Mont Mercou in the Gale crater on Mars; photo taken by the Curiosity rover, March 2021. Photo courtesy NASA


Decolonising the cosmos

Instead of treating Mars and the Moon as sites of conquest and settlement, we need a radical new ethics of space exploration

by Ramin Skibba + BIO

Mont Mercou in the Gale crater on Mars; photo taken by the Curiosity rover, March 2021. Photo courtesy NASA

Within four years, American astronauts will once again plant their feet and flags on the Moon’s dusty surface. They won’t be alone: Chinese, European and Russian space agencies have their sights on our nearest celestial body too, as do space companies such as Moon Express and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. If their plans come to fruition, astronauts and their robots will claim the most valuable spots and mine the Moon for water, ice and other resources. Our lunar neighbour will never be the same again.

The Moon is only a foothold, a first step on the edge of a vast landscape. Humanity stands on the brink of a new era of exploration, in which brief, intermittent and tentative space jaunts could be replaced by a multitude of cosmic activities conducted by many competing interests. Within 20 or 30 years, crewed missions could make giant leaps toward Mars – 500 times further away than the Moon – to map out the terrain and even establish colonies. Asteroids and other distant destinations will be next. With this new age dawning, we face a collective responsibility to consider the moral challenges before us, and to avoid committing the grave mistakes of the past.

So far, attitudes to space that focus on power and profit appear worryingly similar to the mindset of European and American colonial powers. The billionaire Elon Musk’s company SpaceX has begun transforming the night sky – the cultural heritage of humanity – with its reflective constellations of satellites. Military space programmes and military space companies continue developing space weapons such as anti-satellite missiles, tests of which increasingly clog low-Earth orbit with debris. Meanwhile, if companies or anyone else carves pieces of the Moon as they please, it could irrevocably change its appearance to us, too. While NASA and other space agencies are more accountable and transparent than the space industry, they too lack a collective, long-term roadmap for what comes next. Without clear guidelines for what can and cannot be done in space, the cosmos will become not a place for collaborative exploration and shared benefits but the site of conflicts, resource extraction and pollution.

If nothing changes, commercial and military interests will influence or even supplant collective ones; the quest for resources such as water, minerals and valuable space in orbit will create imperatives to despoil the commons of space and the night sky; and investment in space exploration will become a way for the powerful to escape accountability for social justice problems on Earth.

A growing chorus of voices within the astronomy community is championing an alternative: a peaceful, sustainable and egalitarian vision of space, which keeps an eye on the injustices and inequalities on the ground. ‘The larger philosophical question is “Are other worlds there for human use or are they sovereign unto themselves?”’ Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, tells me. ‘The viewpoint of European colonisers has always been that everything exists for their use, and we’re witnessing the unsurprising outcome of centuries of that thinking.’

Walkowicz is driven by their longtime involvement in politics and activism, including opposition to the Iraq War and support for Black Lives Matter. After years of giving talks and raising awareness, Walkowicz and their colleagues recently formed the JustSpace Alliance – an organisation that advocates ‘for a more inclusive and ethical future in space, and to harness visions of tomorrow for a more just and equitable world today’, according to its mission statement. Other advocates and nonprofit organisations with aligned missions include Space Enabled, a research group at the MIT Media Lab, which promotes social and environmental sustainability in space, and applies space technology to foster justice on Earth; the Outer Space Institute, led by researchers at the University of British Columbia, which focuses on peace and sustainability in space, starting with the atmosphere; and the Secure World Foundation, a think-tank based in Broomfield, Colorado, aiming to reduce space conflicts and promote space diplomacy.

With their overlapping objectives, these advocates and institutions want to spark a cultural shift that will reshape NASA’s and other space agencies’ priorities and rein in the burgeoning space industry. Can they succeed?

