 ... and there is an associated list of - cynical - sponsors. The proposition is that the first Mars colonists will finance their impossible existence by constituting themselves as the human fodder for a reality TV show to be broadcast back on Earth.11
At least in terms of the next one or two decades, it is the US alone which must be taken seriously when it comes to moon bases and manned Mars missions. Delivering a keynote policy speech, at the John F Kennedy Space Center, on April 15 2010, Obama committed his administration not to the moon, but Mars: “By the mid-2030s,” he boldly declared, “I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.”12 Trump has, of course, reaffirmed America’s commitment to “human space exploration” and getting to Mars. Whether he will live to see it is another matter. After all, at 70, he is Obama’s senior by 15 years.
With the successful test flight of the Orion space capsule, on December 5 2014, launched by a Delta IV rocket, America put in place the most important element needed to fulfil its Mars mission (though it still awaits the Space Launch System rocket). Orion superficially looks like the Apollo capsule used for the 1961-72 moon programme. But Orion is designed for long-duration, deep-space missions. A habitat module will be attached, along with a laboratory, water storage units, etc, for the 16-month round trip to Mars.13 Much of the add-on hardware is derived from the International Space Station. There will, therefore, be ample room for living, eating, washing, sleeping and exercise areas.
Before undertaking any return to the moon, let alone a Mars journey, Nasa has set a series of intermediary goals and stages. In November 2018 the next, unmanned, Orion test flight is scheduled. But, instead of being launched by a Delta IV, it will be put into earth-orbit by the Space Launch System. The successor to the giant Saturn V, SLS is the most powerful rocket ever built. Even its basic version is designed to lift a 70-ton payload.14 Then, at least according to Nasa, in 2021, comes the first manned Orion mission: a figure-eight loop around the moon, an asteroid flypast, etc. However, there is already talk of going for a four-astronaut manned mission on the first SLS launch.
Nasa then faces a strategic choice: ‘back to the moon first’ or ‘straight to Mars’. Within the US space ‘community’ two rival lobbies jockey. It has to be said, though, that the moon is an obvious initial destination. Here, only three days away from Earth, a permanent base could be established. Helium-3, platinum, rare earth metals and other scarce resources might well be extracted for commercial purposes. Some - for example, Newt Gingrich - even talk of a 13,000-strong colony and the moon becoming the 51st American state.15 With such an outpost up and running, the engineering, endurance and survival techniques and equipment needed for Mars can be tested and perfected with relative confidence.
Obviously, Donald J Trump - if he avoids impeachment - will want to establish his indelible mark on history. It almost comes off the pages of Niccolò Machiavelli: “Nothing brings a prince more prestige than great campaigns and striking demonstrations.”16 Telstar, Alan Shepard, the 1969 Apollo landing, Space Shuttle, Orion, a return to the moon, mission Mars - all resonate with American national mythology. When captain James T Kirk of the USS Enterprise spoke of space being the “final frontier”, he not only referred to his 23rd century present, but America’s post-colonial past.
After 1783 and the Peace of Paris, Americans “shifted” from being a seaward-orientated people, with European preoccupations and a reliance on Atlantic supplies. Instead of being a European outpost, they increasingly looked west and taking hold of the interior - “that vast, tempting, unexplored wilderness”.17 From then on the US welcomed successive generations of poor and downtrodden Europeans to its shores ... and ever expanding frontier lands.
While many migrants settled in the great cities of the east and north-east as proletarians, others headed west: “To the west, to the west, to the land of the free” (19th century English folk song). The native population was either exterminated or driven from the best land by wave after wave of these incomers - trappers, traders, adventurers, prospectors, loggers ... but above all small farmers. Alike Jeffersonian populism, Abraham Lincoln’s Yankeedom and Hollywood epics turned this class into a national icon: hence Daniel Boone, Davie Crockett, Bill Cody and the films of John Huston and Clint Eastwood. Dominant American ideology still lauds individualism, movement, expansion and internal colonisation ... and in search of the final frontier has now projected itself into the vastness of space.
