by William Rauscher
Why did Columbus travel west? Why did Marco Polo head east? Because it is that pull, that unknown, that prospect of adventure that compels humans to seek new frontiers to explore. —MarsOne Manifesto
Private enterprise is changing outer space. As NASA moves from an organization that travels to space to one that invests in it, private enterprise is altering how we experience space as a human frontier, by influencing our imagination of space and by democratizing access to it.
There are no countries in space. It may sound banal to anyone raised on Star Trek, but in the new era of private space exploration, we become aware that the thing we call a “nation” is bound to planet Earth. With companies increasingly deploying space vehicles and planning missions with the long-term aim of taking humans off-world, the necessity of “nations” as political agents in these efforts has reached such a complexity that you have to wonder whether it will soon be desirable at all for a private cooperation to partner with a sovereign nations in order to achieve its goals in outer space.
There are no countries in space. It may sound banal to anyone raised on Star Trek, but in the new era of private space exploration, we become aware that the thing we call a “nation” is bound to bound to planet Earth.
The fate of national sovereignty in the private space race era is particularly poignant for the case of the United States, a nation founded, as historian Frederick Turner famously argues, on a frontier mentality. Turner’s “frontier thesis” reflects a belief that America must continually expand and explore or it stops being America. The “frontier spirit” means that for the sake of its own survival as a political idea, America must constantly embrace a frontier state of becoming. The frontier nation must extend beyond the edge of the nation-state, and thus must cease in being the nation it is today.
Part of the reason to doubt whether a “nation” is needed to colonize space is most certainly the argument that today, technological innovation and federal bureaucracy in the United States don’t mix. Things were most certainly different during the Apollo era, the golden age of nation-led space exploration. It may seem that from a standpoint of a private corporation, while a federal government is adept at controlling, regulating, maintaining order, it isn’t particularly conducive to innovation, as it’s constantly under the weight of bureaucracy. Going forward is always a matter of risk, and a federal government is nothing if not an enormous moving system constantly focused on prioritizing risk-reduction. This is also true of the big private aerospace firms like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamic: they’re often still using legacy components, often developed in the 1960s, even if better and more recent technology is available.
The shift to privatization in space happens at the same time as a shift in the primary goal of manned space exploration, as Mars continues to steadily eclipse the moon as the destination of choice and of our collective imagination. There are a number of reasons to “get your ass to Mars,” as Arnold Schwarzenegger says in Total Recall, rather than say, shoot for a lunar colony, beginning with practical reasons: the Mars day/night ratio is much more parallel to that of Earth, there’s water, which the moon doesn’t have, and Mars’ gravitational pull is stronger.
Here are three of the most advanced efforts by private enterprise to colonize the frontier of space today:
Founded by Paypal inventor Elon Musk, SpaceX is currently the most technologically advanced of the private space companies. In 2010 SpaceX became the first private company to launch a spacecraft into orbit and bring it back, in 2012 it sent a craft to berth successfully with the International Space Station, and in 2015 it arguably led a profound leap forward for space exploration by being the first organization to successfully land a re-usable launch rocket, the Falcon 9.
As leader and spokesperson for SpaceX, the South African-born Musk epitomizes the American entrepreneurial spirit, having made a fortune building up PayPal before moving on to simultaneously running SpaceX and the Tesla Motors electric car company. Musk has asserted that “the United States is a nation of explorers. America is the spirit of human exploration distilled,” thereby anchoring the endeavors of his Los Angeles-based SpaceX corporation in the historical legacy of the U.S. nation. SpaceX is in the process of seeing if it can mimic and then supersede the U.S.’s space program.
In the vacuum opened by the scuttling of the NASA space shuttle, the U.S.’s current method for putting humans into orbit consists of buying a seat on a Russian Soyuz rocket for a 70 million-dollar trip to the International Space Station (ISS). SpaceX has remained resolutely dedicated to innovation: in addition to assembling its own rockets, SpaceX cuts costs further by manufacturing 70% of the rockets as well. The company says that its new Dragon capsule will be able to lift seven astronauts into orbit atop its Falcon rocket—more than double the capacity of the Russian Soyuz, at less than one-third of the price per seat.