Today, the cosmos is neither as distant nor as inscrutable as it used to be. Space agencies and space companies have designs on worlds well beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Within a couple of decades, humans could have an enduring presence on the Moon, engage in scientific studies, build outposts or colonies, mine for resources, and visit as space tourists. Mars will soon follow suit. We can expect to see more missions to asteroids too, especially if some turn out to harbour rare and lucrative platinum-group metals. Researchers at MIT, the University of Arizona and the University of Central Florida involved in current missions exploring near-Earth asteroids, Pluto and extrasolar planets have or had ties to asteroid mining companies such as Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries and TransAstra Corporation. Past the asteroid belt, by the end of the century, we might even manage to send crewed expeditions to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, uncovering the ocean worlds of Europa, Enceladus and Titan.

But who decides where we go next, and who are ‘we’, exactly? Danielle Wood, the director of Space Enabled, argues that allowing the most powerful countries and companies to claim space property, territory or resources for themselves constitutes an imperial mindset. ‘If we just take the default view today, people will be going to these places with an extractive mindset that says: “I have the technology, money and power, and I’ll use these resources until I’m satisfied, and I will not be concerned with other countries and future generations,”’ she says.

The drive for resource extraction imperils the commons of space, including the Moon and the night sky – a process not so different from how human societies and natural ecosystems were recklessly plundered by colonial powers. ‘When people in the space community, from Elon Musk to senators pushing for the commercialisation of space, are saying “We can mine the Moon,” it’s very reminiscent of extractivism from historical colonisation,’ Natalie Treviño, a space theoretician at the Western University in London, Ontario, tells me. Like an ancient forest that will never return, atmospheric and space resources can be quickly exhausted, and even lifeless places can be irrevocably transformed by environmental degradation.

No one wants space activities to result in a Mars littered with abandoned dwellings and ice miners

Thousands of active satellites orbit the Earth, but low-Earth orbit is clogged with many thousands more pieces of derelict spacecraft and debris. This belt of space-junk includes the countless bits of shrapnel and flotsam produced by anti-satellite weapon tests, such as the ones undertaken by China in 2007 and India in 2019. In the ocean, you can at least navigate a ship around the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but it’s not so simple in the atmosphere. Even a single errant bolt hurtling in space can collide with a spacecraft and render it dysfunctional. Yet no universal treaty exists to guarantee that no one will generate new space junk, and technologies for removing it are in their infancy.

Another problem is that lengthy space missions will often entail finding more resources along the way. Every litre of water and every piece of equipment launched from Earth takes up crucial space on a rocket, and demands extra fuel to escape our planet’s gravitational pull. Long-distance expeditions could involve wresting water from frigid lunar dirt, 3D printing rocket parts or infrastructure from materials on other worlds, or sifting for minerals on an asteroid. Still, no one wants the next few decades of space activities to result in a Moon pockmarked with excavations, or Mars littered with abandoned dwellings and ice miners. Furthermore, ice and other space materials are essentially fossil resources; they will not be replenished.

Beyond space pollution or depletion, so-called ‘megaconstellations’ of many satellites coordinating together pose particular risks. SpaceX’s Starlink constellation will eventually build up to tens of thousands of spacecraft, a network that will be visible to the naked eye. While SpaceX attempted to develop a ‘DarkSat’ coating to minimise the issue, astronomers found that the tested satellite was only marginally fainter than its numerous brethren. If nothing changes, people will eventually see as many satellites as stars in the sky, according to a new paper by Aaron Boley, Samantha Lawler and colleagues. The night sky, which has looked roughly the same for people for millennia, could appear very different to our children and grandchildren.

The oceans once appeared to our ancestors as a similarly vast and tantalising frontier, first broached by the boats of the Austronesian peoples and other ancient civilisations. But they were followed by the invention of military and cargo ships and navies, with empires such as the British, Spanish and Portuguese deploying fleets to control territories and trade routes. More recently, the United States, one of the leading space powers today, ruled over a more veiled empire, spanning from Latin America and the Caribbean to the Middle East and East Asia. The American empire funnelled, just as its predecessors did, minerals and other resources to the wealthy and powerful at home while leaving social inequality and environmental devastation in its wake.

