Space, the final frontier?

Going to the moon and space travel and are back in the news, writes Jack Conrad. But the left would be daft to fall for the sci-fi hype

The space race did not finish with Neil Armstrong or the US victory in the cold war. China, the European Union, India, Japan and Russia are all spending huge sums in order to catch up with the US. According to one source, total government spending on space is predicted to surpass $50 billion by 2010.

China has made great leaps forward. In October 2003 Yang Liwei became the country's first taikonaut. On the second anniversary of his flight China put another two men into orbit. The Chinese now plan a robot landing on the moon for 2012 and have made noises about launching a manned mission. So has Japan and even India. The US, of course, is committed to building a permanent moon colony and going from there on to Mars. George Bush first outlined these plans in January 2004.

An ageing US space shuttle will fly 13 or 14 more missions to finish the International Space Station and maintain the Hubble space telescope. Then, in 2010, it is scheduled for retirement. Orion, its 25-ton replacement, is not due to fly till early 2015, leading to lurid talk of a space gap. For five years, while others are busily developing their space programmes, the US will be grounded. The humiliating spectre has been raised of the US having to purchase "crew and cargo services from other countries". In effect no more than a plea for more money and sooner.

Orion is the lander/re-entry vehicle designed for mission Mars in 2030 or thereabouts. There are to be a series of intermediary goals and stages towards that end. Soon the US should have a satellite orbiter digitally mapping the moon. By 2008 robotic landers are due to be surveying its surface in fine detail. Just over a decade later, Orion astronauts are meant to head for the moon. Then work begins on establishing the permanent manned colony. Here on moon base, engineering, endurance and survival techniques and equipment will be tested out and perfected before the great voyage to Mars.


Obviously Bush has an eye on his place in history. It almost comes off the pages of NiccolಠMachiavelli: "Nothing brings a prince more prestige than great campaigns and striking demonstrations". Moreover, the Mars mission is carefully designed to resonate with American national mythology. When captain James T Kirk of the USS Enterprise spoke of space being the "final frontier", he not only looked expectantly towards the future, but referred approvingly to America's past.

After 1783 and the Peace of Paris the Americans "shifted" from being a seaward-orientated people, with European preoccupations and a reliance on Atlantic supplies, to looking west and the interior - "that vast, tempting, unexplored wilderness". From then on the US welcomed successive generations of poor and downtrodden Europeans to its shores ... and frontier lands.

While many migrants settled in the great cities of the east and north-east as proletarians, others headed west: "To the west, to the west, to the land of the free" (19th century English song). The native population was forcibly driven from the best lands by wave after wave of these incomers - trappers, traders, adventurers, prospectors, loggers and above all small farmers. And 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 Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Dominant American ideology lauded individualism, movement, expansion and internal colonisation ... and in search of the final frontier has now projected itself into the endlessness of space.

Announcing his Mars mission, Bush invoked another icon of the past - John F Kennedy and his famous May 25 1961 speech: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth". Kennedy spoke during the cold war. And in the feverish atmosphere of superpower stand-off every success for Apollo and the moon programme - annual cost around one percent of US GDP - generated rapturous enthusiasm. American national pride left behind all rationality when Eagle landed and Armstrong took his "giant leap for mankind".


Going to Mars will undoubtedly prove hugely expensive. Mainstream estimates vary from $50 billion to $250 billion over the course of the whole project (though I have come across figures as high as $1 trillion and as low as $30 billion - the latter coming from the free marketeer, Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society).

But, whatever the exact figure, Bush could still find himself robbed of his place in history alongside JFK. He no longer commands a majority in congress and has only two more years left before he must step down. Cost could sink his 'great campaign'. When, in 1989, his father, George Bush senior, announced his Space Exploration Initiative, which also envisaged an American return to the moon, he found himself rebuffed by congress. Nasa's $450 billion price tag proved too much.

The US economy is certainly extraordinarily fragile. Growth under Bush has been maintained through two main factors: a massive, Keynesian-type, federal deficit and, accompanying that, historically low interest rates. Not that the mass of Americans have benefited. Bush slashed taxes for the mega-rich and ramped up military spending in the aftermath of the 'shock and awe' of September 11 2001. Meanwhile unemployment has remained high and working class incomes have actually fallen over the last five years. A recent survey found that, out of America's 37 million "poor people", 16 million are living in "severe poverty", a 32-year high.

Bush turned the Clinton administration's federal surplus, worth 2.5% of GDP in 2000, into a persistent deficit of just under 4%. Even if this is eliminated by 2012, as Bush promises, which is generally thought improbable, there can be no hiding the underlying structural weakness. Industry is no longer the dominant sector. Nowadays it is finance. Money is used to make money "¦ which is only possible through parasitism.