At the moment, SpaceX’s innovative efforts are deeply bound up with the traditional nation-based space program, acting as a kind of parasitism, and benefitting from a close contractor relationship with the US government. The ultimate mission of SpaceX, however, is a permanent Martian colony, as Musk often reiterates. However lofty that mission might seem, the benefits of having a north star like Mars throughout such enterprise should not be underestimated. It is cunning storytelling: the Martian mission gives SpaceX the brand an overarching narrative, a compelling reason for nations, investors and the public to take notice, claiming that whatever we do, whatever we achieve, you can watch us as we progress towards colonizing Mars.
It is cunning storytelling: the Martian mission gives SpaceX the brand an overarching narrative, a compelling reason for nations, investors and the public to take notice, announcing that whatever we do, whatever we achieve, you can watch us as we progress towards colonizing Mars.
The assertion of Mars as your final destination underscores the strength of cooperate sovereignty: in the private space race, it’s not enough to repeat past triumphs, you have to set the finish line only at where no man has gone before. Only by shooting for Mars can SpaceX demonstrate the obsolescence of the Apollo-era narrative, when a sovereign nation showed itself capable of putting a man on the moon. “I think it’s important that humanity try to become a multiplanet species,” says Musk. “If we’re not steadily improving our access to space, making it more reliable at lower cost and at larger scale, that will never happen.”
Musk was influenced, he says, by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, a science fiction saga in which a galactic empire falls and ushers in a dark age. “It’s sort of a futuristic version of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Let’s say you were at the peak of the Roman Empire, what would you do, what action could you take, to minimize decline? There could be some series of events that cause that technology level to decline. Given that this is the first time in 4.5 billion years where it’s been possible for humanity to extend life beyond Earth, it seems like we’d be wise to act while the window was open and not count on the fact it will be open a long time.” The ironic twist to Musk’s argument lies in the notion of an empire in decline: in the case of space travel, hastening our efforts to extend life beyond Earth won’t just counteract possible future “declines,” it will undoubtedly perpetuate them as well, making political bodies organized according to terrestrial borders increasingly irrelevant.
Lead by the outsized, mediagenic personality of billionaire playboy Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic has made the most concrete efforts of any private enterprise to date towards democratizing access to outer space: devoid of scientific pursuits, the Virgin Galactic project caters to the casual space tourist. Currently Virgin Galactic offers a 15-minute suborbital experience at $250,000, and expects to begin regular operations in the next few years. It has taken 640 deposits to pay for this experience, which would more than double the existing population of space travelers, currently stands around 530. A catastrophic flight crash in 2015 that took the life of the test pilot has seemingly not deterred Branson and his enterprise in their development efforts.
Virgin’s mass commercial approach is uniquely designed to democratize an experience, one commonly referred to as the “overview effect”: the change in one’s perception of the Earth and its inhabitants after viewing the planet from outer space.
While the Virgin Galactic mission may appear somewhat superficial in comparison to efforts by enterprises like SpaceX or Orbital Sciences to launch rockets, achieve stationary orbit around earth, and dock crafts with the International Space Station, Virgin’s mass commercial approach is uniquely designed to democratize an experience, one commonly referred to as the “overview effect”: the change in one’s perception of the Earth and its inhabitants after viewing the planet from outer space.
In the twentieth-century a number of thinkers theorized the potential effects that a view of Earth from space might have on our collective self-awareness. In the mid-sixties, designer and future internet pioneer Stewart Brand produced campaign-style novelty buttons with the caption, “Why Haven’t We Seen a Picture of the Whole Earth Yet?,” a project which later served to inspire his influential Whole Earth Catalog. In contrast, German philosopher Martin Heidegger famously struck a more darkly prophetic tone, remarking in a 1966 interview that he was “shocked when a short time ago I saw the pictures of the Earth taken from the moon. We do not need atomic bombs at all [to uproot us] — the uprooting of man is already here. All our relationships have become merely technical ones. It is no longer upon an Earth that man lives today.”
For Heidegger, our technological ability to leave Earth is indicative of our inability to truly dwell there. Historical change in the human race’s self-awareness will take more than the production of new images: it will require us to rethink our own relation to technology, and not simply accepting innovation as ideology. We have to wonder what Heidegger would have said had he been aware of the “overview effect,” since in his writings on technology, he repeatedly points to something in mankind’s poetic nature that can open up an alternate relation between man and world.
