Space policy directive 2
Donald Trump has signed a presidential directive designed to boost US space commerce and fend off any challenge from China. Jack Conrad says the left would be well advised not to welcome the latest promises of getting back to the moon and going on to Mars
Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” did not put an end to the space race. Russia remains a major player and China has its sights set on catching up and even overtaking the United States. There are other players too: Japan, India and the European Union.
Nevertheless, Donald Trump is determined that America should remain the space hegemon. On May 24 2018 the 45th president issued his ‘space policy directive 2’, which is explicitly designed to ensure the US position “as a leader in space commerce”.1 Elon Musk’s Space X is therefore to be given a considerable boost. Its reusable Falcon Heavy Rocket was successfully launched from Kennedy Space Center in February. And plans are well advanced for the launch of Space X’s Big Falcon Rocket (BFR); also known as the Big Fucking Rocket, it has the capability to take manned missions to the moon and Mars.
And that is Trump’s declared objective. Towards that end, back in December 2017, the president authorised a Nasa budget of $19.5 billion (not the total US space budget - see note 6). Basically, no change in spending terms, compared with Barack Obama’s administration. However, there was a shift in emphasis. Trump told Nasa to establish an overwhelming military superiority in near space and to simultaneously press ahead with deep space missions.
Trump cancelled the Asteroid Redirect Mission - designed to bring an asteroid into the moon’s 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 ordered a $100 million cut in the already modest Earth science programme. The DSCOVER, OCO-3, PACE and CLARREO Pathfinder missions were axed - all devoted to monitoring global warming.3
But, when it came to the militarisation of space, Trump ordered a 10% spending hike. And, once again pandering to the top brass, Trump now tells us that he is “seriously thinking” about forming a ‘space force’ which would stand alongside the traditional branches of the US military - army, navy, marines, airforce and coast guard.4 At the moment, the US airforce is responsible for military concerns when it comes to space. Trump presumably reckons that American command over space will ensure American command over the Earth.
Understandably, Russia, China, India, the EU and Japan all try to compete. Each country/bloc now has “fully independent capabilities”.5 Russia, of course, continues within the Soviet-era paradigm of regular manned flights, rocket launchers, satellites, etc. Through spending around $6.1 billion annually, China has though attempted to lift itself into the big league. In October 2003 the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft orbited Earth 21 times. Yang Liwei became the country’s first taikonaut. In September 2011 China established its first space laboratory (abandoned in 2013) and in May 2018 the country is due to make the first soft landing on the dark side of the moon (a prelude to a manned mission in 2036). Meanwhile, China has plans for an earth orbiter space station, Tiangong, scheduled for 2020.
Displaying an impressive confidence in the future, Chinese officials have talked of a moon base and eventually a manned landing on Mars. Admittedly, this owes rather more to science fiction than science fact. China’s Mars time frame lies somewhere between 2040 and 2060. Towards such ends, it now outspends Russia, whose space programme costs a rather more modest $5.2 billion annually. Meanwhile, US expenditure on space more than equals that of the rest of the world put together.6
Private capital has already established a lucrative space industry and Trump is keen on promoting joint ventures. His Space Policy Directive 2 pledges to ensure that the federal government “gets out of the way and unleashes private enterprise to support the economic success of the United States”.7 Not only will Space X benefit from state largesse. There are other space companies ready, willing and able to get in on the act too: Sierra Nevada Corporation, NewSpaceGlobal, Catapult Satellite Applications, Deep Space Industries, Boeing, Blue Origin, Excalibur Alamz, etc. They have developed reusable launchers, “big data” transmission satellites and small, cheap, “disposable” satellites.8
Space tourism is still being mooted as the next big business opportunity - that despite Richard Branson’s VSS Enterprise crashing in 2014 and killing the co-pilot. A cash-strapped Russia has, meanwhile, been selling trips to the International Space Station to the super-rich. Each ticket costs between $40 million and $45 million.9 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”.10 Such ventures will undoubtedly be considerably helped if Congress passes the Space Commerce Free Enterprise Bill. It will allow US companies to circumvent parts of the Outer Space Treaty agreed by the US and the USSR in 1967. Under the terms of that treaty not only nuclear weapons are banned from space. So are territorial claims.