The IMF has publicly raised worries about the US reliance on huge inflows of overseas money to shore up its economy. Hence, as shown by the recent stock exchange wobbles, it is in danger of suffering a 'hard landing' and sliding into a full-blown recession - which would, of course, have an immediate knock-on effect on the European Union, Japan, China and the rest of the world.


Despite the inevitable criticisms of the cost of mission Mars coming from various quarters, Nasa is banking on the undiminished popularity of all things space. Generations of science fiction writers - from HG Wells to Arthur C Clarke and from L Ron Hubbard to Harry Harrison - and long-running comic, radio and TV series - from Dan Dare to Dr Who and from Superman to Star trek - have created a ready audience for America's version of bread and circuses. Certainly the arrival on Mars of Nasa's two rovers in 2004 and the wonderful film they are still sending back of the boulder-strewn foreground, with the reddish mountains towering in the distance, have proved extremely popular. Within the first month Nasa reported four billion web hits.

Not least due to sci-fi, space is nowadays commonly thought of as ripe for human colonisation. It is the new America. Supposedly space is humanity's manifest destiny, but one for which the US claims a "special responsibility". It is the quintessential frontier nation. Moreover, without moving into space there is the risk that problems here on Earth will continue to multiply and, according to Rick W Tumlinson, president of the US-based Space Frontier Foundation, humanity could "begin to slide into a new dark age".

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". 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 the indigenous beginnings of civilisation: eg, the Aztec and Inca empires.

Christopher Columbus and the conquistadors who followed him over the next 30 years claimed vast swathes of territory and within next to no time allowed the Spanish monarchy to amass unprecedented riches. The native people were enslaved and gold and silver flooded into the bulging coffers of Madrid. America, confirms the distinguished French historian, Fernand Braudel, represented the "treasure of treasures".

There was, however, a fundamental problem: labour. Everything comes back to labour, Marx stressed in Capital. Because of Eurasia's much greater population densities the Spanish had developed a certain immunity to a wide range of diseases: measles, typhus, tuberculosis, smallpox, flu, etc. Not so 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, Cuitlahuac, died from a raging infection, which miraculously spared the Spanish. "By 1618," writes Jared Diamond, "Mexico's initial population of about 20 million had plummeted to about 1.6 million". The same thing happened when Francisco Pizarro and his raggle-taggle army of 168 men took on the millions of the Inca empire in Peru. Smallpox arrived just ahead of them and decimated the native population, killing both the emperor, Huayna Capac, and his designated successor. Throughout the Americas it is estimated that around 95% of the native population died from European diseases.

Germs facilitated European conquest, but destroyed virtually the entire potential workforce. And without labour the Americas were as good as useless (what remained of the native slaves would annoyingly take flight into what was for them the familiar surrounding hills and forests). Labour therefore had to be recruited from the outside if the Americas were to be transformed from an ever diminishing object of plunder into a self-expanding source of profit.

After indentured European labour was tried and failed, the richest classes amongst the colonialists - and their Old World investors and state backers - turned to systematically buying black slaves. They were typically seized 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, with the self-righteous ballyhoo being generated about the saintly William Wilberforce and the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, it should never be forgotten that Britain played the lead role.

Between 1500 and 1870 some 12 million Africans were transported across the Atlantic (one and a half million perished during the 'middle passage' and an unknown, but surely even greater, number died prior to embarkation). These poor wretches substituted for the ghosts of the native Americans. African slaves were central to the hugely profitable plantation system - sugar, tobacco, coffee, etc - which made numerous aristocratic fortunes. Overwork, pitiless exploitation and malnutrition took a terrible toll. Up to a fifth of the slaves died within the first year. No problem: the labour force "could be replenished by further slave purchases".10 

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. Hence all the fancy projections of fabulous economic returns are quite frankly risible. There is no chance of plunder, let alone profit. The chatter about industrial start-ups is just that - chatter. Plans for the mining of rare metals, the manufacture of pure crystals, the beaming of solar energy back to Earth, etc, etc owe everything to technological quackery and nothing to rational investment of labour time. The relative unit costs of doing virtually anything on the moon or Mars would be a thousand, a million times, greater than on Earth. Ferrying labour into space is technologically feasible, of course, but prohibitively expensive. Getting a moon or Mars colony to produce anything on a scale for export to Earth makes no sense whatsoever - except as propaganda.

Nor do these missions stand in the noble tradition of Galilei Galileo, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein - a grotesque suggestion. All that the Apollo astronauts did on the moon was plant the Stars and Stripes, leave footprints and carry back 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. America's mission Mars is essentially no different.

