The Dialectics of Space

A new book on the history of space exploration explores the utopian dreams that drive us towards the stars – but also the capitalist realities that make outer space a plaything of billionaires.

It is a bit of a joke in the high-speed flippancy of the modern left to split the movement into two camps: you’re either pro- or anti-space. Anti-space leftists argue that the human journeys out of the atmosphere in the last seventy years have been little more than militaristic displays, high-technology spectacles searching for — at least — new gadgets for capital expansion or worse, total social control. Furthermore, why should anyone spend all that money to get out of orbit when there are struggles on Earth to deal with first — and anyway, space is fundamentally boring!

Pro-space leftists look back fondly to the history of socialism, to the more cosmic pronouncements of Trotsky and the early Bolsheviks, and the cosmism that fed into the space race. If socialism is all about transcending limitations and restrictions, then why should socialists be forever stuck in Earth’s gravitational well? Isn’t that a betrayal of the very promise of communism, to pass beyond the limits of capitalism and unleash humanity into greater realms of freedom? And besides, space is fundamentally cool!

Outside of internet squabbles, it’s been a long time since these debates seemed particularly relevant, certainly not since the doldrums of space culture after the end of the Cold War and the decline of the shuttle programme. The International Space Station occasionally arcs across your patch of sky, but until recently it didn’t seem to be such a pressing issue. However, certain realities — a new class of ultra-rich nerd-tycoons and a sense of apocalypse in the air — have brought space exploration back into view, with a variety of private actors trying to get many more of us up and out there. And in that context, Fred Scharmen’s Space Forces, on the cultures and ideas behind human planetary exodus, is extremely timely.

Guiding us through potted visions of space travel from the last century or so, Space Forces is a background explanation of the ideological soil that new space actors such as Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) and Elon Musk (SpaceX) have sprung from. From Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who went from being a cosmist subject of the Tsar to the father of the Soviet space programme, to the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who famously cared not where his V2 missiles came down, and was quickly snatched by the Americans in 1945, Scharmen tries to uncover what motivates the drive to get us off-world.

Within pro-space positions, Scharmen identifies two basic types, which we might think of as the optimistic and pessimistic. The optimists see the wonderful achievements of industrialisation and technical growth, and wish to seek new opportunities, materials, and energy sources to permit this. The pessimists see the small size of the planet, the risks of human annihilation, and wish to spread humanity out, to unburden the limits to growth that determine life on Earth.

Bezos is roughly the former of these, while Musk pronounces himself the latter, while a figure like Gerard O’Neill, whose failed 1970s campaign for Senate funding for space settlements perhaps marked the end of the post-war burst of space enthusiasm, was both — committed to a certain corporate optimism, but working from within an ecologically pessimistic background, capturing the contradictions of both.

Space-negativity continually comes back into the equation. There is always the sense, in the way that expanding into the Americas saved a stagnant Europe, that some foul aspects of human behaviour are being replicated in the rush upwards. Critics have regularly pointed out the crude language (‘space colonisation’), and the sinister repetitions of the narrative of vast wealth and cornucopias to be accessed by sailing off in dangerous vessels, whereas defenders point out that — as far as anyone knows — there are simply no ‘natives’ to commit space genocide against.

This unease is clearly manifested in fictional visions of alien visitors. Whereas Alexander Bogdanov wrote of wise Martians having already achieved socialism a long time ago, an inevitable end point of development, H. G.  Wells’s Martians were basically colonialists, a more ‘advanced’ life form that believed it had the natural right to destroy the earthlings. Here, guilty consciences project humans, or, of course, white Europeans, into the subservient position in which they continually held others.

Space Forces goes back to the late nineteenth century, but the question of space is ultimately one of deep time. On a cosmic scale, all human history is the tiniest of intervals, and industrialisation has been just a hiccup of energy that it is not entirely clear life on earth will survive. If socialism is about working out where the limits are, and how best to tame our primordial minds towards the ‘good life’, then space is a mirage, a waste of effort, but if it is about thinking up plans without bounds for what might be possible on the long scale, Carl Sagan’s ‘a way for the universe to know itself’, then humans have got no real choice but to boldly go …