Announcing his mission Mars, Obama invoked JF Kennedy and his famous May 25 1961 speech: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”18 Kennedy spoke during the cold war. And in that atmosphere of artificially generated superpower rivalry every success for the Mercury, Gemini and finally the Apollo programme - annual cost around 1% of US GDP - generated rapturous popular enthusiasm. Of course, the US always possessed a huge technological and material advantage over the Soviet Union. Indeed, arguably, from the 1960s onwards, the USSR fell economically “under American hegemony”.19
Kennedy was not around when Apollo’s Eagle module touched down on the Sea of Tranquillity. He died in Dallas, Texas, on November 22 1963, shot down by an assassin’s bullet. So it was Richard Nixon, the 37th president, who, on July 20 1969, was responsible for “the most historic telephone call ever made from the White House”. He addressed Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon ... and an estimated 600 million TV viewers.20
Of course, getting to Mars is undoubtedly going to prove hugely expensive. Mainstream estimates vary from $100 billion to $250 billion over the timespan of the whole project (though I have come across figures as high as $1 trillion21 and as low as $50 billion - the latter coming from the free marketeer, Robert Zubrin, co-founder of the Mars Society22).
Despite the inevitable criticisms of the costs of Orion and mission Mars, Nasa, for its part, is banking on the undiminished popularity of all things space. Generations of science fiction writers - from HG Wells to Kim Stanley Robinson (and long-running TV and film series from Star Trek to Star Wars) - have created a ready audience for America’s version of bread and circuses. No wonder Donald Trump’s continued commitment to the proposed Orion mission to Mars has generated popular applause.
Not least due to sci-fi, space is still commonly thought of as ripe for human colonisation. It is the new America. Supposedly space is humanity’s destiny, but one for which the US claims a special responsibility. It is, after all, the quintessential frontier nation. Moreover, without moving into space there is the supposed risk that problems here on Earth will continue to multiply. According to Rick W Tumlinson, co-founder of the US-based Space Frontier Foundation, unless we humans make the leap into space colonisation, we will “begin to slide into a new dark age”.23
Germs and labour
In my opinion all this is bunk. The suggestion that space is the modern equivalent of crossing the Atlantic Ocean and ‘discovering’ the New World in 1492 is altogether unconvincing. The Americas, perhaps even before the end of the last ice age, supported abundant human life. Estimates of first habitation vary widely - “from 11,500 to 50,000 years ago”.24 Nevertheless, whenever people first arrived, they flourished and settled everywhere, from Alaska in the far north to Tierra del Fuego in the far south. They also produced their own high civilisations: eg, the Aztec and Inca empires.
Christopher Columbus, and the conquistadors who followed him over the next 30 years, claimed vast swathes of territory and within next to no time allowed the Spanish monarchy to amass unprecedented riches. The native people were enslaved en masse and gold and silver flooded into the bulging coffers of Madrid. America, confirms the distinguished French historian, Fernand Braudel, represented the “treasure of treasures”.25
There was, however, a fundamental problem: labour. Everything comes back to labour, Marx stressed in Capital. Because of Eurasia’s much greater population densities the Spanish had developed a certain immunity to a wide range of diseases: measles, typhus, tuberculosis, smallpox, flu, etc. But not the native Americans. European conquistadors came with their writing, reading, flintlocks, horses, steel swords, armour ... and germs.
Hernando Cortés beat the fiercely militaristic Aztec empire not only because his forces possessed immense technological advantages. In 1520 half the Aztec population, including the emperor, Cuitlahuac, died from a raging infection, which miraculously spared the Spanish. “By 1618,” writes Jared Diamond, “Mexico’s initial population of about 20 million had plummeted to about 1.6 million.”26 The same thing happened when Francisco Pizarro and his raggle-taggle army of 168 men took on the millions of the Inca empire in Peru. Smallpox arrived just ahead of them and decimated the native population, killing both the emperor, Huayna Capac, and his designated successor. Throughout the Americas it is estimated that around 95% of the native population died from European diseases.
