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The False Messiahs of Area Exploration — The Revealer

(Picture supply: California Enterprise Journal)

On July 24, 1969, the day American astronauts safely splashed down within the Pacific Ocean after humankind’s first expedition to the Moon, Wernher von Braun, the previous Nazi rocket scientist turned aerospace engineer and one of many architects of the American house program, addressed journalists—and the world—from the Madison County courthouse in Huntsville, Alabama. After a cheering crowd carried von Braun on their shoulders and set him down onto the courthouse steps, von Braun described the USA’ moonshot as an train of “real brotherhood with all nations.” The lunar touchdown, von Braun rhapsodized, represented greater than technological prowess: it was symbolic of how “the last word future of man is now not confined to the earth. I hope now that these courageous Apollo eleven astronauts may be assured that their journey was not in useless, that our attain into house can be continued and that from their transient journey of exploration there can be a brighter future for mankind.”

And, in a soundbite that greater than a half-century later nonetheless lingers as a problem, von Braun noticed that though “the moon remains to be commuter site visitors so far as the universe is anxious…like commuting from the suburbs to town” there are different planets to overcome. Von Braun believed our subsequent cease was so apparent that he prefaced his assertion with “after all”: “there may be the planet Mars.”

This flung gauntlet has famously been picked up by Elon Musk, one in every of humanity’s would-be astro-saviors profiled in Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s Astrotopia: The Dangerous Religion of the Corporate Space Race. In her earlier books, Rubenstein, professor of faith and science at Wesleyan College, has tackled every little thing from terrestrial pantheism to the multiverse. Her work is at all times delightfully readable and engagingly enlightening, however Astrotopia feels extra rapid, as a result of the message is each well timed and pressing. A ebook of cultural criticism in addition to consciousness elevating, Astrotopia is supposed to achieve past the philosophers of faith and house historians to the layperson who must know the way the world’s wealthiest persons are “rehashing” themes of Christian conquest to justify their manifest future in house. In the event that they succeed, Rubenstein warns, outer house—“as soon as the stuff of infinite chance”—will develop into “simply one other theater of greed and struggle.”

Astrotopia is a cautionary story—which is a bit out of character for the sphere of house historical past, a style that tends towards positivist and triumphalist narratives of conquest—concerning the energy of tales, fables, and myths; particularly, it’s a reminder that, whether or not they’re advised as historical past or as legend, we must always take note of tales that inform people the entire universe is ours for the taking. Specifically, we ought to be skeptical of billionaire house cowboys like Musk and Jeff Bezos, who inform thrilling tales of rockets and house colonies and terraforming different planets, however omit that this all comes on the expense of life on this one. So, on the one hand, Astrotopia is an introduction to the “NewSpace race,” which Rubenstein explains is “as a lot a mythological challenge as it’s a political, financial, or scientific one,” in addition to a handbook on how to withstand the siren tune of company cosmic saviors promising infinite wealth within the stars. However, additionally it is a reminder that simply because a narrative is timeworn doesn’t imply it’s true or proper. For Rubenstein, which means that we should “unearth the previous, damaging myths behind the escalating NewSpace race and let different myths information us.”

With all this in thoughts, Rubenstein first introduces readers to Elon Musk and his delusions of Martian messianism. Whereas right now he’s probably the most well-known proponent of settling Mars, Musk’s plan for Mars is maybe not what von Braun had in thoughts when he casually talked about that Mars was humanity’s latest new frontier. Von Braun’s plans for Mars had been scientific; all the way in which again in 1949 he proposed a purely empirical—not empire-building—mission to the pink planet that might discover Mars from its poles to its equatorial canyons.

