What comes to mind when you think about the future of the human race? It’s quite a broad question granted, but as resources on our planet begin to narrow, many people have been turning to the skies for answers.
With the Food and Agriculture Agency of the United Nations (FOA) estimating the demand for food will likely go up by 50 percent or more by 2050, the race to find new resources has only intensified. There are a number of agencies already developing space technology to solve problems such as food shortages. The Space For Food project was originally developed as a way to use waste to create food in space. Now, these technologies are being brought to an urban context. From food developed for astronauts, mining metals and water from asteroids and NASA’s food security programs there seems to be a lot of potential in the space domain.
However, is the space race really the noble endeavour that it seems?
In the last ten years, there has been a huge surge in the growth of commercial aerospace manufacturing and space transportation services. Since Elon Musk began the first conceptualisation of SpaceX, the technological development in the space launch industry has cut costs considerably. So much so that while in the past, only governmental agencies were able to afford these extensive costs, whereas now we see several start-ups beginning to dominate the aerospace scene. From Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, everyone wants a cut of the action.
Reportedly, the space-tourism hype has seen prices upwards of $50 million dollars for trips (to the international space station). We can also see the number of trips has increased considerably over the last ten years. One statistic stated that there were 21 trips in 2018 alone. Meanwhile, trips such as these can burn about 400 metric tons of kerosene and emit more carbon dioxide in a few minutes than an average car would in more than two centuries.
In spite of this figure, investment in the industry was upwards of $2 billion dollars in 2017. Billionaires who are willing to pay for these trips make space transport services increasingly more feasible for anyone with the funds, regardless of their professional background.
In September of this year, we even saw the safe return of the first civilian orbit around the earth with SpaceX’s Inspiration4 crew. The interesting thing about this group was the promise of a civilian crew selected from a competition, alluding to the idea that potentially anyone could go to space. Yet, the mission was led and funded by billionaire Jared Isaacman.
Here we see a familiar pattern starting to emerge. The monopolization of power in terms of not only who controls who goes to space but also those that can go. Already billionaires such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have been criticized for their focus on the space race over the immediate environmental problems we face on the planet we live on. David Beasley, the head of the World Food Programme, estimated that if Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk contributed $6 billion dollars of their $364.8 billion dollar combined wealth, they could save 41 million people in 43 countries who are at risk of starving this year.
Yet, history has shown time and time again that when privatisation of resources is taken up by a monopolistic power we see not only a lack of democratic control, but also an inability to regulate these forces. For example, SpaceX’s starlinks is another project under criticism for this reason. The launch of 60 satellites around the earth is being purported to offer significant increases to broadband speeds. However, as SpaceX aims to have almost 12,000 satellites circling Earth by 2027, and 30,000 more after that, scientists are already raising red flags about the potentially dangerous effects of such an investment.
According to Hugh Lewis, the head of the Astronautics Research Group (at the University of Southampton, U.K.) these satellites increase the risk of orbital collision and space debris. What is equally disturbing about this venture which supposedly aims to provide internet services to rural areas, partially those with economic barriers to the internet, are the steep upfront expenses of these services. The cost of satellite dishes and routers are set at $499 in addition to the monthly cost of the service.
Technology Review released an article pointing out these findings where they stated:
Microsoft estimates that 157 million Americans, most of whom live in rural communities, don’t use… broadband speeds of at least 25Mbps. Black communities are disproportionately more likely to lack access to broadband internet, even when they are in close proximity to whiter (and wealthier) communities… For much of the rural world, in America and elsewhere, the price is simply too high.
In this example, we hit the point that’s being driven by these ventures. We have the commodification of extraterrestrial resources and it’s only the beginning. As space mining has become another contentious possibility for the rich to become even richer, and we even see the next genre of movies made in space being driven by actors such as Tom Cruise, the question of upward mobility into these realms seems to narrow further and further.
This leads us to the question, who exactly is space for? If governmental initiatives are being overtaken by private commercial forces, who stands to gain from this surge into the future of space? If we take the internet, for example, there was a similar technological frontier that promised democratization of knowledge for all. Yet we saw big industries such as Facebook and Amazon dominate the market even under the call for governmental regulation.
As resources on our planet continue to be exhausted, what we are seeing is not just the control of space but perhaps our agency as human beings. If only certain individuals can have access to these resources, how does this change the future for the vast majority of individuals on this planet?
A very interesting take on this phenomenon can be seen in Debbora Battaglia’s anthropology of outer space where she asserts that agency — that is, the ability to make our future — has become a commodity in and of itself. What we buy in these great space enterprises is not just physical resources and capital but also the idea of the future. We have already discussed who has access to these future frontiers and looked at some estimations of cost. We also need to take a look at the result of these endeavours in terms of human advancement as a whole.
There’s a rapid deterritorialisation and colonisation of the future happening as we speak. In terms of agency in the postmodern era, many have asked: who decides what is real or what is true? In response, we have seen scholars and governments try to open up narratives from less represented groups to try to expand our definitions of lived experience as humans. However, the focus of presenting these ideas neglects a very serious question of the future. Is the ability to create one’s future not a significant consideration of agency? And if so, when we see our futures being narrowed what should the response be?
In the past, ideas about the future of the human race and space travel were a distant thought relegated to sci-fi movies. Now, we are on the cusp of stringent control over resources outside our planet and the future prospects that come with them. Dealing with ideas of the future may seem like an abstract notion at present but a very specific future is fast approaching.
Perhaps it’s time to seriously consider where we are going and who is going to get there.
Agency is the capacity of an actor to act in a given environment.