Let me cite three trusted members of the US space establishment. Doug Osheroff - a Nobel prize-winning physicist who sat on the committee which investigated the 2003 Columbia accident - is perfectly frank: "Right now there is no economic value in going to Mars".11  Ed Weiler - assistant advisor of Nasa's office of space science - is equally candid: "These missions will not be driven by science." Neil de Grasse Tyson - astrophysicist and member of the Mars commission - admits that if "pure science" was the purpose, "it's obvious that you would send robots". Compared with astronauts, robots are 50 or 100 times less expensive.

Mars is the most Earth-like of all of the other planets and moons in the solar system. But that is not saying much. Barren, pitted with craters, prone to gigantic dust storms, Mars is virtually airless - the mainly (95%) carbon dioxide atmosphere is 100 times less dense than that of Earth. Therefore there is no ozone layer to shield the planet's surface from the sun's deadly ultraviolet radiation. To make matters worse, Mars is hellishly cold. On average the temperate zone is 60° Celsius below zero. True, there is iron and a little aluminium. But, as far as we know, nothing exists there that cannot be made or obtained infinitely more cheaply on Earth.

No-one with a modicum of scientific knowledge ever doubted the sources of water at the Martian poles. We do not need astronauts to tell us that. There also appear to be substantial frozen water deposits under its rocky surface. But why travel in a tiny metal capsule - a two and a half-year trip, including six months there and six months back - across 60 million miles of deep space for that?

Yes, eminent scientists speculate about the possibility of terraforming. The Martian atmosphere could conceivably be artificially oxygenated, the density dramatically upped and thereby significantly warmed. Water might then once again flow down its wide valleys and into new seas and oceans. However, creating a self-sustaining ecosystem, one supporting plant and animal life, would take quite a few years - roughly a million.

There are more modest schemes. If 100 nuclear-powered terraforming factories were established on Mars - proposed jointly in a paper by Margarita Merinova of MIT and Chris McKay of Nasa - specifically in order to pump out perfluocarbons (a super-greenhouse gas), the time span is much less awesome. At a Nasa-sponsored conference on terraforming Mars held in October 2000, they estimated that it would take 100 years to raise the Martian temperature by 6°-8°. To get to the point where some water melts would need another 700 years. A greatly thickened carbon dioxide atmosphere would then retain heat. But Mars would remain cold, alien and thoroughly inhospitable to life as we know it on Earth - except perhaps for microbes.

Worshippers of science doggedly insist that going into space is the one sure way of overcoming all the mounting problems and contradictions found here on Earth: eg, hunger, poverty, global warming, energy shortages. For them technology holds the solution for everything. By the same measure the huge exertions required for space colonisation would encourage humanity to leave behind parochial concerns.

Isaac Asimov, the prolific 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".12 

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. They "would not have wanted" space exploration stopped. A "big idea" like Mars would inspire and show what could be done here on Earth.13 

Ray Bradbury, author of The Martian chronicles (1950), is equally embarrassing: "The moment we land on Mars all the people of the world will weep with joy".14 

Nor does the Socialist Workers Party's China Miéville 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".15 

Nothing could be more misplaced or naive. Ever since Adam Smith, the ideologues and apologists of capitalism have insisted that the system's contradictions and the attendant curses of war, unemployment, ecological destruction, gross inequality and poverty could be overcome through accelerating capitalist progress. The subsequent history of capitalism should have taught a lesson or two. Obviously some will never learn.

Marxism does not question the existence of human nature. But attributes such as curiosity and an eagerness to explore must be examined historically and contextualised socially; not treated in a manner which universalises Nasa-man and the modern American ideology of constant technological innovation, individual enrichment and restless expansionism.

Scattered around the Indian Ocean coast, in India and Pakistan, the Philippines and Malaysia - marking the southern route out of Africa and the "beachcombing" trail to Australia - there are genetically distinct "remnants" of the original homo sapiens.16  Having arrived between 80,000 and 75,000 years ago, they often liked what they found very much. With the subsequent expansion in population numbers and pressure on natural resources, some immediate descendants would trek off to the next suitable location along the coast. But enough were perfectly happy to stay firmly put.

It should not be forgotten that till recent times many groups of hunter-gatherers contentedly enjoyed what some would describe as a primitive existence. Others might be tempted to call it idyllic. Such was their mastery of the local environment - yes, through curiosity and exploration - that necessary labour could be reduced to a couple of hours. The rest of their day was spent eating, story-telling, playing with the children, dancing, etc. Why move under such benign circumstances?

