Privatized Universe

There is no limit to human megalomania. One recent example – which went largely unnoticed during this torrid and neurotic summer – was a bizarre exchange between NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and the Chinese authorities. ‘We must be very concerned that China is landing on the Moon and saying: “It’s ours now and you stay out”’, Nelson cautioned in an interview with Die Bild. A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry immediately hit back: ‘This is not the first time for the chief of NASA to lie through his teeth and smear China’.

Nelson’s accusation was strange, given that this December will mark fifty years since anyone has set foot on our natural satellite. Since then, moon exploration has been delegated to small, tracked vehicles which scuttle over its rocky outcrops. China has only deployed one such robot, which travelled to the moon’s ‘dark side’ in 2019. So the idea that it could establish sole dominion over an area the size of Asia, suspended in a vacuum at temperatures ranging from 120 degrees Celsius during the day to minus 130 degrees at night, exposed to cosmic radiation and more than 384,000 km from the closest supply base, was somewhat of a stretch.

The accusation was all the more outlandish given that it was the US, not China, that planned to launch a gargantuan rocket into space on 29 August, completing a few lunar orbits before returning to earth, all for the modest sum of $29bn. This would be the first leg of the Artemis mission – so-called after the Greek goddess of the moon and sister of the Sun-god Apollo – which eventually aims to establish a base worth $93bn on the moon by 2025. In theory, this lunar settlement will one day serve as a launch pad for a human expedition to Mars.

The question is: why are we interested in further trips to the moon? On their successful voyage in 1969, American astronauts collected a few curious stones but nothing else – so it is hard to find a scientific rationale for future missions. There may be a military objective: it was not for nothing that in late 2019 the US established the sixth branch of its armed forces, the Space Force, to manage all space-related military activities. But why the moon? Perhaps to install a military base from which to threaten an enemy on earth? Surely it would be sufficient to use the satellites already in orbit, which are much closer, cheaper and more precise.

Cynical onlookers such as the Financial Times and Economist insinuate that these missions are merely a ploy to bankroll the defence industry and distribute funds to strategic electoral constituencies. The latter publication reported that the Space Launch System (SLS) used in the Artemis project was nicknamed the ‘Senate Launch System’, and its technology, derived from the now defunct Shuttle programme, was intended to safeguard jobs in Alabama, where the bulk of the Shuttle’s components were manufactured.

Another hypothesis is that US wants to replay the game that eventually caused the USSR to collapse. The Strategic Defense Initiative, or ‘Star Wars’ programme, was a cosmic defence system whose pursuit brought the Russians to their knees, despite the fact that it was never realized. To keep pace with the American conquest of the moon, China would similarly have to divert a quantity of resources that would plunge its economy into crisis. Hence the US calling upon its vassals – Canada, Japan, the UK and EU – to participate in the Artemis mission.

Lest this New Cold War expenditure should strike the public as somewhat pointless, the government can always pull a rabbit out of its hat. In recent years we have seen countless economic gurus extolling the potential of resource mining, not only from the moon but also from asteroids. Names of great prestige from the world of finance have begun to sponsor this nascent industry. In 2009, Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt joined with the director James Cameron and the aerospace entrepreneurs Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis, among others, to found Planetary Resources, a company whose ultimate mission is to mine high-value minerals from asteroids and refine them into metal foams. Meanwhile, iSpace, a similar venture launched in Japan in 2010, claimed that

by taking advantage of lunar water resources, we can develop the space infrastructure needed to enrich our daily life on earth, as well as expand our living sphere into space. Also, by making the earth and Moon one system, a new economy with space infrastructure at its core will support human life, making sustainability a reality.

Fantastical enterprises of this ilk have since proliferated. In 2013, Deep Space Industries Inc. drew up an ambitious blueprint for identifying asteroids suitable for mining by 2015, returning samples to earth the following year, and commencing full-scale operations in 2023. Shortly after, a Californian company called OffWorld announced a grand plan to ‘develop a new generation of universal industrial robots to do the heavy lifting on the Moon, asteroids and Mars.’ It envisioned ‘millions of smart robots working under human supervision on and offworld, turning the inner solar system into a better, gentler, greener place for life and civilization’.

In a 98-page report to its clients in 2017, Goldman Sachs asserted that the prospect of mining platinum in space with ‘asteroid-grabbing spacecraft’ was becoming increasingly affordable, and forecast ever-increasing profits in the sector. Morgan Stanley followed suit. When such banks are encouraging their clients to invest in space mining industries, it is worth remembering that it was Goldman Sachs who managed Greece’s national debt, practically doubling it in the process. That is to say, large financial institutions are endlessly capable of squeezing their clients like lemons. In the end, despite the banks’ predictions, Deep Space was sold to Bradford Space, a comparatively modest trader of orbital flight systems and aircraft components, while Planetary Resources was liquidated and its assets auctioned off. Illusions, however, die hard: January 2022 saw the founding of AstroForge, another Californian firm which claims to have developed new lab-tested technology for processing asteroid material.

