Fifty years on

A new space race has begun. Rival powers aim to get to the moon and then perhaps go all the way to Mars. Jack Conrad says this is all about national prestige, not adding to humanity’s body of scientific knowledge

Half a century after Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” there are many plans afoot to return to the moon … but with a crucial difference. The aim nowadays is to establish a sustainable presence and maybe then use the moon as a springboard for Mars.

At the moment Nasa is way out in front. Its Artemis programme has a goal of landing two astronauts near the moon’s south pole by 2024. One of them is going to be a woman. Twelve have already been lined up.1 The intention is to put in place a small moon-orbited space station, Lunar Gateway, which Nasa plans to “start building in 2022”.2 Lunar Gateway will serve as the staging-post for robotic and human landings on the moon’s surface.

Many of these missions will touch down near the moon’s south pole - chosen because of the significant amounts of water ice located on the floors of “permanently shadowed craters”.3 Nasa views this ice as a vital resource. Not only will water ice keep astronauts alive: it will provide the chief components of the rocket fuel needed for “deep space travel” (water can, of course, easily be split into its hydrogen and oxygen elements).4

But there are the other players: Russia, China, Europe, Japan, India, even Israel. Each country/bloc now has “fully independent capabilities”.5 However, a due sense of proportion is needed. US expenditure on space more than equals that of the rest of the world put together.6

Russia continues within the Soviet-era paradigm of regular manned flights, rocket launchers, satellites, etc. Despite that, Dmitry Rogozin, director general of Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, has outlined plans for a crewed moon landing by 2030. Once there, the cosmonauts would live in an inflatable module. Towards this ambitious goal Russia would build a new ‘Super Heavy’ booster with the capacity to lift 27 metric tons into lunar orbit. Yet, given the parlous state of the Russian economy, informed observers have expressed strong doubts.7

Over the last few years, officials from the European Space Agency have expressed vague intentions of establishing a permanent human settlement on the moon. This ‘moon village’ would, of course, take decades to put together and, once again, would in all likelihood be located near the south pole.8 It would be made available to European powers and others, the claim being that this will allow human exploration of the moon and provide a staging post for Mars.

China ought to be taken rather more seriously. Through spending just $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). It also has plans for further space stations - Tianhe, the Large Modular Space Station, is due for launch in 2020.

And, under the overarching name of Cháng’é - after the Chinese moon goddess - there has been an ambitious series of robotic lunar missions. The programme has seen China successfully put in place moon orbiters in 2007 and 2010. Next came landers and rovers - first in 2013, then another this year. On January 3 2019 Cháng’é 4 touched down on the moon’s far side - a first. A few days later its rover, Yutu 2, began exploring the giant Von Kármán crater.

Throughout the 2020s, China plans to return lunar samples to Earth and build a small, robotic outpost near the moon’s south pole. This will pave the way for human landings, maybe in the early 2030s. Chinese space officials have talked of building a crewed “lunar palace”, but this is yet to be included amongst the country’s stated aims.9

China’s Mars timeframe lies somewhat further into the future - maybe between 2040 and 2060. Nonetheless, it is determined to catch up with and eventually overtake the United States. The Hong Kong-based space consultant, Blaine Curcio, says China’s space programme is “perhaps now only 10 to 15 years behind the US’s in terms of technology”.10

However, Donald Trump is determined that America should retain its lead both in near and deep space. In December 2017 the 45th president signed into law the Space Policy Directive 1. It boldly called for human expansion across the entire solar system, one of its first steps being the Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative. Elon Musk’s SpaceX thereby got a considerable boost. Its reusable Falcon Heavy Rocket was successfully launched from Kennedy Space Center in February 2018. And plans are well advanced for the launch of SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket - otherwise known as the Big Fucking Rocket. The first flight is due in 2020 and a moon orbit is scheduled for 2023. BFR has the capability to take crewed missions to the moon and Mars. And Mars is Trump’s declared objective - towards that end, he authorised a Nasa budget of $19.5 billion (note, not the total US space budget).

Trump loves display. He has no time for the long-term considerations. He therefore cancelled the Asteroid Redirect Programme - 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 dinosaurs11). No less myopically, Trump ordered a $100 million cut in the already modest Earth science programme. The DSCOVR, OCO-3, PACE and CLARREO Pathfinder missions were axed - all devoted to monitoring global warming.12

But, when it came to the militarisation of space, Trump ordered a 10% spending hike. And, in June 2018, he announced that the US would set up a sixth branch of the military - a Space Force: “It is not enough to merely have an American presence in space”, he declared. “We must have American dominance in space.”13 Not without reason, Trump and his advisors see American command over space as the way to ensure American command over the Earth.


