No escape from Earth
Dreams of Martian colonies cannot substitute for revolutionary change on this planet, argues Paul Demarty
So the rover sent up by Nasa is the latest unmanned device to land on Mars successfully.
Its mission, on the face of it, is scientific: gathering more information about the presence of water on the planet, investigating possible microbial life forms and attempting to determine the sort of environment in which they might have lived.
But the mission has implicit secondary objectives, of course. We note, in passing, the intricate relationship between the space agencies and the military-industrial complex, and the long-standing ambition of especially the United States of America to militarise space way beyond the status quo (ie, the GPS network and related infrastructure, which exists primarily to facilitate the dealing of death). But one should not underestimate the importance of prestige. The ability to land research vehicles on Mars is still more or less restricted to the US (and the European Space Agency), though orbital probes have been launched by several countries, including India and, most recently, the United Arab Emirates.
However, it is more than just red-blooded American patriots who will be gladdened by the successful landing of the rover, named Perseverance. Many hail it as a reminder of the power and extent of human ingenuity. Like the other great space projects before it, it is rightly celebrated as a marvel of scientific and engineering endeavour. It is not all that long ago, really, that we had no idea at all of what was to be found on the surface of Mars: only in the late 19th century were telescopes invented with the required resolution to map the planet in any detail. The difficulties involved in delivering craft to the planet’s orbit have frustrated no less than two thirds of all the attempts ever made. We get a dose of optimism from seeing this car-sized rover going about its business - as perhaps we will if the mini-helicopter, Ingenuity, succeeds in making the first powered flight (for all we Earthlings know, anyway … ) in an atmosphere other than Earth’s.
The utility of space missions falls within these areas - scientific, military and propaganda value - variously. So far as propaganda goes, the most ‘useful’ are the manned missions. The sight of someone like ourselves at some improbable distance from Earth is immediately gripping in a way that a bunch of scientific equipment strapped to a rover chassis like the machine-gun on the back of a technical is not - quite. Now that we have a fairly good picture, since the Apollo and Soyuz missions, of what effects space travel has on the human body, the scientific utility of these missions is negligible and probably negative: the measures needed to keep people alive for the duration of a space journey - especially one to somewhere as far away as Mars - will correspondingly reduce the amount of actually useful research equipment that can be shipped on any given vessel.
That ought to tip us off that there are, let us say, ‘extra-scientific’ motives in pride of place with Nasa’s current Mars mission. It is not its contribution to human knowledge, but its ability to satisfy the egos of the aforementioned American patriots (so far as such are to be found in Congress, with their fingers on the purse-strings) that allows Nasa to continue operating. Thus it must, periodically, promise to send someone where no human, or possibly only a few, have gone before - as it did in the last decade with further lunar expeditions, and as it does now by writing future manned missions to Mars into the objectives of Perseverance itself.
The face of manned Mars expeditions these days is, of course, not anyone from Nasa, but the self-promoting billionaire, Elon Musk. Made rich by the entrepreneurial streak that led him to cannily inherit a vast emerald mining fortune, and then mega-rich by a lucky break in the dot-com boom, the rest of his life can now be spent indulging his fantasies - gratingly well-publicised indulgences at that.
The most ‘sensible’ business he operates is Tesla, which does at least produce some cars that work fairly well most of the time, but whose stock price is bizarrely over-inflated, essentially as a function of his cult of personality (it got off to a rocky start, meanwhile, because his dream of a completely automated factory turned out to be an obstacle to production). Then there is the proposed hyperloop transportation system - which is spectacularly ill-conceived, but gets an occasional approving notice among American policymakers, who cannot be persuaded to invest money in old-fashioned public transit. The idea has not advanced further into reality than connecting one end of a Las Vegas convention centre to the other with a rather nondescript car tunnel.
Then there is the space travel business. (There is an old joke: how do you become a millionaire? Easy - start off as a billionaire and invest in space travel.) By now, the pattern of Musk’s ventures is clear - he is mentally stuck in his early teens, and obsessed with projects that he thinks are really cool. What could be cooler than landing people on Mars - indeed, colonising it, terraforming it, bringing science-fiction to life? All representatives of the reality principle - be they Tesla short-sellers or sceptics of his wilder fancies - are to be anathematised among his cult following.
Musk’s boyish enthusiasm, amplified by the legions of enablers surrounding him, is somehow the best spin we can put on the enthusiasm for colonising Mars that exists. There is, secondly, a desire to rerun the great achievements of the space race, and underlying it a hope for a more creditable unifying national project than the US (and those of us within its sphere of influence) has had for a long while.
It is impossible, when one hears contemporary politicians proposing new and extravagant space gimmicks, not to notice the example they all strain to follow - John F Kennedy’s great speech announcing the Apollo programme:
We choose to go to the Moon in this decade [like previous milestones], not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.
There is thus - with apologies to Fredric Jameson - a certain nostalgia for the future at work.
The flipside to that nostalgia is the fact that, as Arthur C Clarke long ago complained, the future ain’t what it used to be. As the Americans prepared to land Apollo 11 on the moon, in 1968 Clarke and Stanley Kubrick came up with 2001: a space odyssey, the film project that imagined humans living there and, as a consequence, reaching a new, transcendent stage of evolution. The Promethean optimism of that vision was rather striking in that age of nuclear standoffs, assassinations and ‘counter-intelligence’ programmes (‘Cointelpro’ - Kubrick’s own Dr Strangelove is an interesting counterpoint). Now it is almost impossible to imagine such a film being made. The prevailing register of ‘serious’ screen science fiction is dystopian, and the threat of apocalypse - whether by nuclear war, zombies or climate devastation - looms large.
It does so, of course, because it looms large in life. International relations grow more rancorous, and wars more intractable. We do not have zombies, but we do have a global pandemic. Global warming delivers up disaster after disaster. This is a subtler matter than it may first appear. The popularity of apocalyptic cultural products, from The hunger games to The last of us - even the proliferation of millenarian religious sects - is not so much the shiver of recognition that we might be quite doomed as a civilisation as the paradoxically reassuring promise that (even after the end of the world) life somehow goes on. It will be seen, then, that the fantasies of the boy-king, Musk, serve a similar purpose. The destruction of the biosphere on which we humans rely will not wipe us out - we have an escape plan, to make Mars bloom …
So it was that, when Musk first announced his grand plan, he could breezily assert that, for the first few lucky ‘colonists’, this was certain to be a one-way trip, and not an altogether pleasant one, without fear of scaring off all possible recruits. He could depend both on the nostalgia (‘We do these things not because they are easy …’) and the magnificently dysfunctional character of contemporary society, with its endless wars, looming ecological disasters and growing surplus population, to provide toy soldiers in greater numbers than he could possibly use.
There is a fad among certain comrades on the left - it is frankly often difficult to discern how seriously it is taken - to appropriate the techno-futurist imagery of science fiction. One use, certainly, is to demand “luxury space communism” as a way of placing the revolutionary change we say we desire in an impossibly far-off utopian register, while in the meantime uncritically supporting Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, ‘pink wave’ presidents in Latin America or whoever else it is this week.
It is a coincidence, but a serendipitous one, since the problem with both the Martian and right-opportunist sorts of daydreams is that they fail to take seriously enough the need to change the world we live in now. In the former case, we content ourselves with a promissory note for a better life in the ‘off-world colonies’ at some future point; in the latter we are satisfied that we need do no more than fight for a universal basic income and a better healthcare system to make a revolutionary breakthrough in the not-too-distant future. Both are illusions, and serve to hide from us the gravity of our situation and the scale of our duties.