Decolonise Your Space Flight How Colonial Is a Flight to the Moon?

How colonial is space flight?
Photo: picture alliance/Vladimir Akimov/dpa

Who is chatting?

Tiago Sant’Ana (visual artist), Aldeide Delgado (curator) and Tomas Hrozensky (space policy researcher) discuss with you how colonial the motives and missions of human space travel have been – and for what kind of a future we are headed.

Concept and further authors: Regine Hader, Dr. Elisa Jochum
 
On WhatsApp and Telegram #DecoloniseYourLife ends on 7.12.2019. Here you can continue to follow all chats, and discuss with us.

 
  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    In July, NASA published an ambitious idea for colonising the moon. The agency envisions the moon to serve as “headquarters” from where to coordinate Mars operations. This proposed colonisation requires the constant presence of humans and robots on the moon. What do you think about this endeavour from a political and historical point of view? Does the use of the word “colonisation” in this context suggest the persistence of processes of domination in the future? How to problematise the notion of colonising outer space?

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    I know it is the topic of our talk today but the term “colonisation” does not quite convince me. Why not use the term “settlement” instead, which seems to be preferred in some other parts of the international space community.

  • Aldeide Delgado Aldeide Delgado

    The thing is that they use the term “colonisation”.

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    NASA uses the term “colonisation” in their publications.

  • Aldeide Delgado Aldeide Delgado

    Yes! There has been some debate around that terminology though. In an article published in November, 2018, science writer Ryan F. Mandelbaum argued: “colonization on our own planet led to the genocide and displacement of cultures and people, economic inequity, and the destruction of environments. What lessons from Earth’s colonialist tragedies can we apply to our interplanetary future?”

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    Is it shared worldwide? I don’t believe so.

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    “Colonisation” has been appearing as a term in NASA publications since 2009:
    https://www.nasa.gov/stem-ed-resources/hep-lunar.html

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    To frame the future human presence in space as colonisation is perhaps a linguistic game. What do you think?

  • Aldeide Delgado Aldeide Delgado

    I don´t believe that it is a linguistic game. There are a lot of people that are still not aware of the consequences of colonisation for many countries. It´s important to see, however, how different fields – such as literature, arts or science – question this approach.

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    Overall, I see that space exploration continues to be quite attractive, which is a worldwide trend. It is visible in the public sector and, what is novel in comparison with the old space race, also in the private sector – see companies like SpaceX or Blue Origin, which have set themselves goals for exploring space.

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    The idea of colonising the moon immediately makes me wonder how what is now the USA was “discovered” by Europeans. The first to arrive literally divided the land. I imagine it is an uneven race because there is a large investment in space sciences in the global North – especially in the more advanced countries – while other locations need to prioritise investing in other types of science, given their internal demands.

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    To me, personally, both endeavours you describe in the first sentence sound similar.

  • Aldeide Delgado Aldeide Delgado

    Of course, they do. I suggest reading this conversation “Decolonizing Mars: Are We Thinking about Space Exploration All Wrong?”.
    https://gizmodo.com/decolonizing-mars-are-we-thinking-about-space-explorat-1830348568

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    I find it curious that the NASA project activates the notion of a “future colonisation” because we already know in what colonisation resulted. Can you think of any other terms we could use?

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    There are other proposals for Moon and Mars missions as well. Take, for instance, into account about what the director of the European Space Agency has been vocal – the idea of an international, joint “Moon Village”.

  • Aldeide Delgado Aldeide Delgado

    Following this decolonial perspective led by astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz, I reject using terms like “discovery”, “developing”, and even “settlement” and speak of “space travelling” or “humans living on Mars” instead. Walkowicz has made reference to the concept of “space cities” by Carl Sagan which permits a more diverse understanding. Anyway, even if this entire idea of colonisation is part of a marketing stunt, we need to problematise that. Who is included in this journey and who isn´t?

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    The notion of leadership or dominance has always been present in U.S. space policy, even when welcoming international collaboration.

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    I think this concept of “pioneering” in processes of colonisation is closely related to the creation of an image of international power.
    This obviously brings me back to the colonial past – because the exaltation of overseas seefaring in the 15th and 16th centuries bears striking similarities to the present-day approach to lunar colonisation. The past starred Europe. Now, the United States take the lead. I think all the time about this relationship with the past.

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    Absolutely, but I still believe this has always been the case with space exploration. In fact, the original competition between the USA and the USSR in space was labelled space race as international prestige was quite a strong feature of it.

  • Aldeide Delgado Aldeide Delgado

    @Tomas: Yes!
    For our debate, I would like to discuss some of the conflicts in-depth, which arise from this topic, but also what possibilities it opens up for imagining our future.
    We know about the historical relevance of prestige, but is the discourse changing now? The name of the Artemis mission refers to the participation of women in this process, too.

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    I witness quite a strong push for gender equality in the space sector, and I believe that this choice of title was a good step forward.

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    Do you think this is the beginning of a process of thinking about otherness?