In his book Open Veins of Latin America (1971), the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano observed:

Everything, from the discovery until our times, has always been transmuted into European – or later United States – capital, and as such has accumulated on distant centres of power. Everything: the soil, its fruits and its mineral-rich depths, the people and their capacity to work and to consume, natural resources and human resources.

Are things different in space in the 21st century? To answer this, we need to examine the logic and motivations of those organising space missions. The first deep-space travellers will need water to survive; they’ll need to construct shelters from space radiation; they’ll need fuel to return home. But the first European colonisers also claimed they were only looking for resources for survival, or advancing humanity’s shared interests, when they voyaged overseas or into Indigenous territories, Treviño points out. ‘There’s a lot of utopian thinking with space exploration,’ she says.

Space contractors and military contractors are often one and the same

The very terms we use when describing space exploration deserve more attention. While NASA and other organisations years ago replaced ‘manned’ with ‘crewed’ or ‘human’ to describe space missions, we still frequently use other problematic terms, such as ‘settlers’, ‘colonies’ and ‘frontier’, which all have colonialist connotations. We don’t yet have an alternative language for our new travels in space, Treviño says – at least outside of Afrofuturism and Indigenous science fiction, whose authors often emphasise sharing, ancestral knowledge and diverse, welcoming, resilient communities.

As companies and space agencies prepare to colonise the Moon during the 2020s, Wood says, there’s a risk they’ll follow the same patterns: extracting and taking raw materials as quickly as possible. ‘If we don’t pause and disrupt that, I expect that in space, especially if you have large, Amazon-style companies, they would behave in the same way, because why wouldn’t they?’ she asks.

Militaries, too, have always played major roles in space. The technologies required to build rockets are similar to those of missiles that deploy warheads; the same goes for space telescopes and reconnaissance satellites. Space contractors and military contractors are often one and the same, and there’s a revolving door for scientists between space research and companies such as Northrop Grumman, which plays a leading role developing technologies for the James Webb Space Telescope that’s aiming to launch in December. The new US Space Force has broad political support, and US presidential administrations of both parties frequently refer to space as a war-fighting domain.

The Barack Obama administration’s Space Act of 2015 declared that the US would not claim any space territory, but it also enshrined the principle that space companies could own, use and sell any resources they obtain. Space lawyers continue to debate whether this violates the spirit of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Representatives of a handful of countries negotiated the more restrictive Moon Agreement in 1979, which states that natural resources in space ‘are the common heritage of mankind’. But space powers such as the US and the USSR did not become signatories of that treaty, so it carries little weight. Fifty years ago, these competing views of space, prioritising science and shared benefits or enabling commercial and military goals, had already begun to surface

As humanity ventures beyond our atmosphere, two clear differences emerge compared with empires of the past. ‘There are no Indigenous populations to exploit, and no one’s allowed to annex territory,’ says Christopher Johnson, a space law advisor at the Secure World Foundation. But if we want to allow long-distance space exploration, it will almost certainly involve supplementing water and fuel supplies with limited quantities that astronauts can find in space. This means we need a consensus about who has access and which activities are permitted.

In the midst of the space race of the 1960s, two years before that historic Moon landing, American, Soviet and British representatives hammered out the Outer Space Treaty. More than a half century later, it continues to serve as the main framework for international space law. Those negotiators designed the accord to preserve space for all humanity and to ensure that it’s not militarised, notes Jason Wright, a planetary astronomer at Penn State University. The treaty states that the exploration and use of outer space ‘shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development’. It also forbids weapons of mass destruction, military bases and military manoeuvres in space.