Germs facilitated European conquest, but destroyed virtually the entire potential workforce. And without labour the Americas were as good as useless (what remained of the native slaves would annoyingly take flight into what was for them the familiar surrounding hills and forests). Labour therefore had to be recruited from the outside if the Americas were to be transformed from an ever-diminishing object of plunder into a self-expanding source of profit. After indentured European labour was tried and failed, the richest classes amongst the colonialists - and their Old World investors and state backers - turned to systematically buying black slaves. They were typically purchased from the most advanced areas in west Africa (peasants made the best slaves - hunter-gatherers tended to go native and become Maroons). And, though you would not have thought it, given BBC nonsense about the “very influential” role played by William Wilberforce, an evangelical Christian, in the abolition of the slave trade, it should never be forgotten that slaves resisted, escaped, fought back, and, with Toussaint Louverture’s revolution, they established their own St Dominique/Haiti free state. Only after that seismic event - a Caribbean October 1917 - did the UK parliament vote for abolition of the slave trade (not slavery). Till then, of course, highly respectable British merchants had often played the lead role.27
Some 12 million Africans were transported across the Atlantic (one and a half million perished during the ‘middle passage’ and an unknown, but surely even greater, number died prior to embarkation). These poor wretches partially substituted for the ghosts of the native Americans. African slaves were central to the hugely profitable plantation system - sugar, tobacco, coffee, etc - which made numerous aristocratic fortunes. Overwork, pitiless exploitation and malnutrition took a terrible toll. Up to a fifth of the slaves died within the first year. No problem: the labour force “could be replenished by further slave purchases”.28
Only after two or three centuries of superhuman efforts - half driven by base greed, half by desperate yearnings for freedom - were the Americas reinvented and transformed into Europe’s outer skin. Europe and the Americas fused into a single system. But one whose centre of gravity inexorably shifted from east to west. By the dawn of the 20th century the precocious US ‘child’ had already surpassed its aged ‘parent’. The defeat of the Germany-Italy-Japan axis in 1945 certainly saw the transfer of world domination away from the exhausted British empire and the beginning of the so-called ‘American century’. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the US as the sole global power.
Neither the moon nor Mars are in any way modern equivalents of the Americas. Leave aside the lack of atmosphere and the absence of flora, fauna and running water. There is no native labour. Nor is there a realistic chance of substantial population transfers. Zubrin writes of taking people on a one-way trip to Mars at a rate similar to visits to the International Space Station. To date 388 individuals (including seven tourists) have visited the facility, which has been permanently manned since November 2000.29 That would mean just 14 new Mars colonists arriving per annum.
But who would seriously volunteer to spend the rest of their lives in a precarious “tuna can” habitat, with the prospect of endless toil ahead of them? Zubrin’s colony is expected to obtain its water from the underground permafrost, practise CO2 agriculture in flimsy greenhouses and produce all their basic industrial needs. However, the Biosphere 2 experiment in Arizona, built between 1987 and 1991, which covers 3.14 acres of varied biomass, all under huge glass roofs, was unable to produce either enough food or enough oxygen.30 Moreover, a recent report by MIT researchers warns that Mars colonists would soon be dying: from suffocation, starvation, dehydration or incineration. In short, the colonisation of Mars will make for some seriously morbid reality TV. The analysis also concludes that 15 heavy rocket launchers - costing around $4.5 billion - would be needed to support just the first four Mars colonists.31
Hence the fancy projections of fabulous economic returns are quite frankly risible. There is no chance of plunder, let alone profit. The chatter about mining “gold, silver, uranium, platinum, palladium, and other precious metals” is just that - chatter.32 Talk of Martian towns acting as humanity’s technological driver, etc, owes everything to quackery and nothing to rational investment of labour time. The relative unit costs of doing virtually anything on Mars would be a thousand - a million - times greater than on Earth. Ferrying things back here, to Earth, is technologically feasible, of course, but would be prohibitively expensive. Getting a Mars colony to produce anything on a scale for export to planet Earth makes no commercial sense whatsoever - except for techno-utopian dreamers.