Private capital has already established a lucrative space industry and Trump is keen on promoting joint ventures. Space Policy Directive-2, signed in May 2018, commits his administration to ensuring that the federal government “gets out of the way and unleashes private enterprise to support the economic success of the United States”.14 Not only will Space X benefit from state largesse, but there are other space companies ready, willing and able to get in on the act too: Sierra Nevada Corporation, NewSpaceGlobal, Catapault Satellite Provider, Deep Space Industries, Boeing, Blue Origin, Excalibur Alamz, etc. They have developed reusable launchers, “big data” transmission satellites and small, cheap, “disposable” satellites.15

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 rides to the International Space Station to the super-rich. Each ticket costs $40-45 million.16 The 2007-12 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 - vaulting - commercial plans. Planetary Resources has a bevy 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”.17 Such ventures will undoubtedly be considerably helped, given that in 2018 the US congress passed the Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act.18 It allows US companies to circumvent parts of the Outer Space Treaty agreed between the US and the USSR in 1967.19 Under its terms not only are nuclear weapons 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 at least in terms of commercial sense. Costs would be huge. There are dangers too. Consider 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”.20 The more transplanted asteroid material that ends up in Earth’s orbit, the greater the probability of “cascades of collisions”.21 Vital communications satellites could conceivably be knocked out because of 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 in his collection of essays, Dreams of Earth and sky, about constructing a “celestial castle” atop a 22,000-mile-high version of the Eiffel Tower - from there humans could escape the Earth’s gravity22).

The Obayashi space elevator would be anchored to a port located somewhere on the Earth’s equator and have a 60,000-mile 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 upwards and after a 7.5 day journey release their 20-ton payload into orbit. The space elevator would “give a 95% cost advantage” over competitors who still depend on rocket launchers. In addition it would provide a gateway to Mars and the exploration of the rest of the solar system. The whole project would take roughly 20 years to complete: 2050 has been touted.23 The money needed for the space elevator remains something of a mystery. Nevertheless, it is not a frivolous suggestion.

The same cannot be said for private plans for colonising Mars. Eg, the Dutch-based company, Mars One. It proposes to begin one-way trips to the red planet commencing in 2025. Many thousands applied, its website gave an almost immediate figure of 200,000 ... and there is an associated list of (cynical) sponsors. The proposition being 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.24

Elon Musk’s plans are marginally less insane. His SpaceX’s BFR could - he has optimistically announced - make its first trip to Mars in 2022. The aim would be to deliver cargo. But eventually he wants a million-strong self-governing colony. Decisions will be made through “direct democracy”: an endless series of referendums … and a recipe for total chaos. The whole project will apparently take 40-100 years before full completion. Well before that, of course, Mars needs glass domes, a power station and an assortment of basic living fundamentals put in place. After that infrastructure is completed, Musk envisages an “explosion of entrepreneurial opportunity”. Mars will need “everything from iron foundries to pizza joints”, he quips.25 Musk fears that unless humanity becomes interplanetary it faces extinction. He cites the likelihood of a World War III. Nonetheless, Musk has the honesty to admit that, to begin with, life on Mars will be “difficult, dangerous - a good chance you’ll die”.26

At least in terms of the next one or two decades, it is the US alone which really has a chance of using a moon base as the launch pad for Mars missions. With the successful test flight of the Orion space capsule on December 5 2014, launched by a Delta IV rocket, the US put in place the most important initial element needed for a 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.27 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.

Before undertaking any return to the moon, let alone a Mars journey, Nasa has marked out a series of intermediary stages. Artemis 1 sees the launch an uncrewed Orion atop of the new Space Launch System - the successor to Saturn V - for a looping test flight around the moon. Artemis 2 has crewed flights, while Artemis 3 will finally return Americans to the surface of the moon.

Amazon boss Jeff Bezos plans to link up with Nasa and the European Space Agency to found a moon colony “for human settlers and heavy industry”.28 Others - eg, Newt Gingrich - have imperiously talked of a 13,000-strong colony and the moon becoming the 51st American state.29 Either way, with such an outpost up and running, the engineering, endurance, survival techniques and equipment needed for Mars can be tested and perfected.