It is difficult to imagine a more poetic view of the Earth than to gaze upon it in free contemplation, sensing both its grandeur and its frailty. Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell compared the overview effect to Savikalpa Samadhi, the Hindu term for a state in which one’s consciousness temporarily dissolves into Brahman: “you see things as you see them with your eyes, but you experience them emotionally and viscerally, as with ecstasy, and a sense of total unity and oneness.” Many astronauts and commentators have added an ethical weight to the overview effect, arguing that it can influence how humans treat one another. To view the Earth as a whole is also, perhaps, to recognize that national boundaries do not extend into space, and to recognize, perhaps, that in general, to view something as a whole means at the same time to comprehend its limits.
To view the Earth as a whole is also, perhaps, to recognize that national boundaries do not extend into space, and to recognize, perhaps, that in general, to view something as a whole means at the same time to comprehend its limits.
The underlying premise of Virgin Galactic is that the overview effect is for everybody, and that Branson represents a showman invested in what the greatest show on Earth: Earth itself, viewed from space. This show, however, has the potential both to democratize a sublime sense of wonder and to reinforce a false belief in ourselves as the masters of the technology we increasingly deploy to explore, colonize and appropriate the cosmos.
The Mars One project wants to colonize the red planet, beginning in 2022. Mars One currently has no vehicles or agreements with any national space program: for the time being, it has focused its efforts almost exclusively on developing an ideal set of colonists for life on the red planet. More than 100,000 people have already applied for the one-way trip, hoping to be chosen to spend the rest of their lives on uncharted territory. Out of the applicants, Mars One has said that it will select an international group of 40 astronauts this year. Four of them — two men and two women — are set to leave for Mars in September 2022, landing in April 2023.
In addition to an online application, the Mars One website offers an extensive FAQ on their projects Mars mission, addressing all facets of the mission, from technical details to presumptions about daily life in the Mars colony. The FAQ addresses the absence of a return voyage by referring to certain legacies of human exploration: “it still sounds rather extreme nowadays to only offer a one way trip, but it bears mentioning that thousands of Europeans agreed to do just that – they took all they owned and moved to Australia, for example. That agreement did not come with a return ticket. The boat went back, but that did not mean they could afford to go with it. Maybe they could buy another ticket after saving up for a few years – just like our astronauts could build a rocket after some time. The emigrants of the 60s could never have imagined that, 30 years later, they would be able to fly back to Europe for a small amount. Perhaps, at some point, a trip to Mars will become just as commonplace.” Mars One thus narrates its mission by referring to a historical precedent while widely speculating that its groundbreaking Martian colony will perhaps serve as the foundation for a transformed humankind, a “multi-planet species” as Musk calls it.
The new space race is ruled no longer by earth-bound powers like national sovereignty, but by money, innovation, democracy, and spectacle. When private corporations join in this race, they take the masses and the media along for the ride: after all, as producers of capital, they are the free market’s most invaluable fuel source.
For the first crew, the Mars One mission will cost $6 billion. The idea is for the mission to be funded by sponsors and media that will pay for broadcasting rights of shows and movies documenting everything from the astronauts’ training on Earth to their deployment into space and their colonization of Mars. The Mars One Mission is a reality show, paid for by private sponsors and commercial licensing, and starring the masses. Paul Römer, the creator of the successful reality show Big Brother, explained his decision to accept a role as official Ambassador for the Mars One mission by saying “They think so creatively, and outside of the box and the concept of a ‘one-way’ mission is both outrageous and exciting. These aspects are what brought me to the idea of making the mission the biggest media event in the world. Reality meets talent show with no ending and the whole world watching. Now there’s a pitch!” Römer’s enthusiasm for space exploration as spectacle offers a dramatically different attitude from the contemplative overtones of the “overview effect”: instead of connecting peacefully with Brahman, Römer wants grand-scale entertainment, a Times Square-sized visual epic broadcast across the globe: the first truly planetary media spectacle, because it relates to anyone living on planet Earth, and thus is capable of turning them into a spectator.
The new space race is ruled no longer by earth-bound powers like national sovereignty, but by money, innovation, democracy, and spectacle. When private corporations join in this race, they take the masses and the media along for the ride: after all, as producers of capital, they are the free market’s most invaluable fuel source. This transformation in space travel might signal capitalism’s finest or darkest hour, depending on your perspective: it’s a historical turning point where money’s ability to fundamentally change the conditions of humankind can now be utilized for the sake of transporting life off of the only piece of the universe known to be capable of sustaining it.