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    Isn’t the aspect of otherness better suited to think about extra-terrestrial life, which we have yet to meet?
    I am not an expert on this and find it hard to formulate my own opinion on it.

  • Aldeide Delgado Aldeide Delgado

    You mentioned an interesting point: “the advance of science”. How many horrible things happen because of the advance of science? Can we escape this correlation?

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    I believe we can escape it. In this specific case, the activities currently proposed and pursued are moving in a good direction toward sustained and more ambitious space exploration. At this moment, I do not see anything so severe and harmful so as to be altering the fascination that space explorations hold for people.

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    I fully agree. Science was once used as a subterfuge for scientific racism, for example. But, in that case, my question is rather: do we need to problematise the term “moon colonisation” or do we need to think of an entirely different way of conducting this mission?

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    Those are two questions – one on the label and one on the way of doing stuff. The name might not be an ideal one for garnering universal support. The proposed activities themselves are, in my view, acceptable.

  • Aldeide Delgado Aldeide Delgado

    You´re both going too fast. Hahaha.
    I´m thinking here of an answer.

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    Hahaha.

  • Aldeide Delgado Aldeide Delgado

    : ) : )

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    No problem, Aldeide. :)

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    In the meantime, I will jump in with another idea. We might get to it or leave it.
    There is surely a strong political motive behind certain space endeavours. Not just on the side of the US, the Chinese lunar programme is also in full force. In the case of the US, I think one can associate the envisioned human landing on the moon in 2024 with the political reality of current US politics.

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    Let me rephrase my question: what is problematic about “moon colonisation”: the term or the mission?

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    It would be the mission.
    On the increasing efforts to stimulate diversity in the space sector – I fully support this notion.

  • Aldeide Delgado Aldeide Delgado

    I read about the dangers of contamination that this “advance of science” can entail.
    https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/gy83wx/elon-musk-bacteria-contamination-spacex-tesla-panspermia
    For others, however, going to the Moon permits building power satellites that would supplement or even replace power plants on Earth, as well as it enables the creation of products that we cannot generate while inside the Earth’s atmosphere and gravity.

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    It is actually a legal question because, according to international law, harmful contamination of celestial bodies with terrestrial material, and vice-versa, is prohibited.
    And this is very relevant for the future.

    Actually, I wanted to draw attention to the complexity of the issue of planetary colonisation / exploration / settlement within the community people working in the field itself, when it becomes topic of the day. What I see are four large blocks of challenging considerations:
    1. Law and ethics – there are numerous legal and ethical challenges associated with planetary settlement
    2. Prestige and politics – extrapolation from terrestrial political behaviour to space exploration
    3. Economy and business – can we move toward economic opportunities in this field, just like what is happening right now on near-Earth orbits, with an expanded use of small satellites and large satellite constellations and their application down on Earth (in transportation, meteorology, agriculture, etc.)?
    4. Sustainability – how do we make sure that the activities can be conducted over a long period of time in a sustainable manner both regarding the environment and our available resources?

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    What is the impact of a mission like this in political and humanitarian terms? How could we include emerging countries in these discussions?
    I know these are broad questions. Haha.

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    Regarding the second part, I believe small and emerging countries must be proactive. They must present themselves as reliable partners to the “big guys”. They can engage in the domain of space on their own... but in space exploration, which requires vast resources, international cooperation is necessary if you are a small country.

  • Aldeide Delgado Aldeide Delgado

    If we think about science, it’s important to notice the importance of technology in this entire endeavour. Also, how will technology impact on our future in space?

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    What about reducing costs for a start? :)

  • Aldeide Delgado Aldeide Delgado

    For example, the process of “cyborgisation”, I mean, using technology to modify and enhance our bodies and brains to live in space.

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    I agree that we should consider this as a problematic aspect, but I feel we are not yet fully there and this makes it even more difficult to properly grasp the idea by means of a technological or legal approach.

  • Aldeide Delgado Aldeide Delgado

    My focus on art practice allows me to look for proposals that speculate on these possibilities. Did you see how they launched a Tesla into space some months ago? 
    https://youtu.be/qk6qxprCuGY

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    It surely was a great PR strategy, but, unfortunately, I do not know any further details.
    Let me now ask you this: do the two of you perceive any further aspects of space exploration as problematic? Maybe, to give, an example, I’d like to point to the ongoing discussion on whether to advance more robotic or rather human exploration...
    Hard to say whether it is a zero sum game but worth examining in order to see advantages / disadvantages of both approaches.

  • Aldeide Delgado Aldeide Delgado

    I don’t see a problem there. The thing is who is participating in this “exploration”. Are black and indigenous people being represented?

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    One can clearly see that Africa, in general, is greatly increasing its space presence. The regional – African – space agency is taking shape (with its seat in Egypt)... some countries are launching their first satellites...