Nor do Nasa’s manned space missions stand in the noble tradition of Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein - a grotesque suggestion made by Dr James Williams of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.33 All that the astronauts did on the moon was plant the Stars and Stripes, leave footprints and carry back a few bags of rocks. Apollo was neither about economic returns nor scientific advance. It was an engineering triumph over the Soviet Union - a second-rate superpower. Any new mission Mars would essentially be no different. It would reassert the US position as the global ... and space hegemon.
Let me cite three trusted members of the US space establishment. First, Doug Osheroff - a Nobel prize-winning physicist, who sat on the committee which investigated the 2003 Columbia accident. He is perfectly frank: “Right now there is no economic value in going to Mars.”34 Ed Weiler - assistant advisor of Nasa’s office of space science - is equally candid: “These missions will not be driven by science.”35 Neil de Grasse Tyson - astrophysicist and member of George W Bush’s Mars commission - admits that, if “pure science” was the purpose, “it’s obvious that you would send robots”.36 Compared with astronauts, robots are 50 or 100 times less expensive.
Mars is the most Earth-like of all of the other planets and moons in the solar system. But that is not saying much. Barren, pitted with craters, prone to gigantic dust storms, Mars is virtually airless - the mainly (95%) carbon dioxide atmosphere is 100 times less dense than ours on Earth. Therefore there is no ozone layer to shield the planet’s surface from the sun’s deadly ultraviolet radiation. To make matters worse, Mars is hellishly cold. On average the temperate zone is 60 degrees Celsius below zero. True, there is plenty of iron and a little magnesium, titanium and aluminium.37 But, as far as we know, nothing exists there that cannot be made or obtained infinitely more cheaply here on Earth.
No-one with a modicum of scientific knowledge ever doubted the water ice in the Martian poles. We do not need astronauts to tell us that. There is also abundant frozen water beneath the planet’s rocky surface. But why travel in a tiny metal capsule - six months there and six months back - across 60 million miles of deep space for that?
Yes, eminent scientists speculate about the possibility of terraforming. The Martian atmosphere could conceivably be artificially oxygenated, the density dramatically upped and thereby significantly warmed. Water might then flow once again along its wide valleys and into new seas and oceans. However, creating a self-sustaining ecosystem - one capable of supporting plant and animal life - would take quite a few years: roughly 100,000.
There are more modest schemes. If 100 nuclear-powered terraforming factories were established on Mars - discussed in a joint paper by Margarita Marinova and Chris McKay - specifically in order to pump out perfluorocarbons (super greenhouse gases), the time span is much less awesome.38 At a Nasa-sponsored conference on terraforming Mars held in October 2000, they estimated that it would take 100 years to raise the Martian temperature by six to eight degrees. To get to the point where some water melts would need another 700 years. A greatly thickened carbon dioxide atmosphere would then retain heat. But Mars would remain cold, alien and thoroughly inhospitable to life as we know it on Earth - except perhaps for microbes.
Worshippers of science doggedly insist that going into space is the one sure way of overcoming all the mounting problems and contradictions found here on Earth: eg, hunger, poverty, global warming, resource shortages. For them technology holds the solution for everything. By the same measure the huge exertions required for space colonisation would encourage humanity to leave behind parochial concerns.