Bloomberg has warned us in no uncertain terms about these sci-fi-esque enterprises:

Where would science fiction be without space mining? From Ellen Ripley in Alien and Dave Lister in Red Dwarf, to Sam Bell in Moon and The Expanse’s Naomi Nagata, the grittier end of interstellar drama would be bereft if it weren’t for overalled engineers and their mineral-processing operations…It’s wonderful that people are shooting for the stars – but those who declined to fund the expansive plans of the nascent space mining industry were right about the fundamentals. Space mining won’t get off the ground in any foreseeable future – and you only have to look at the history of civilization to see why. One factor rules out most space mining at the outset: gravity. On one hand, it guarantees that most of the solar system’s best mineral resources are to be found under our feet. earth is the largest rocky planet orbiting the sun. As a result, the cornucopia of minerals the globe attracted as it coalesced is as rich as will be found this side of Alpha Centauri. Gravity poses a more technical problem, too. Escaping earth’s gravitational field makes transporting the volumes of material needed in a mining operation hugely expensive.

Indeed, if we exchange illusion for reality for a moment, we realize there are good reasons why very few people over the last fifty years have poked their heads out of the immediate vicinity of our planet. The International Space Station orbits the earth at only 400km from the earth’s surface – if one were to represent the earth as a sphere a meter in diameter, it would hover just 3cm above it. The moon, on the other hand, is almost a thousand times further, and the shortest distance between the earth and Mars is 55 million kilometres. This doesn’t mean that humans will never exit the solar system, but doing so would require a scientific paradigm shift beyond Einsteinian physics, plus staggering technological advances which would revolutionize transportation in a manner as unthinkable as the reaction engine would have been in the age of the horse-drawn carriage.

The mirage of space exploration obeys the same iron law which Horkheimer and Adorno identified in the culture industry. Namely, it works by indefinitely postponing satisfaction: ‘The culture industry perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises. The promissory note which, with its plots and staging, it draws on pleasure is endlessly prolonged.’ We are constantly told that in two, five, ten years’ time, a new mission will land on the moon – or better still, build a base there. Likewise, we will always be twenty, thirty or forty years away from establishing colonies on Mars. Deadlines for space flights are infinitely delayed, as demonstrated by Artemis, whose launch was first scheduled for 2020, then for the end of 2021, then 29 August 2022, then 3 September and now, ‘probably’, for later this month, or maybe next…

There’s a stark difference, though, between the ‘normal’ culture industry and the space mirage; the former is produced for the masses, the latter for the capitalist class. It is the Larry Pages, the Elon Musks and the Jeff Bezoses that tell themselves such fairytales – believing, with frenzied hubris, that they can turn fiction into science. From this point of view, the exploration (or exploitation) of space takes a form that is closer to religious postulate than plebeian superstition. For the concrete fact which continues to vex capitalists is that the earth is round (and therefore limited, finite). Capitalism is an intrinsically expansionist system; without unrestricted growth, the profit mechanism jams. We’ve frequently witness this phenomenon as capitalists are forced to open new frontiers of industrialization and accumulation; after Britain and the US it was France, then Germany, then Japan and Italy; now it is China and Vietnam, and one day it will be Africa. Yet the earth remains stubbornly spherical – and this poses an insurmountable problem unless the market can expand beyond its frontiers; or maybe even further, beyond those of the solar system. The capitalists’ dream is of an infinite, universal market, where you can buy shares of the Andromeda Galaxy and futures on the commodities produced on the three planets which orbit the pulsar PSR B1257+1 in the Virgo constellation, 980 lightyears away from our solar system. Imagine: an entire cosmos to exploit! 

Yet capitalism is not simply an expansionist economy; it also involves a proprietary relation to the external world. It is enough to recall the paeans which accompanied last year’s flea-jumps out of the earth’s atmosphere by three billionaires (Branson, Bezos, Musk), heralding the private conquest of space (obviously far more efficient than any public equivalent). Here we must reckon with the notion of the privatized universe: entire star systems recast as private property. Our billionaires have no trouble thinking on this scale. Nor, for that matter, are they reluctant to embrace the ridiculous.

The history of space conquest stretches back to the middle of the last century. The moment humankind peeped out of the earth’s atmosphere (Laika the dog in 1957; Yuri Gagarin in 1961), governments immediately began using international fora to stake their claims on the cosmos. To prevent future galactic incursions and imperialisms, they solemnly signed the Outer Space Treaty in 1967, which recommended that the ‘exploration and use of outer space should be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind’. But this peacemaking was merely a facade. In 1979, when the Moon Treaty declared the moon and its natural resources ‘CHM’ (Common Heritage of Mankind) and called for ‘an equitable sharing by all countries in the benefits derived from these resources’, many states including the US refused to ratify it. Nine years later, the US government’s Department of Commerce established the Office of Space Commerce, whose mission was ‘to foster the conditions for the economic growth and technological advancement of the US commercial space industry’.

Now, over the last decade, Washington has intensified its efforts to create a legal framework that would enable the exploitation of resources in space:

The Obama administration signed the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, allowing US citizens to ‘engage in the commercial exploration and exploitation of space resoources’. In April 2020, the Trump administration issued an executive order supporting US mining on the Moon and asteroids. In May 2020 NASA unveiled the Artemis Accords, which included the development of safety zones around lunar mining sites.

At this rate, it won’t be long until law firms begin to handle space-related controversies, hiring lawyers who specialize in the intricacies of interplanetary commerce. And all this before anyone has even returned to the moon itself! The problem is that, while we pursue such extravagant schemes, we are simultaneously condemning this small, singular, fabulous planet of ours to destruction. 

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Eva Díaz, ‘Art and the New Space Age’, NLR 112.