Nor should technological progress be viewed as linear. After 1450 China scuppered its ocean-going fleet of big treasure ships and dismantled its shipyards (mechanical clocks and water-driven spinning machines were also abandoned). Between 1600 and 1853 Japan virtually eliminated what had up till then been a lucrative line in the production of guns. In the 1880s legislation put a stop to the introduction of public electric street lighting in London. Jared Diamond provides other examples of technological "reversals" which occurred during prehistory. Aboriginal Tasmanians abandoned bone tools and fishing, aboriginal Australians abandoned the bow and arrow, Torres Islanders abandoned canoes, Polynesians abandoned pottery and Polar Eskimos abandoned the bow and arrow, bow drill and dogs.

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 common to Eduard Bernstein in the Second International, Stalinism and the Althusserian school).

The main locomotive of history is class struggle and the constant striving for human freedom: eg, the Athenian citizen-peasant revolution of 508-07 BC, the 73-71 BC Spartacus uprising, the 1381 peasant revolt, the Hussites of 14th century Bohemia, the 1789 French revolution, Chartism, the First International, the 1871 Paris Commune, the 19th century democratic breakthrough in Europe, the 1917 Russian Revolution.

The 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 plunging millions into abject squalor. 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 (1892-1940) cuttingly remarked somewhere that our rulers perfect not so much the means of production: rather the means of death.


And the fact of the matter is that Nasa and the whole US space business is a branch, or extension, of the military-industrial complex. What is true for the US is true for China, the EU, Japan and India too. Satellites, moon launcher rockets, Orion, 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".17 

Today the global positioning system (GPS) of satellites allows motorists, seafarers, airline crews and even hill walkers to locate their whereabouts 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 car suspected of carrying Hamas militants is blasted to pieces by an Israeli missile in Gaza, that was GPS at work. When 'precision' bombs slammed into a selected Baghdad ministry, once again that was GPS at work.

Indeed the US military boasts that during the 2003 invasion of Iraq 60% of all aerial bombardment was accounted for by GPS bombs. The US deployed not so much airpower, but space power. As former US airforce secretary James Roche triumphantly announced, concluding an April 2003 speech, "The war in space has already begun".18 

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 space-plane 'taxis' ready on the drawing board and Lockheed-Martin and Boeing are eagerly awaiting the go-ahead. Much cheaper, reusable launchers are being planned too.

Perhaps, though, the key new technology is Prometheus - the move to nuclear propulsion in space using radio-isotope generators and small reactors. This would greatly shorten the journey time to Mars or beyond to Jupiter's moons. Prometheus would boost by a factor of 100 on-board power. However, that also means vastly increased processing power for targeting, listening, surveillance, etc, and laser, X-ray and other such weapons. "Prometheus," says Wirbel, "is a stalking horse for future broad uses of nuclear platforms, managed by the military for both earth-orbit and deep-space use".19 

As we have pointed out before, there is another aspect to mission Mars which cannot be ignored. The 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.20  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. The US arms budget for 2007 is estimated at $626 billion; up from $323 in 2000.21 

The state legitimises this perverse and obscene squandering of human and material resources through patriotism. A real or imagined enemy is singled out and thoroughly demonised: eg, kaiser Germany, European fascism, communism, Saddam Hussein, bin Laden and islamic terrorism.

Voting in favour of the endless production of waste therefore 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 solutions

Meanwhile, back here on planet Earth, the United Nations estimates that over a billion people have no access to clean drinking water, some 840 million have to survive on significantly less than the daily recommended daily intake of calories and around 30 million are infected with HIV/Aids. There is nothing inevitable or natural about any of this.

Neoliberal, IMF and World Bank programmes of market 'reform' and subordination to capitalist globalisation over the last 20 years have greatly exacerbated the unevenness characteristic of the system. Leave aside the growing gap between the mega-rich and the masses in the advanced countries: the so-called 'developing' world has in fact progressively been de-developed. Human misery - poverty, disease and hunger - thereby increases, not decreases.

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 such real uses would do that - almost at a stroke. But such a turnaround can never happen through the greasy platitudes and essentially diversionary calls of the NGOs, religious notables and various leftwing reformers for rich governments to do their moral duty. The modern state palpably exists to defend, serve and promote the self-expansion of capital - the two are inextricably and increasingly interwoven and interdependent.

Social problems demand social solutions. Humanity - which can viably only be led by the revolutionary working class - faces an epochal challenge of putting all 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 crash, world war 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 nearby stars.

Now, however, the main subject of humanity must be humanity - as we find it, here on this planet. Our mission is transforming Earth.