Needless to say, Trump is impatient. He wants Americans back on the moon during his presidency. If he serves the maximum two full terms, that means getting there before 2025.

Clearly, Donald J Trump, like John F Kennedy before him, 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.”30 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 to taking hold of the interior: “that vast, tempting, unexplored wilderness”.31 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” (from a 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 celebrated 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.”32 Kennedy spoke in the immediate aftermath of his Bay of Pigs humiliation in Cuba and in the midst of the cold war with the Soviet Union.

In that febrile atmosphere 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”.33

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 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon ... and an estimated 600 million TV viewers.34

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 trillion35 and as low as $50 billion - the latter coming from the free marketeer, Robert Zubrin, co-founder of the Mars Society36). Expect, if it happens, the topmost estimate, and some considerable additions. Either way, despite the inevitable criticisms of increasing costs, Nasa is banking on the 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 commitment to Artemis and the proposed Orion missions to Mars has generated widespread political approval.

Not least due to sci-fi, space is still commonly thought of as ripe for human colonisation. The new America. Supposedly space is humanity’s manifest 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 civilisational collapse.

According to Rick 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”.37 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”.38 Elon Musk too - his Mars colony would provide a refuge for humanity, as Earth descends into a new “dark age”.39 An idea probably originated by the sci-fi writer, Ray Bradbury. His Martian chronicles (1950) depict the colonisation of Mars because we humans have had to flee a troubled, broken and atomically devastated Earth.

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”.40 Nevertheless, whenever homo sapiens 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”.41

But there was a fundamental problem: labour. Everything comes back to labour, Marx stresses 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. But not the native Americans. European conquistadors came with their writing, reading, flintlocks, horses, steel swords, armour ... and germs.

Hernán Cortés beat the fiercely militaristic Aztec empire not just 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 sunk to about 1.6 million.”42 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 not only 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 might not have thought it, given British establishment 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, established their 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 continued to play the lead role.43

Some 12 million Africans were transported across the Atlantic (an estimated one and a half million died during the ‘middle passage’: and an unknown, but surely much 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. Costly undoubtedly - horribly so. As much as a fifth of the slaves died within the first year. No problem: the labour force “could be replenished by further slave purchases”.44

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 US fused into a single system.

But, inexorably, the centre of gravity shifted from east to west. By the dawn of the 20th century the precocious ‘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 superpower.


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. Permanently crewed since November 2000 to date, the facility has been visited by 236 individuals.45 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 “neither able to produce enough food nor enough oxygen”.46 Suffice to say, Biosphere 2 was originally designed to demonstrate the viability of “closed ecological systems to support and maintain human life in outer space”.47 Moreover, a recent report by Massachusetts Institute of Technology 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 MIT report also calculated that 15 heavy rocket launchers - costing around $4.5 billion - would be needed to support just the first four Mars colonists.48

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.49 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 is technologically feasible, of course, but it 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 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.50 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 about neither economic returns nor scientific advance. It was an engineering triumph over the Soviet Union - a second-rate superpower.

What the moon missions of China, Russia, Europe, Japan and India announce is that they too possess engineering prowess, they too have the surplus wealth needed and they too should command global respect. Such missions are certainly designed to generate a giddy popular enthusiasm. But, even with the additional bonus of eventually going on to Mars, once the first crews arrive on the moon, enthusiasm could easily cool. After the first two 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 simply a waste of public money.

Crewed Mars missions have no immediate economic or scientific worth - that is the agreed consensus. Let me cite three trusted members of the US space establishment:

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, it 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. To make matters worse, Mars is hellishly cold. On average the equatorial zone is 60˚C below zero. Sometimes the temperature falls to -100˚C. At its warmest, temperatures can nudge up to just over 0˚C. Antarctica is far more hospitable than Mars. 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.54 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?

Quack 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 not only require the restoration of Martian magnetic poles or an artificial magnetosphere. The whole operation would take quite a few years - around 100,000.55

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 perfluocarbons (super greenhouse gases), the time span for terraforming is less awesome.56 At a Nasa-sponsored conference held in October 2000, it was 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.

So, once again, there are dangers. Each one of us hosts 100 trillion micro-organisms. They constitute our “extended genome”.57 While Mars rovers are sterilised, that is impossible 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 forms against which we, neither on Mars nor on Earth, possess immunological defences.