Mining asteroids could conceivably work technologically. However, there are inherent problems in getting minerals back to Earth, not least in terms of commercial sense. Costs would be huge. There are dangers too. Look at the dreadful air, water and soil pollution caused by normal mining operations here on Earth. A capitalist free-for-all in space certainly risks creating a “hazardous debris environment”.11 The more transplanted asteroid material that ends up in Earth orbit, the greater the probability of “cascades of collisions”.12 Vital communications satellites could be knocked out by high-speed dust strikes.
Japan’s 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 Obayashi space elevator would be anchored to an Earth port located somewhere on the equator and have a 60,000-mile-long tether, made from something like graphene, secured by a 12,500 ton geostationary counterweight located in near space. Mechanical climbers weighing up to 100 tons would journey up the stationary tether and after 7.5 days release their 20-ton payloads into orbit. This would “give a 95% cost advantage” over competitors who still depend on rocket launchers. In addition the space elevator would provide a gateway to Mars and the rest of the solar system.. The whole project would take roughly 20 years to build and a 2050 completion date has been touted.13 The money needed for the space elevator 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 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 TV reality show to be broadcast back on Earth.14
Elon Musk’s Mars plans are marginally less insane. His BFR could, he has optimistically announced, make its first trip to Mars in 2022. It will deliver cargo. His goal is a million-strong self-governing colony, which will make decisions through “direct democracy”. A recipe for incoherence and chaos. The whole project will take 40-100 years before full realisation. Well before that, of course, Mars needs glass domes, a power station and an assortment of basic living fundamentals. After that infrastructure is complete, Musk then expects an “explosion of entrepreneurial opportunity”. Mars will require “everything from iron foundries to pizza joints”, he quips.15 Nonetheless, Musk has the honesty to admit that, to begin with, life on Mars will be “difficult, dangerous - a good chance you’ll die”.16
However, at least in terms of the next one or two decades, it is the US government alone which must be taken seriously when it comes to moon bases and manned Mars missions. With the successful test flight of the Orion space capsule on December 5 2014, launched by a Delta IV rocket, the Obama administration put in place the most important element needed to fulfil America’s Mars mission. 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.17 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 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 will be the most powerful rocket ever built. Even its basic version is designed to lift a 70-ton payload.18 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.
After that Nasa 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 and helium-3, platinum, rare earth metals and other such resources exploited. Amazon boss Jeff Bezos envisages linking up with Nasa and the European Space Agency to found a moon colony “for human settlers and heavy industry”.19 Some - eg, Newt Gingrich - even talk of a 13,000-strong colony and the moon becoming the 51st American state.20 With such an outpost up and running, the engineering, endurance, survival techniques and equipment needed for Mars can certainly be tested and perfected with relative confidence.
Needless to say, Trump is impatient. He wants Americans on Mars during his presidency. Given that he serves two terms that means getting there before early 2025. Clearly, Donald J Trump, like John F Kennedy before him - if he avoids impeachment - longs to put an 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.”21 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 to taking hold of the interior: “that vast, tempting, unexplored wilderness”.22 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 northeast 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 lands 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 the final frontier is now projected into the vastness of space.
On May 25 1961 JF Kennedy made his famous speech before congress: “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.”23 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 Soviet Union economically fell “under American hegemony”.24
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, made “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.25
Of course, getting to Mars is undoubtedly going to be 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 trillion26 and as low as $50 billion - the latter coming from the free marketeer, Robert Zubrin, co-founder of the Mars Society27).
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. 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 generated bipartisan political approval.
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 inevitability that problems here on Earth will continue to multiply to the point of collapse. 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”.28 He is far from alone. Because of “climate change, overdue asteroid strikes, epidemics and population growth, our own planet is increasingly precarious” ... so humans must leave Earth, reckoned Stephen Hawking, and “colonise a new planet soon.”29 Elon Musk has expressed similar views. “If we are to ensure humanity has a future” we must “put a million people on Mars.”30.
