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How not to criticise space travel

philaeprobelWhat a stupendous achievement. The landing of a space probe on comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko 300 million miles from Earth is one for the history books, up there with the first space flight, Moon landing, and interplanetary mission. Sure, the Philae lander might be sliding about the surface a tad but nonetheless this is a triumph of ingenuity and engineering. The gratitude of progressive humanity everywhere is with the European Space Agency team in Darmstadt.

Not everyone will be celebrating, however. There are three leftish critiques sometimes levelled at space exploration. The first, articulated by the American civil rights movement during the Apollo programme was the resource argument: that this kind of expenditure is immoral in the context of unequal societies in which poverty and want remains unresolved issues. It’s an argument opportunistically appropriated by the right to delegitimise British aid to India’s poorest. After all, as readers know, India recently became the space faring entity ever to a put a probe in orbit around another planet.

The second stresses the social usefulness of these sorts of programmes. Or, rather, the lack thereof. The Apollo missions exemplify this perfectly. A gaggle of astronauts were dispatched to a lifeless rock to collect soil samples, plant flags and play golf. Was the hefty price tag and effort required justified by the scientific insights gleaned from sticking pieces of the Moon under a microscope?

Ultimately, both these positions support the adage that you cannot have critique without morality, but that morality is no substitute for critique. Space programmes were formerly driven by cold war geopolitics. Now it is the grubby business of extending markets into the heavens. From the point of view of capital, Apollo was a very handy taxpayer stimulus/transfer to the aerospace industry. And from there came all kinds of spins offs that have found applications elsewhere, the most cited example being … velcro.

Today, while the Indian space programme appears as an obscenity the country is now positioned amongst the most advanced space faring states. If the commercialisation of space proceeds apace over the coming decades, its independent capability gives it an edge in the emergent industries. Likewise, as asteroid prospecting is being considered a serious, if long-term investment proposition the ESA have the expertise and track record of landing craft on mountains of ice and rock ambling about the solar system.

Even something that appears obviously useless as Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space tourism/vanity project isn’t all that it appears. Ferrying celebrities to the edge of space is an utter waste, but the goal – a cheap and reusable space plane that in later iterations could deliver personnel to orbital facilities is a massive opportunity to the firm that can develop and patent that technology.

Then there is the third strand. Writing of new science fiction blockbuster, Interstellar, George Monbiot complains that this, and by extension spacehead obsessions generally, are about a flight from the Earth. It’s more than fantastical escapism, it’s political escapism. For all the star-crossing optimism of space ideology, it beds in a sense of despair, of writing off the Earth and its problems and starting afresh. It suggests that the answer to our problems is more and better technology, that human agency should be expended on wonder gadgets rather than politically addressing the inequalities, the environmental degradation, and the profit motive that underpins it all. The strong implication is uncritically celebrating space-related futurity blinds us to the present, rickety, antiquated capitalist mode of production.

It doesn’t have to be like this. There is absolutely no need for socialists to be po-faced about space exploration. Our job is to examine the political economy of this industry, to note the interests that lie behind it, the silly myths and ideologies. We have to seize hold of the utopian impulses and imaginative power it inspires and politicise them, not deplore them. Marx’s critique of capitalism did not stop him from celebrating its genuine achievements. That attitude is our starting point, not Luddism.

Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab


  1. Robert says:

    Next time I say to my kids sorry I just cannot afford that, or you cannot expect to have food every day of the week or some charity phones me up and says come on give us £5 maybe India is using the last 240 million given to it by the UK to feed the poor and India does have poor.

    I’ve had a phone call this week which said your name has been added to the food bank register should you need it. That’s my council for you.

  2. swatantra says:

    This week they’ve sent up a washing machine, next week it’ll be a tumble drier. The wonders of Science!
    It just doesn’t add up. We are told that we have an obesity crisis, and yet people resort to food banks.

  3. Space exploration is a science-driver for industry, which produces technological advances that improve the capacity of the overall economy to meet the needs of everybody. It’s far more than velcro. Overlaying the failures of market economics distorts the perception of its achievements, but they are real. Presently the cutting edge is the Chinese/Russian plan to mine the moon for helium 3, which has the most promise as a fusion fuel, and if successful will replace all other fuels on earth: just one shuttle I payload could power the US for a year.

    1. swatantra says:

      They’ll start mining the seabed and the Arctic and Antarctic long before extracting minerals from the Moon and Mars. Ideally, we need to capture an asteroid and put it in orbit around the Earth as a ready supply of minerals. Helium is the product of fusion from isotopes of Hydrogen; its clean. no waste, so thats the tech of the future power generation. Unfortunately the Greens are opposed to nuclear power, and the climate change skeptiks. The truth is we need more scientists in Westminster and fewer lawyers and spads with politics and media studies degrees.

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