  • Aldeide Delgado Aldeide Delgado

    In that sense, I position myself very closely to the practice of Afrofuturism and Indigenous Futurism in art. For example, Afrofuturism refers to the intersection between race and technology to visualise the future. Artists depict cyborgs, robots and aliens to discuss alternative identities while they also imagine habitable spaces in the cosmos as the painting Keeping the Culture by the outstanding artist Kerry James Marshall does. Another piece I want to highlight is Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program by artist Rigo 23, which was presented at the Queens Museum in New York in the exhibition Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas.
    https://youtu.be/41frLHapLJg

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    @Tomas: I don’t see a problem in space exploration. For me, the central point is that this will be an achievement celebrated by only part of the world. Consider that, in most nations, there is no investment and discussion about space missions. I keep thinking about how to make this topic accessible to more people. And also how can we discuss this from an environmental point of view.

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    @Aldeide: Well, I am not following such statistics so I do not have a response to this.

    @Tiago: The last point you mentioned caught my eye. Indeed, the environmental approach is getting traction in the space community right now – it is mostly associated with space debris in Earth’s orbit and with finding a way how to make sure that we can use space (for socio-economic benefits, for instance) in a sustainable way.

  • Aldeide Delgado Aldeide Delgado

    At the end, at least for me, the project of going to Mars in 2030, is about the problems that we are having on Earth right now.

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    @Aldeide, can you elaborate a bit more on this? Are there particular problems you have in mind that might relate to activities in space?

  • Aldeide Delgado Aldeide Delgado

    Yes, in a certain way, we have discussed those approaches: the environmentalism, but also, the discussion about representation. It caught my attention how NASA are including women as part of the marketing campaign of going to the moon. Is it telling us anything about our society? In my opinion, there are more questions than answers and we need to have this in mind because we don’t know what will really happen. It is similar to the question: what we will find at the South Pole?

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    These questions about race and geopolitics point to another question: what would a civilisation look like on the moon?

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    Hmmmm...So that depends on who will actually be there (citizens of which countries) and on the time factor – meaning that the identity issues, if we speak about long-term multigenerational settlements, might get serious...

  • Aldeide Delgado Aldeide Delgado

    I want to share the work of an artist to offer a possible answer to your question of what a civilisation on the moon would look like. Check out the artwork in the upper left corner, part of the series Artificial 3000 by artist Ricardo E. Zulueta.
    http://www.ricardozulueta.com/artificial.html

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    Thank you for the picture of this artwork, @Aldeide. Spacesuits are a nice representation of how difficult life support in space is – take Mars, for instance – there is minimal atmosphere, no magnetic field, harsh agricultural conditions...

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    Last question: could you talk more about the context of this artwork?

  • Aldeide Delgado Aldeide Delgado

    I’ve been following this artist, who is Cuban-American, and I always feel attracted to the way he captures a new understanding of life.

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    @Aldeide and @Tiago, I am grateful for the opportunity to have an exchange with you on space exploration. As a researcher in the space sector itself, I may not share the same perspectives as you when addressing the topics we discussed today, but it is very enriching to learn about your ideas.

    @Dear readers: What do you think about the “colonisation” of space?

  • Reader Comment from a reader

    Personally, I see a major ethical problem in this topic. It is not clear to me why so much energy, money and intelligence is used to create earth-like conditions on other planets so that one can survive there (if one can ever live there really happy and fulfilled, is another question). Isn't that irresponsible? Instead, I would suggest using these resources to avert the catastrophe of our dying planet, which actually offers the perfect conditions for us and I would propose forming a socially more stable society. Isn't it also reckless to leave this – so far the only known, so perfect and beautiful – living space simply to waste and to behave as if it were already too late? I understand the enormous fascination of space exploration very well. But given the situation of humanity, I don't think it’s the right approach.

  • GI Goethe-Institut

    Thank you for the interesting question!

  • Aldeide Delgado Aldeide Delgado

    I think that the best way to change the notion of space travel as a colonizing endeavour starts with changing how we talk about it. When Columbus came to America, there were already people living here. In the future, we should be open to dialogue and the possibilities of an encounter with other forms of lives or communities. Also, it’s important to include as many voices as possible in an interdisciplinary and diverse exchange.

  • Dr. Hrozensky Tomas Hrozensky

    I believe that, besides parallels or analogies, we should be aware of the specifics of the future of space travel and the overall paradigm. For few decades already, there have actually been international conventions put in place between states, which, for instance, prevent national appropriation of celestial objects or parts thereof. That is an important legal arrangement, I believe.

  • Reader Question from a reader

    What happens, if after the first generation, more people populate the possible exoplanet? Will the history of the earth repeat itself and will there be fights with the “indigenous people”?

  • Reader Comment from a reader

    Good evening!
    Isn't it exciting to take a look at (pop) culture in this context? As far as the different is concerned, the Prime Directive from Star Trek is quite interesting, for example, which only provides for contact with foreign cultures if they are technically advanced enough. At the same time, however, there is also the narrative of gender equality, which plays a role both in the original series and in later offshoots. This equality appears in varies forms, depending on the   contemporary discourses. What today is thought of as equality was not conceivable in the 1960s. And of course this is one example among many.

  • GI Goethe-Institut

    What do you think about it? Send us a comment with your thoughts!