The Moon landing demonstrated that ‘the United States really tried to distance itself from acts of colonialism’

‘If you look at the visuals of the Moon landing, it looks like the most colonialist thing ever: it’s a conquistador planting a flag in unknown territory,’ says Daniel Immerwahr, a historian at Northwestern University and the author of the book How to Hide an Empire (2019). But despite that symbolism, he points out, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin arrived with a plaque attached to their spacecraft’s landing gear strut, which remains on the Moon’s surface to this day, and it includes a different message. It states: ‘Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all mankind.’ The US was not taking possession of the Moon.

Alongside the internationalist efforts to create the first space laws, the Moon landing demonstrated that ‘the United States really tried to distance itself from acts of colonialism’, Immerwahr says. The US empire, along with European ones, substantially decolonised in the two decades following the Second World War – with the Philippines gaining independence, Hawaii and Alaska attaining statehood, and Puerto Rico, Guam and a few other islands gaining the ambiguous status of ‘commonwealth’. In space, he foresees a continuing trend away from territorial expansion.

Yet a tension remains between an internationalist perspective that benefits everyone, and an approach implicitly prioritising commercial monopolies and the militaries of a couple of dominant countries. That tension persists and has only intensified in recent years. ‘There have always been two competing visions of what space can be,’ says Wright.

On our own world, we do possess a precedent for how these conflicting interests can be managed: Antarctica. It, too, is rugged, incredibly cold and previously uninhabited. It’s a place where we have grappled with commercial interests, such as whaling and mineral extraction, and where world powers keen on territorial expansion have tried to keep their rivals at bay. Yet in 1959, in spite of those tensions, 12 countries including the US and the Soviet Union signed on to the Antarctic Treaty: an accord that gave science and environmental conservation primacy over commercial and military activities.

Humanity’s management of Antarctica is far from perfect. Certain countries dominate debates about which activities are allowed or prohibited, and the treaty is relatively toothless when it comes to enforcing rules. Antarctica has been tainted by plastic and chemical pollution, and private yachts make visits to the icy continent without approval from international authorities. Nevertheless, the six-decades-old treaty holds up. Negotiators harnessed a spirit of international collaboration, and cooperation is continually needed to sustain it. But that’s preferable to allowing unrestrained commercial exploitation or territorial claims, and then trying to repair and reverse the damage. Despite the ravages of the climate crisis, Antarctica mostly remains what it has been for aeons: a spectacular, savage landscape of mountains, volcanoes, ice shelves, icebergs and glaciers, with no vegetation in sight. It hosts a smattering of science stations and telescopes, but no oil rigs, military bases or whaling facilities.

According to Wood, a sustainable approach to space would treat the Moon, Mars and other worlds like UN World Heritage Sites or US National Parks. ‘Just as the Grand Canyon or Antarctica, these places are naturally beautiful,’ she says. (She acknowledges, however, that some US National Park land was taken from Native peoples.)

If Walkowicz, Wood and their colleagues are successful, their work will usher in an entirely new vision of space exploration – as well as its connection to humanity on Earth. To make space sustainable and shared would demand rules beyond the Outer Space Treaty, such as about which orbits in the atmosphere are available, what kinds of satellites and other spacecraft can be launched, and what happens to them when they’ve outlived their usefulness. It would also require definitions of what space ‘property’ means, and for whom.

Indigenous peoples have reason to be sceptical about whether their perspective will be taken seriously

While companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin like to present themselves as independent, with their own grandiose plans for expanding space travel and colonisation, they depend on space agency infrastructure, and much of their funding comes from contracts with NASA and other agencies, Walkowicz says. As a consequence, if space agencies are required by law to look more carefully at how their missions are designed, such that the Moon’s icy poles don’t disappear and its crags and mountains aren’t bulldozed, the space industry will likely follow.

But to realise such goals, decisions about space policy must be more inclusive: not only the remit of a few political and corporate leaders, but also including astronomers, social scientists, ethicists, space lawyers, space environmentalists and Indigenous peoples and others who have experienced the depredations of colonialism first-hand.