However Musk’s plans for Mars are significantly extra pyrotechnic. As an alternative of touchdown on and finding out the Martian poles, Musk proposes to—and he truly means this—“nuke Mars.” As Rubenstein explains, within the gospel in response to Elon, all it takes to remodel “a freezing, radioactive, blood-boiling planet and make it extra like our life-loving Earth” is dropping some atomic bombs on the poles, which can instantly fill the ambiance with moisture and thus jumpstart the method of constructing our neighboring planet liveable…theoretically. Ought to this mission occur to be completed, Musk has promised to then “construct an interplanetary transportation system akin to the transcontinental railroad” within the spirit of nineteenth century American tycoons. The Martian Path—which, as even Musk acknowledges, can be like an particularly bummer model of the Oregon Path, as a result of “there’s a very good probability you’ll die” (Musk quoted on web page 15)—will contain a seven-month journey from Earth on what Musk calls the “Massive Fucking Rocket”: a conveyance Musk describes so rapturously that it seems like, in Rubenstein’s phrasing, “an astronautic Membership Med.” The journey will price upwards of $200,000 per particular person (a actually astronomical sum) and certain be staffed by indentured servants who’re paying for his or her transport with their bondage. These first colonists will give option to extra as humanity succeeds in what Muskivites describe as “hacking Mars”: reworking one other planet to serve our terrestrial wants. Terraforming Mars is Musk’s model of salvation, which Rubenstein reads in his declarations that our future on Mars represents “obligation to take care of the sunshine of consciousness, to ensure it continues into the long run.” (Musk quoted on 136).

When in comparison with Musk, Jeff Bezos’s plans for house appear virtually affordable. That’s, after all, till Rubenstein exposes the sinister underbelly. Bezos, Rubenstein explains, acquired house faith when he was at Princeton within the Eighties. Bezos’s ardour for transferring off world started when he audited “the physicist-prophet” Gerard O’Neill’s seminars on “instructing the world’s future rulers find out how to develop their empires into house.” O’Neill’s well-known late-Nineteen Seventies ruminations on mining different planets, transferring heavy business to low-Earth orbit, and creating extraterrestrial human habitats out of asteroids ultimately blossomed into Bezos’s 21st century prophecy of a future in house. Bezos’s proposal, in contrast to “nuking Mars,” is for the extraction of sources like rare-earth metals from asteroids or the Moon and house colonies that relocate most of humanity off-planet in torus-shaped “climate-controlled Edens.”

(Jeff Bezos laughing in a cowboy hat and spacesuit. Picture supply: Joe Raedle for Getty Photos)

In Bezos’s millennialist imaginative and prescient, the finite sources of Earth—from gasoline for power to human brainpower—will inevitably spiral downward in some unspecified time in the future within the close to future. So, in Rubenstein’s interpretation, as a result of Bezos desires humanity to “preserve transferring ‘ahead’”—an adverb that on this case denotes “the relentless pursuit of revenue” fairly than directionality—he’s “spending his time and cash exporting the entire damned system into house.” Bezos’s plans for house replicate not solely his engineering pursuits, however his emotions about Earth, as nicely. As a result of the wellspring of terrestrial sources is drying up, Bezos plans to avoid wasting Earth by pillaging the cosmos.

“So these are the 2 utopias” offered by Musk and Bezos, Rubenstein explains: “‘fuck Earth and occupy Mars’ versus ‘save Earth by drilling the universe.’”

Astrotopia is downright enjoyable when it’s centered on the 2 focus-pulling, spotlight-stealing, grand-gesturing, dueling ringmasters themselves—Musk and Bezos—largely as a result of Rubenstein’s tone as she recounts the litanies of their outsized concepts is that of an exasperated Greek refrain; you’ll be able to virtually hear her sigh in frustration as she explains within the introduction that, due to these guys and their ilk, house is actually and metaphorically “an absolute mess.” There are different performers within the NewSpace circus too, and Rubenstein traces a cautious abstract of their plans for house—business, capitalist, political, militaristic (why else a Area Power?!)—with an emphasis on company hopes and desires of “changing the cosmos itself into capital and conquering house, the ultimate frontier.”

Rubenstein is cautious by no means to lose her bigger message which, appropriately sufficient in a ebook about our future within the photo voltaic system, she returns to elliptically all through, swinging wider with every move. Rubenstein connects the present house race with historic explorations of Earth that started with the so-called conquest of the Americas that led to Biblically-sanctioned genocide and the obliteration of entire ecosystems, to the fashionable halo of rubbish that has rendered near-Earth orbit a literal catastrophe—the place “the celebs (astra) are misplaced, throwing every little thing out of order.” For Rubenstein, these cycles of spiritual, house, and cultural historical past characterize the tales that have to be retold, the myths that have to be remade so we lastly “cease pretending that escaping Earth goes to resolve our issues…we’ll deliver all of them together with us a technique or one other.”