Isaac Asimov, the 20th century science fiction writer, touchingly hoped that “cooperation in something large enough to fire the hearts and mind” - like a Mars mission - would make people “forget the petty quarrels that have engaged them for thousands of years in wars over insignificant scraps of earthly territory”.39
The morphed Revolutionary Communist Party - a 1980s ultra-leftist flash in the pan and nowadays a rightwing libertarian coven - echoes this scientism. Writing on the Spiked website, Stuart Atkinson impatiently urged the US on to Mars in the name of an ahistorical human nature: “We are a curious species”. Scraping the bottom of the barrel, he pleads on behalf of the dead crew of space shuttle Columbia which disintegrated in February 2003, when attempting to return to the earth. They “would not have wanted” space exploration stopped. A “big idea” like Mars would inspire and show what could be done here on Earth.40
In the same breathless spirit James Wouldhugsan says: “Let’s go back to the moon - and beyond.”41 Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), author of The Martian chronicles, proved no less embarrassing: “The moment we land on Mars all the people of the world will weep with joy.”42 Nor did China Miéville, till recently a member of the Socialist Workers Party, want to be left out. “We socialist sci-fi fans can’t bring ourselves to oppose space programmes … I think it says something exciting about humans that we want to explore space. I think there’s something wonderful about rocket ships.”43
Nothing could be more misplaced or naive. Ever since Adam Smith, the ideologues and apologists of capitalism have insisted that the system’s contradictions and the attendant curses of war, unemployment, ecological destruction, gross inequality and poverty could be overcome through accelerating capitalist progress. The subsequent history of capitalism should have taught a lesson or two. Obviously some will never learn.
Marxism does not question the existence of human nature. But attributes such as curiosity and an eagerness to explore must be examined historically and contextualised socially; not treated in a manner which universalises Nasa-man and the modern American ideology of constant technological innovation, individual enrichment and restless expansionism.
Scattered around the Indian Ocean coast, in India and Pakistan, the Philippines and Malaysia - marking the southern route out of Africa and the “beachcombing” trail to Australia - there are genetically distinct “remnants” of the original homo sapiens.44 Having arrived between 80,000 and 75,000 years ago, they often liked what they found very much. With the subsequent expansion in population numbers and pressure on natural resources, some immediate descendants would trek off to the next suitable location along the coast. But enough were perfectly happy to stay firmly put.
It should not be forgotten that till recent times many groups of hunter-gatherers contentedly enjoyed what some would describe as a primitive existence. Others might be tempted to call it idyllic. Such was their mastery of the local environment - yes, through curiosity and exploration - that necessary labour could be reduced to a couple of hours. The rest of their day was spent eating, story-telling, playing with the children, dancing, etc. Why move under such benign circumstances?
Nor should technological progress be viewed as linear. After 1450 China scuppered its ocean-going fleet of big treasure ships and dismantled its shipyards (mechanical clocks and water-driven spinning machines were also abandoned). Between 1600 and 1853 Japan virtually eliminated what had up till then been a lucrative line in the production of guns. In the 1880s legislation put a stop to the introduction of public electric street lighting in London. Jared Diamond provides other examples of technological “reversals” which occurred during prehistory. Aboriginal Tasmanians abandoned bone tools and fishing, aboriginal Australians may have abandoned the bow and arrow, Torres Islanders abandoned canoes, Polynesians abandoned pottery and Polar Eskimos lost the bow and arrow, while Dorset Eskimos put aside the bow and arrow, bow drills and dogs.45
There are materialist explanations for all such seemingly aberrant behaviour, but clearly teleological notions of an inevitable progression from flint axes to landing humans on Mars are quite erroneous.
Of course, Marxists have always had a positive attitude towards science and technology. But we do not privilege them or take an uncritical view. Motivation, application and consequences must be thoroughly interrogated. Neither science nor technology is neutral. So it is wrong to conflate scientific and technological progress with social progress (a mistake which joins Eduard Bernstein, ‘official communism’ and the former RCP).
The main locomotive of history is class struggle and the constant striving for human freedom: eg, the Athenian citizen-peasant revolution of 508-507 BC, the 73-71 BC Spartacus uprising, the 1381 peasant revolt, the Hussites of 14th century Bohemia, the 1789 French revolution, Chartism, the First International, the 1871 Paris Commune, the 19th century democratic breakthrough in Europe, the 1917 Russian Revolution.