Worshippers of bad science doggedly insist that going into space is the one sure way to overcome the seemingly intractable problems and contradictions mounting up here on Earth: eg, war, overpopulation, hunger, growing inequality, global warming, resource depletion. 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 celebrated 20th century sci-fi 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”.58

Spiked - the morphed Revolutionary Communist Party, which, bizarrely, nowadays supports Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party - echoes this scientism. Writing on their 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.59 In the same breathless spirit, James Woudhuysen says: “Let’s go back to the moon - and beyond.”60 Ray Bradbury proved no less embarrassing: “The moment we land on Mars all the people of the world will weep with joy.”61 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.”62

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 restless 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.63 Having arrived between 80,000 and 75,000 years ago, they often liked what they found. 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 until 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.64

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’, the accelerationist reformist left with libertarian Silicon Valley billionaires). 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 - performing 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 writes somewhere that the task of revolution is to apply the “emergency brake” on a system which relentlessly progresses not so much through perfecting the means of production, but the means of destruction.


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”.65

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 also 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.”66

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 developed unmanned space-planes - most notably Boeing’s hypersonic X-51 Waverider, which in May 2013 reached a speed of Mach 5 (3,300 mph) and an altitude of 70,000 feet. Such a plane could make a sudden dive from near space into the atmosphere and deliver a nuclear payload.67

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has set its sights on testing a space-based particle beam by 2023. Such a device works by accelerating particles - particularly neutrons - close to the speed of light and directing them against the intended target. The neutrons knock protons out of the nuclei of other particles they encounter. Incoming missiles are destroyed by “heat rays” soon after they launch.68

And, despite fears of triggering an arms race, Trump recently announced a “huge expansion” of the US missile defence programme. The intention is a major upgrade in land-based and sea-based missile interceptor systems, as well as the development of a layer of satellite sensors in low orbit that would help track new types of cruise missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) that Russia and China are developing. Any threat from ‘rogue states’ such as Iran or North Korea would also be countered. “Our goal is simple: to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States - anywhere, any time, any place,” Trump declared. “We are committed to establishing a missile defence programme that can shield every city in the United States. And we will never negotiate away our right to do this.”69

Such a move by the Trump administration clearly represents the continuation of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative, which aimed to put in place an anti-missile system in space “capable of shooting down nuclear missiles” - therefore giving the US first-strike capability.70

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.71 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).72

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: eg, kaiser Germany, Bolshevism, European fascism, post-World War II USSR, Saddam Hussein, bin Laden, the Taliban, Islamic State - all have been ‘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.

Social problems

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 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 40 years have greatly exacerbated the unevenness characteristic of the system. Today the richest 1% “hold nearly half the global wealth”.73 Leave aside the so-called third world: in Britain some 900,000 people have registered with food banks.74

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 sanctimonious platitudes and essentially diversionary calls of 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 only be led viably 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 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 our species birth 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 the Weekly Worker on March 23 2017.

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  2. www.space.com/moon-exploration-plans-nasa-india-china-and-more.html.↩︎

  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lunar_water.↩︎

  4. www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2019/a-few-things-artemis-will-teach-us-about-living-and-working-on-the-moon.↩︎

  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.↩︎

  7. https://arstechnica.com/science/2019/05/how-russia-yes-russia-plans-to-land-cosmonauts-on-the-moon-by-2030.↩︎

  8. www.space.com/32695-moon-colony-european-space-agency.html.↩︎

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  10. https://edition.cnn.com/2019/07/19/asia/china-apollo-us-space-race-intl-hnk/index.html.↩︎

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  14. www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trump-reforming-modernizing-american-commercial-space-policy.↩︎

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  17. Financial Times March 18 2017.↩︎

  18. www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/2809.↩︎

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  21. New Scientist May 27 2015.↩︎

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  26. The Guardian March 11 2018.↩︎

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  28. The Sun May 28 2018.↩︎

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  42. J Diamond Guns, germs and steel London 1998, p210.↩︎

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  47. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biosphere_2.↩︎

  48. www.extremetech.com/extreme/191862-the-first-mars-one-colonists-will-suffocate-starve-and-be-incinerated-according-to-mit.↩︎

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  51. The Stamford Daily February 10 2004.↩︎

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  61. Quoted in Financial Times January 15 2004.↩︎

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  63. S Oppenheimer Out of Eden London 2003, p201.↩︎

  64. Cited in J Diamond Guns, germs and steel London 1998, p258.↩︎

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  66. Quoted in ibid p146.↩︎

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  73. The Guardian October 14 2014.↩︎

  74. www.trusselltrust.org/foodbank-figures-top-900000.↩︎