However what’s the resolution to this “cosmic messianism” of Musk, Bezos, et al.? For Rubenstein, the largest downside with these astrotopians is that their seemingly beneficent aim to cease humanity’s pillaging of the Earth can be a cowl for searching for “extra land and sources to plunder in house.” However that is immediately in battle with all of the individuals—the poor, the oppressed, the hungry—who don’t need to transplant into the photo voltaic system the identical energy constructions that enabled the ransacking of the Earth and the subjugation of entire societies. They need—and, Rubenstein argues, we must always all need—a brand new paradigm. What this example requires, then, is to decolonize house, which Rubenstein establishes from the start as a motion that, in her phrases, facilities:

Black and Indigenous voices in all plans regarding extraterrestrial labor and territory, which should not be romanticized as ‘laborious work’ and the ‘empty frontier.’ It might additionally imply refraining from polluting different planets (and the interplanetary spaceways), refraining from extracting ‘sources,’ refusing to commodify land, and subjecting non-public enterprises like SpaceX and Blue Origin to strict nationwide and worldwide regulation. On this approach…house would possibly escape its romantic however sinister designation as ‘the ultimate frontier.’

Or, within the phrases of the oft-quoted musician Solar Ra, decolonizing house would imply lastly having the ability to see how the colonized on Earth are stuffed with “a burning want for one thing else.”

That “one thing else” Rubenstein finds not within the astrotopians’ visions of a “cosmic future” however in genres like Indigenous Futurism, which recovers “the intentionally erased histories of colonized and oppressed peoples [to] sift via them to seek out probably the most life-giving tales, and bundle them along with the mess of the fashionable world to think about new methods of being.” Or the Afrofuturism motion, which is based on the truth that “African-descended individuals already know find out how to survive the apocalypse and stay on different worlds.” Or actually any international institutional faith, practically all of which, Rubenstein maintains, have way back deserted “imperial Christendom’s ‘human dominion’ line” for stewardship and social justice. The one individuals who haven’t, Rubenstein warns, are “atheist billionaires” who “insist that their traders’ backside traces” are extra vital than the Earth and, to get us off it, are nonetheless “promoting a Christian doctrine that even the Christians have deserted.”

In different phrases, the one option to fight the previous tales that justify mining the asteroids and “hacking” Mars is to seek out new tales. As Rubenstein explains, “if we need to get proper with house, we’re going to should get proper with faith” by retelling tales of dominion and conquest as tales of conservation and concord; exposing the dangerous mythologies behind trendy science; discovering new tales that “put caretaking over revenue and concord over possession”; and creating tales that “inform us not how the universe would possibly belong to us however how we’d belong to the universe.”

One previous story that the company cosmic messiahs ought to revisit is how their heroes of the primary Area Age approached their job with humility and contemplation. At a prayer breakfast in April 1969, simply three months earlier than Apollo 11, von Braun—who clandestinely grew to become a born-again Christian throughout his post-war years—cautioned {that a} stability should be struck between science and morality. Whereas science can “allow us to fly to the moon” it doesn’t present any moral steerage on whether or not people ought to “destroy our residence planet with the atom bomb [and] whether or not we must always use the ability at our disposal for good or evil.” As an alternative, the person who designed the unique huge f’ing rocket—the Saturn V—tells his listeners that the “pointers of what we must do are furnished within the ethical legislation of God.” We will imagine a fable that tells us we must always take godlike energy for ourselves and plunder the photo voltaic system. Or, as von Braun says within the closing of his speech, fairly than praying “that God could also be with us on our facet,” we must always be taught “to wish that we could also be on God’s facet.”


Catherine L. Newell is an affiliate professor of faith and science on the College of Miami. She is the creator of Destined for the Stars: Faith, the Future, and America’s Final Frontier (College of Pittsburgh Press 2019).


Involved in extra on this matter? Take a look at episode 31 of the Revealer podcast: “The Corporate Space Race and Religion“.

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