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”.31 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 European 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 get its hands on unprecedented riches. The native people were enslaved en masse and gold and silver flooded into Madrid’s bulging coffers. America, confirms the distinguished French historian, Fernand Braudel, represented the “treasure of treasures”.32
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, influenza, etc. Not the native Americans. European conquistadors came with their writing, reading, flintlocks, horses, steel swords and 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, Cuitláhuac, 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.”33 The same 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 largely 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 the British establishment’s gushing nonsense about the leading role played by William Wilberforce - an independent MP, evangelical Christian and lifelong opponent of revolution and all radical causes - 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, including many MPs, had made themselves fabulously wealthy buying and selling Africans.34
Some 12 million 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 plantation system - sugar, tobacco, coffee, etc - which made the ports of London, Liverpool and Bristol rich beyond the dreams of avarice. 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”.35
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 one-way trips to Mars at a rate similar to visits to the International Space Station - permanently manned since November 2000. To date 230 individuals have visited the facility.36 However, some have made repeated trips, so we might put the total number of visits at 400. That would mean roughly 20 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 not able to produce either enough food or enough oxygen.37 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.38
Hence the vaulting projections of a million people and the promises of phenomenal returns are quite frankly risible. There is no chance of plunder, profit, let alone sustainability. The chatter about mining “gold, silver, uranium, platinum, palladium and other precious metals” is just that - chatter.39 Talk of Martian towns acting as humanity’s technological driver, etc, owes everything to quackery and nothing to a 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 economic sense whatsoever - except for techno-utopian fantasists.
Nor do Nasa’s space missions stand in the noble tradition of Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein - a ridiculous suggestion made by Dr James Williams of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.40 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 American mission Mars is essentially no different. It would be a display of US global - and space - hegemony. And, of course, once the first crews land on Mars, the romance could easily cool. After the initial Apollo missions the American public tended to lose interest. Subsequent moon landings did not command the same rapt attention, that is for sure. Conceivably the same phenomenon might see a future US administration concluding that Mars projects are a waste of public money.
Manned Mars missions have no immediate economic or scientific worth - that is already the overwhelming consensus. Let me cite three trusted members of the US space establishment. Douglas Osheroff is 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.”41 Ed Weiler - assistant advisor of Nasa’s office of space science - is equally candid: “These missions will not be driven by science.”42 Neil deGrasse 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”.43 Compared with astronauts, robots are 50 or 100 times less expensive.
Mars is the most Earth-like of all 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. That counts as a laboratory vacuum. The thin atmosphere also means that Mars has no ozone layer to shield the planet’s surface from the sun’s deadly ultraviolet radiation. The safest place to live, therefore, would be underground. To make matters worse, Mars is hellishly cold. On average the equatorial zone is 60 degrees Celsius below zero. Sometimes the temperature falls to -100˚. At its warmest temperatures can nudge up to just over 0˚. Antarctica is far more hospitable than that. The only reason the planet is not covered in ice is lack of water and lack of atmosphere. True, there is plenty of iron and a little magnesium, titanium and aluminium.44 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 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?
Some scientists confidently speak 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 fill ancient lake and ocean beds. However, creating a self-sustaining ecosystem - one capable of supporting simple plant life - would require the restoration of Martian magnetic poles, or an artificial magnetosphere. The whole operation would take quite a few years - around 100,000.45
And once again there are dangers. Each one of us hosts 100 trillion micro-organisms. They constitute our “extended genome”.46 Possibly Mars rovers can be sterilised: that is impossible, though, with us humans. Micro-organisms are vital for our digestive system, etc. Hence we are bound to contaminate Mars. And micro-organisms are in turn bound to evolve on Mars - terraformed or not - maybe into something against which humans, on Mars or Earth, possess no immunological defences.
There are quick-fix 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 (a super greenhouse gas), the time span for terraforming is less awesome.47 At a Nasa-sponsored conference 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 there is free-running water would need another 700 years. A greatly thickened carbon dioxide atmosphere would retain sufficient heat. But Mars would remain cold, alien and thoroughly inhospitable to life as we know it on Earth - except for micro-organisms.
Worshippers of science doggedly insist that going into space is the one sure way to escape the usual list of so-called intractable problems mounting up here on Earth: eg, war, overpopulation, hunger, growing inequality, global warming and resource depletion. For them technology holds the solution to everything. By the same measure the huge exertions required for space colonisation would encourage humanity to leave behind parochial concerns.
Isaac Asimov, the celebrated 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”.48 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 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.49 In the same breathless spirit James Woudhuysen says, “Let’s go back to the moon - and beyond.”50 Ray Bradbury, 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.”51 Nor did China Miéville, a member of the Socialist Workers Party till a few years ago, 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.”52
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 unending pursuit of the American dream.
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.53 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.
Nor should it 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.54
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 science and technology 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’, Silicon Valley billionaires and the alt right).