Development of the productive forces and the rational application of science create the objective basis for generalised human freedom and the rounded development of each individual. But capitalism does not do that. Capitalism skews progress - it performs technological miracles, while simultaneously leaving millions into abject squalor. Capitalism perverts science - not only by bending it to the lopsided, narrow and demeaning diktats of profit, but by turning it against humanity to the extent of threatening our very survival. The insights, ingenuity and resources of science have been channelled into ways of killing and destroying on an almost unimaginable scale: carpet-bombing, gas chambers, nuclear warheads, chemical and biological weapons. Walter Benjamin damningly remarked somewhere that our rulers perfect not so much the means of production: rather the means of death.
And the fact of the matter is that Nasa and the whole US space business is a branch, or extension, of the military-industrial complex. What is true for the US is true for Russia, China, the EU, Japan and India too. Satellites, launch rockets, tracking stations, etc, owe far more to military requirements for spying, pinpoint targeting, the delivery of WMDs, real-time command and battle communications than so-called pure science. Loring Wirbel, a peace activist and expert in space technology, shows that even back in the 1950s the US “civilian satellite programme served as a cover for a wide-ranging spy satellite programme”.46
Nowadays, the US military relies on space technology, including commercial systems, which by their very nature have a dual use. Take the global positioning system (GPS) of satellites, which allows motorists, seafarers, airline crews and even hill walkers to locate themselves to within a few feet. But, however welcome, this is merely a by-product. It should never be forgotten that GPS has overriding military functions. When a vehicle suspected of carrying Hamas members is blasted to pieces by an Israeli missile strike in Gaza, that was GPS at work. When ‘precision’ bombs slammed into Baghdad in 2003, that was GPS at work. Indeed the US military boasts that during the invasion of Iraq 60% of all aerial bombardment was accounted for by GPS bombs. The US deployed not so much airpower, but spacepower. As former US airforce secretary James Roche triumphantly announced, concluding an April 2003 speech, “The war in space has already begun.”47
Behind mission Mars and the highfalutin language of discovery, human adventure and manifest destiny lurks a sinister agenda for ensuring total US domination of space. The US military-industrial complex has tested unmanned space-planes, most notably the Boeing X-57, which, having made a sudden dive into the atmosphere, could conceivably be used to deliver nuclear bombs.48 No less worrying, the administration of George W Bush pursued a National Missile Defence programme. The inheritor of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative, it aimed to put in place an anti-missile system in space “capable of shooting down nuclear missiles”. This would “profoundly alter” the balance of power between nuclear powers, says Nayef Al-Rodlam, and “could have disastrous consequences in terms of global security”.49 With his confrontational policy towards China, Trump will surely find a revival of such a programme very tempting.
There is another aspect to mission Mars which cannot be ignored.50 The US Mars project, like the rest of the military-industrial complex, constitutes a so-called third department of production (the other two being the production of the means of production and the production of the means of consumption). Department three allows capitalism to guarantee “maximum” self-expansion from the firm basis of the “minimum” consumption of the relatively impoverished masses.51 Their limited ability to purchase the means of consumption no longer constitutes a barrier.
Turning the production of the means of destruction into a system of profit and self-expansion through state purchase effectively obliterates the distinction between consumption and destruction. This is feasible precisely because for capital the purpose of production - the end aim - is not human consumption of use-values according to need: rather it is self-expansion for its own sake. Problems of real use, and therefore real consumption, are overcome (though not eliminated) through the unlimited ability of the state to generate artificial demand and purchase waste - ie, the means of destruction - through credit and taxation. This innovative response to capitalist overproduction - initially tried before World War I and then after the 1929-33 world economic crisis - was made into a model of normality after 1945. Under Trump the peacetime US arms budget is set to increase to $603 billion (well over twice as much as China and Russia combined).52
The Trump administration justifies this perverse and obscene squandering of human and material resources through peddling a fiercely nativist patriotism (and generating jobs). Of course, this approach has a long history - kaiser Germany, Bolshevism, European fascism, post-World War II USSR, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and Islamic State have all been used. Voting in favour of the endless production of waste has thereby become a national duty and imposes a welcome internal discipline over the working class. Spending on Nasa and the space programme is essentially no different. Except that, besides patriotism, it is able to harness another misplaced idealism - the Quixotic belief that space represents humanity’s manifest destiny and promises solutions to every problem.
