My rocket is bigger than yours: outer space as an elite playground

Social inequality and power dynamics are the bread and butter of sociologists. We are trained to spot inequality in any society and to understand its cause and effect. When humans left Earth’s orbit, inequality came with. In this post, I give voice to critical sociologists who have long ditched their rose-colored glasses and observe heavens with a Marxist lens instead.

An artist’s rendering of a future. Picture from Pixabay (cc).

Etzioni was one of the first sociologists to criticize the space race. In his book, The Moon-doggle, he argued that America’s focus on getting to the Moon before the Soviets was a move that benefited politicians during the Cold War. Funding of space programs came at the expense of other sciences and researchers. Money was thrown at space and military industries, and at the same time the poor and underprivileged stayed poor and underprivileged.   NASA created jobs, he argued, but those jobs were geared to highly educated professionals, who were in high demand anyway. In sum, space programs sucked in America’s tax dollars and its brightest minds, leaving behind other science and research, as well as unsolved social problems.

Fifty years later, social scientists are still critical of the space fever.  The way space entrepreneurs and space activists talk about the cosmos is reminiscent of rhetoric used by imperial powers in the past: colonization, expansion, conquering. Harvey, a social geographer, writes that geographical expansion is a necessary attribute for capitalism to sustain itself. In the past, capitalists from the global North expanded to the global South in search of new resources and new markets for their production.

Harvey argues that capitalism is not a sustainable system. For example, if all the consumers who want and can consume a particular product at a particular price have done so, overproduction will lead to falling profits. One of possible solutions is to expand and find new suppliers of cheaper and more plentiful raw materials that can be used to produce the same product at a lower price and higher quantities. The price drops, more consumers will be able to afford it, and profits will continue to grow. Expansion into new markets also brings in more customers.

From this point of view, outer space can be seen as a ‘natural’ expansion of capitalism, a next step after (and beyond) globalization. Outer space is limitless, thus capitalism can grow indefinitely. These resources are not owned by anyone – there are no native populations in outer space – thus modern day capitalists do not need a military power to access them.

What resources are there? Space advocates and entrepreneurs talk about asteroid mining and alternative energy sources, just to name a few, although technology is not quite there yet. Space tourism for the wealthy is a more likely way to profit from outer space. The very first space tourist Dennis Tito paid 20 million USD for a chance to spend eight days with a Russian crew orbiting Earth. SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic are all promising routine space travel for their priceless customers for a more affordable $250k a ticket.

In addition to potential for mining and tourism, outer space benefits private entrepreneurs through public investments in research and through development of new technologies (e.g. satellite communications) that advance production and consumerism.

But if only a few are set to benefit, how do they convince the rest of us to fund and root for the risky business of space exploration? To do that, space advocates talk about benefits of space science for all, the need of unlimited resources to sustain humanity, how space exploration will unite humanity, and finally that curiosity is an innate part of the human nature.

But these arguments can hardly stand up to close scrutiny. Science is a valuable product of organizations, and space science is especially valued. But organizations are not neutral knowledge producers. They have a powerful impact on the whole knowledge production. Knowledge is produced in a way that helps secure further funding and allows to justify costly space programs. For example, NASA scientists map Mars in order for the public to see it as an exciting and inviting world, which in turn helps them to secure funding. In this way, science produced by space organizations becomes a currency used to buy more resources for space exploration, and not something beneficial for all humanity of itself.

Claims that view of Earth as a pale blue dot will lessen nationalistic and chauvinistic ideologies and inspire people to be better human beings ‘are about as convincing as the belief once widely held that the view from high-flying airplanes would alter consciousness in a more cosmopolitan direction’. And finally, the argument of innate need to explore falls to a logical fallacy: just because some individuals like to explore, it does not mean that there is a collective need to explore.

In sum, critical sociologists argue that profit is the driving force behind space exploration. Capitalistic system needs to constantly expand to meet market demands and to guarantee profits. Outer space is a ‘natural’ geographic expansion for capitalism, where new and abundant resources can be found. Contrary to the dominant rhetoric of benefits for all, outer space is bound to make a small group of people even richer, and everyone else will see no benefits at all.   But not everyone agrees with such assessment – next week I turn to sociologists that argue that space exploration motifs can be better understood as a complex belief system rather than just a blind drive for profit. Also, check out my previous post in which I give a very broad overview of sociology of outer space.

Further reading:

Beery, Jason. 2012. “State, Capital and Spaceships: A Terrestrial Geography of Space Tourism.” Geoforum 43(1):25–34.

Dark, Taylor E. 2013. “Reclaiming the Future: Space Advocacy and the Idea of Progress.” in Societal Impact of Spaceflight, edited by S. J. Dick and T. E. Dark

Degroot, Gerard. 2006. Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest.

Dickens, Peter. 2009. “The Cosmos as Capitalism’s Outside.” in Space Travel and Culture: From Apollo to Space Tourism, edited by D. Bell and M. Parker.

Dickens, Peter and Ormrod, James S. 2016. The Palgrave Handbook of Society, Culture and Outer Space

Dickens, Peter and James S. Ormrod. 2007. Cosmic Society: Towards a Sociology of the Universe.

Etzioni, Amitai. 1964. The Moon-Doggle.

Harvey, David. 2003. The New Imperialism.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. Marx/Engels Collected Works.

Vaughan, Diane. 1999. “The Role of the Organization in the Production of Techno-Scientific Knowledge.” Social Studies of Science 29(6):913–43.

Veblen, Thorstein. 1899. The Theory of the Leisure Class.

Vertesi, Janet. 2015. Seeing Like a Rover: How Robots, Teams, and Images Craft Knowledge of Mars.

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