The main locomotive of history is class struggle and the constant striving for human freedom: eg, the Athenian citizen-peasant revolution of 508-507 BCE, the 73-71 BCE 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 in poverty. Capitalism perverts science - not only by bending it to the lopsided, narrow and demeaning dictats 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 destruction.
The fact of the matter is that Nasa and the whole US space business is a branch, or extension, of the military-industrial complex. And 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”.55
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 is 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 as spacepower. As former US airforce secretary, James Roche, triumphantly announced, concluding an April 2003 speech, “The war in space has already begun.”56
Behind mission Mars and the highfalutin language of discovery, human adventure and manifest destiny lurks a sinister agenda for ensuring the total US domination of space. The US military-industrial complex has tested unmanned space-planes - most notably Boeing’s hypersonic X-51 test aircraft, which, having made a sudden dive into the atmosphere, could conceivably be used to deliver nuclear bombs.57 No less worrying, the administration of George W Bush pursued a National Missile Defense programme. The inheritor of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense 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-Rodhan, and “could have disastrous consequences in terms of global security”.58 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. 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.59 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 purchases 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 artificialdemand 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).60
The Trump administration justifies this perverse and obscene squandering of human and material resources through peddling an America first nativist patriotism (and generating jobs). Of course, this approach has a long history: eg, kaiser Germany, Bolshevism, European fascism, post-World War II USSR, Saddam Hussein, bin Laden, the Taliban, Islamic State have all been credited with being existential enemies of America. Voting in favour of the endless production of waste thereby becomes 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, 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 recommended daily 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 40 years have greatly exacerbated the unevenness characteristic of the system. Today the richest 1% “hold nearly half the global wealth”.61 Leave aside the so-called third world - in Britain some 900,000 people have registered with food banks.62
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 banal 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 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 to bring about a civilizational breakdown - through economic crisis, xenophobic madness 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 future our descendants might reach Earth-like planets orbiting nearby stars. Now, however, the main subject of humanity must be humanity - as we find it, here on this planet. A planet which gave birth to our species and which has everything we need in terms of our evolved physiognomy and psychology. If we want to survive as a species, our prime mission ought to be taking care of planet Earth - only possible by finally winning the battle for democracy and transforming all existing social relationships.
This article is an updated and extended version of ‘Mission Mars, or mission Earth?’ published in Weekly Worker on March 23 2017.
2. See www.psi.edu/epo/ktimpact/ktimpact.html.
4. The Independent May 3 2018.
5. KK Nair The frontiers of modern defence Delhi 2009, p32.
6. World Economic Forum/OECD estimates that in total the US spends $39.3 billion on space. Other players include China ($6.1 billion), Russia ($5.2 billion), Japan ($3.5 billion), France ($2.7 billion), Germany ($1.6 billion), Italy ($1.2 billion), India ($1.1 billion), Canada ($0.4 billion) and the UK ($0.3 billion). Figures are for 2013 - see knowledge.ckgsb.edu.cn/2017/11/21/technology/china-space-industry-final-frontier.
10. Financial Times March 18 2017.
12. New Scientist May 27 2015.
16. The Guardian March 11 2018.
19. The Sun May 28 2018.
21. N Machiavelli The prince Harmondsworth 1975, p119.
22. H Brogan The Penguin history of the USA London 1999, p220.
23. Quoted in K Gatland Manned spacecraft London 1967, p141.
24. O Sanchez-Sibony Red globalisation Cambridge 2014, p173ff.
29. Time May 4 2017.
31. S Oppenheimer Out of Eden: the peopling of the world London 2003, p280.
32. F Braudel Civilisation and capitalism Vol 3, Berkeley 1992, p420.
33. J Diamond Guns, germs and steel London 1998, p210.
35. R Blackburn The making of New World slavery London 1997, p3.
41.The Stamford Daily February 10 2004.
48. I Asimov Exploring the Earth and cosmos Harmondsworth 1983, p153.
49. www.spiked-online.com, March 7 2003.
51. Quoted in Financial Times January 15 2004.
52. Socialist Review January 2007.
53. S Oppenheimer Out of Eden London 2003, p201.
54. Cited in J Diamond Guns, germs and steel London 1998, p258.
55. L Wirbel Star wars: US tools of space supremacy London 2004, p19.
56. Quoted in ibid p146.
58. NRF Al-Rodhan Meta geopolitics of outer space Basingstoke 2012, p89.
59. I Mészáros The power of ideology Hemel Hempstead 1989, p226.
61.The Guardian October 14 2014.