Meanwhile, here, back on planet Earth, the United Nations estimates that over a billion people have no access to clean drinking water, some 840 million have to survive on significantly less than the daily recommended intake of calories and around 30 million are infected with HIV/Aids. There is nothing inevitable or natural about any of this.
Neoliberal International Monetary Fund and World Bank programmes of market ‘reform’ and subordination to capitalist globalisation over the last 30 years have greatly exacerbated the unevenness characteristic of the system. Today the richest one percent “hold nearly half the global wealth”.53 Leave aside the so-called third world - in Britain some 900,000 people have registered with food banks.54
Yet with organisation and political will humanity has within its reach the ability to easily meet all basic needs. The wealth exists in abundance. Simply diverting the US arms budget to real human needs would do away with global poverty - almost at a stroke. But such a turnaround can never happen through the greasy platitudes and essentially diversionary calls of the NGOs, religious notables and various leftwing reformers for rich governments to do their moral duty. The modern state palpably exists to defend, serve and promote the self-expansion of capital - the two are inextricably and increasingly interwoven and interdependent.
Social problems demand social solutions. Humanity - which can viably only be led by the revolutionary working class - faces an epochal challenge of putting humanity’s wealth under the control of the associated producers. Capitalism long ago outlived any usefulness it once possessed. Now this most alienated of social relationships threatens our very existence - through economic crisis, social dislocation and ecological destruction.
Once humanity has superseded capitalism and become properly human, who knows what we might choose to do? Mars, along with other planets and moons in the solar system, could be explored by self-replicating robots or terraformed in an attempt to make them habitable. Perhaps one day in the far distant future our descendants might reach nearby stars. Now, however, the main subject of humanity must be humanity - as we find it, here on this planet. Our mission is to finally win the battle for democracy and transform all existing social relationships.
2. See www.psi.edu/epo/ktimpact/ktimpact.html.
4. KK Nair The frontiers of modern defence Delhi 2009, p32.
5. OECD figures - see www.rt.com/usa/199480-space-budget-nasa-report.
6. The Washington Post March 21 2017.
7. See Financial Times March 18 2017.
9. Financial Times March 18 2017.
10. P Ragan and B Edwards Leaving the plant by space elevator Seattle 2006, p127.
16. N Machiavelli The prince Harmondsworth 1975, p119.
17. H Brogan The Penguin history of the USA London 1999, p220.
18. Quoted in K Gatland Manned spacecraft London 1967, p141.
19. O Sanchez-Sibony Red globalisation Cambridge 2014, p173ff.
24. S Oppenheimer Out of Eden: the peopling of the world London 2003, p280.
25. F Braudel Civilisation and capitalism Vol 3, Berkeley 1992, p420.
26. J Diamond Guns, germs and steel London 1998, p210.
28. R Blackburn The making of New World slavery London 1997, p3.
34. The Stamford Daily February 10 2004.
39. I Asimov Exploring the Earth and cosmos Harmondsworth 1983, p153.
40. www.spiked-online.com. March 7 2003.
42. Quoted in Financial Times January 15 2004.
43. Socialist Review January 2007.
44. S Oppenheimer Out of Eden London 2003, p201.
45. Cited in J Diamond Guns, germs and steel London 1998, p258.
46. L Wirbel Star wars: US tools of space supremacy London 2004, p19.
47. Quoted in ibid p146.
49. NRF Al-Rodhan Meta geopolitics of outer space Basingstoke 2012, p89.
50. See Weekly Worker January 14 2004 and July 15 2009.
51. I Mészáros The power of ideology Hemel Hempstead 1989, p226.
53. The Guardian October 14 2014.