Even from the past few decades of space exploration, Indigenous peoples have reason to be sceptical about whether their perspective will be taken seriously. Telescopes and launch sites are often placed with little regard for traditional inhabitants. A glaring example is the Thirty Meter Telescope currently under construction on Hawaiʻi. Once completed, it will be one of the world’s most massive telescopes, designed to find habitable or even inhabited planets, as well as to peer into the early Universe. The proposed location is Mauna Kea, the second highest island peak on Earth, and a sacred site for Native Hawaiians. Indigenous opposition and protests have been fierce. ‘The value is in hunting for new planets that humans could settle, and attempting to find extraterrestrial life – at the expense of Indigenous life on our planet and sacred sites like Mauna Kea,’ says Uahikea Maile, an Indigenous politics researcher at the University of Toronto.

New launch sites have sparked debates as well. SpaceX built a launch facility at Boca Chica in Texas without procuring the agreement of residents, many of whom are people of colour, and who have had to tolerate noise pollution, scattered debris and the prospect of wetlands being filled. And the expansion of the Alcântara Launch Center in northern Brazil could result in the eviction of thousands of descendants of slaves. In a 1970 poem, Gil Scott-Heron attacked massive government funds spent on the space programme while people, especially Black Americans, lacked basic social services:

How come there ain’t no money here?
(Hmm! Whitey’s on the Moon)
Y’know I just about had my fill
(of Whitey on the Moon)
I think I’ll send these doctor bills,
Airmail special
(to Whitey on the Moon).

Octavia Butler’s Afrofuturist and science fiction novel Parable of the Sower (1993) poses the same questions as Scott-Heron, but in a climate change-ravaged Earth. In her dystopian world, while most people lack food, water and protection from violence and wildfires, a privileged few journeyed to Mars.

‘Decolonising space exploration is meaningless without decolonising Earth,’ Maile says. As a society, we must ask ourselves about the ultimate purpose of space exploration. Today, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that enthusiasm for space is a way for the powerful to escape their complicity in injustice down here on the ground. Bezos and Musk, two of the richest people on the planet, make numerous plans and projects beyond it, while side-stepping and distracting from a pattern of workers’ rights violations at Amazon and Tesla. They talk of utopian civilisations they could create in space, while making few efforts toward justice and equality on Earth.

Sustainable, egalitarian operations in space would focus on social equity

Fifty years after the Moon landing, a majority of Americans continue to support NASA and space exploration (though with less confidence in the space industry and space military) – but their top space priorities involve clear benefits for Earthlings: aiding climate science and monitoring asteroids that could collide with us.

A new regime that preserves the beauty of space for everyone will need to prioritise scientific research and public access to its benefits. International agreements could demarcate limited space zones for particular kinds of commercial activity. Sustainable, egalitarian operations in space would focus on social equity, environmental conservation, workers’ rights and balanced economic benefits. Many more people would have access to the benefits of space, not dependent on the beneficence of a few billionaires; decisions would be similarly democratic and consultative. Those who flout the norms, arming the atmosphere, polluting the night sky or defacing the Moon, would lose their access.

Despite the crises faced by humanity today, we would do well to channel Butler’s persistent optimism and realism. Through her protagonist, she argues that it’s possible to reimagine our own world while exploring and visiting new ones. Egalitarianism, sustainability and justice in space can be achieved, but only if we’re simultaneously collaborating and working toward the same goals on Earth.

Perhaps space will continue a tension between a collective, progressive, internationalist enterprise, on the one hand, and activities that prioritise national prestige and commercial competition on the other. But while the Moon and Mars haven’t yet changed, we have – or at least we have the capacity to. ‘What we as humans need to decide right now is that we’d like to find healthy ways to operate in space,’ Wood says. ‘We can say: “We should have healthy workers’ rights in space, we should have a healthy relationship with the environment,” but the tendency will be so strong to not do that.’