Every few years, the planets get into a position where spacecraft launched from planet Earth can get to Mars with a minimum of time and energy. One such time was in 2020 and now, three robotic craft are arriving to probe Mars. Together they represent investment of billions of pounds and millions of hours of human graft and invention. They’re investing off-world whilst our world is burning. It’s mad.
I feel extremely guilty about being entirely enthralled by these probes. I grew up in the period of the moon landings. I sang along with Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” whilst being transfixed by the fuzzy monochrome videos of moonwalks. I shouted out on protests against the genocide of 3 million people through the Vietnam War, and at the same time wept at the immolation of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee inside the command module of Apollo 1.
Space Men were my idols. Male supremacy was a given then and, outrageously, is still culturally endemic today despite generations of struggle for women’s rights and liberation. Through my childhood of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s it went largely unquestioned. Flash Gordon’s fizzing rocket displayed each Saturday morning Children’s Matinee at the local Odeon Cinema competed with serial cowboy shorties to instil machismo and white supremacy. And we were taught that technology would soon provide us all with a life of leisure and exploration. Space was not so much the final frontier as the symbol of all human progress. I was raised to it.
That’s my way of explaining away why, over the last few years, I’ve kept track of Elon Musk’s SpaceX technology, claiming to start the process of enabling people to live on other planets. Through each day I take efforts to campaign for investment in sustainable life on earth, and in the process damn the billionaires who have exploited all to the point of extinction for their own avaricious pleasure. But every so often I take a sneaky private peek at whether the recyclable Starship rocket has landed successfully or exploded in a fireball worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster.
I console myself by recognising that human beings carry contradictions in both mind and body. Our mood swings between hope and hopelessness span a vast spectrum of emotional states and heavenly questions, with many periods of life demanding nothing less than sheer perseverance. We are constantly excited and aroused by carefully contrived imagery manipulating our emotions and coercing our affiliations.
Unless wholly in charge of ourselves despite all external influences we live in a state of tension between conflicting thoughts and desires. In isolation, such as the self-imposed house arrest against the threat from viral infection, we can begin to think we’re mentally unwell, forgetting that all humans live the dance of internal conflict. As a saving grace, usually, the practical demands of self-maintenance prevent constant introspection.
Without constant self-assessment, a condition in itself that ensures mental distress, we are most likely to hold on to contradictory thoughts and beliefs. We can readily understand that all film and TV is contrived in script-driven studios, yet become emotionally attached to the characters represented. They’re much easier to manage than the people we live alongside in reality.
When we find ourselves losing sleep over what will happen to Jon Snow, or fantasise over the avatar of an online celebrity, we have to disinfect our minds by shouting at the mirror – “they’re not real people!”
Such personal debriefings are far more difficult when dealing with the constant propaganda churned-out on behalf of a ruling class wishing to normalise human traits of competition and avarice to the point of denial of mutuality and compassion.
Our consciousness is split asunder, nurtured to acknowledge the barbaric inequalities of Capitalist society yet still buy-in to its’ cosmetic comforts. The ability to pretend, to substitute our dreams for reality, perpetuates the status quo rather than disrupts. When considering the plight of others we can “thank God its them instead of me”. When considering planetary ecology we can choose to believe that our tiny acts of recycling or reducing plastic use can turn around the destruction. We’re delusional. We might as well believe we can live on Mars.
The internal struggle for fact versus fiction, justice versus tyranny, inclusion versus competition, is today’s common human condition. It’s distressing. Social history suggests it hasn’t always been so nor is it inevitable. There can be a material reality based upon mutual cooperation, self-determination and equality of status and provision. There have been significant periods of peaceful human society. Humanity can rejoin Earth’s natural metabolism and enjoy the synthesis of creativity and sustainability. We have the handed-down know-how.
Another world is possible, here on Earth. In fact, its our only hope. We will have to concentrate our activities as well as our hopes, here. Whilst I appreciate science fiction as a vehicle for conceptual exploration, we have to keep a grip on reality. Break the illusions.
Yet, just as my parents and school teachers encouraged my star-gazing and moon dreams, today’s Tim Peakes’, Helen Shermans’ and Tim Dodds’ continue the same school and silver screen fantasising about the joys of living off-planet. I see little difference between astronauts and soldiers offering whole-school “learning programmes”. It is pure propaganda.
The reality of terraforming Mars is pure myth. The timescale of natural evolution together with the sheer size of a planet makes having humanity create a new home in space quite impossible. Impossible, that is, in the time we have left to rebalance the Earth’s climate sufficiently to ensure we can still live here, rather than drive ourselves to species extinction. It is going to take every effort, much pain and sacrifice to turn the world economy from ecological destruction to carbon-zero repair in the time left to us.
Perhaps that’s the real draw of Elon Musk’s egomaniacal mythologising. Even if we destroy life on Earth he will have been responsible for ensuring humanity migrates and survives somewhere else. A fresh start. The next Adam and Eve. It doesn’t matter that it can’t possibly work, only that it distracts us from the very pressing existential realities of the present day.
Maybe, just maybe, this is the point at which the vastness of the human imagination can win through. Our children are experiencing a consciousness split between one eye on the stars, the other on the environment. One moment of compassion and concern for the dying White Rhino, the next an intellectual flow of facts and figures about the travel distance from here to Mars, and how to successfully land on a dead planet.
The amazing but absurd technology, wasteful and pointless, of Starships, proves nonetheless that we have the ability to transform production away from fossil fuels within a few years. In the mere flash of an eye.
Much of the space programme’s computer technology and gas combustion is of little use in our survival programme. We could turn our gaze away and begin to express wonder and excitement in the more simple but life-affirming technologies of solar and wind power generation. And glory in the reduction of energy use, the absence of explosions! Peace.
Instead, the world is accelerating to the Dark Side. Tuesday’s orbiting of the “Hope” probe launched by the Arab Emirates, Thursday’s success of China’s Tianwen-1 (“Heavenly Questions”) vehicle, and next week’s landing of NASA’s rover, “Perseverance” on Mars via “Sky Crane” is as much evidence of imperialist competition as technological magnificence.
Whilst SpaceX is routinely launching spy-satellites for the USA, NASA is busy testing the massive SLS system designed to take astronauts back to the moon, to “settle” in hermetically sealed anti-viral bubbles. Here in the UK, huge sums of tax-payers hard-earned cash is being ploughed, not into sustainable agricultural food production but Space Ports, allied with the USA, from which to launch social control platforms into space. Tourists will flood to Newquay, Cornwall not so much for the sun, sea and surf as the rocket launch. The real stuff of fantasy.
I’m trying to disinfect myself from this Sci-fi awe. The money, and more, should be spent on Earth without hesitation to stop the Climate Catastrophe. Indeed, why isn’t it? Because the “Space Race” first announced by Kennedy – a man so throughly mythologised into a progressive Peacenik – is well and truly back-on. Space 2039 will be full of laser battles and mineral wars. Earth 2039 will be burning-up.
I am reminded that President Kennedy’s real motive for demanding the US land “men” on the moon by 1970 was solely to compete with and break not only the economy but the hope of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This time it’s China.
I had no illusions in, nor allegiance to, the Russian government or the political system of China back in the 1960’s, nor now. The need to challenge western imperialism remains a practical priority in a world where the military expenditure of the USA is greater each year than the rest of the world combined. It is the Empire of the USA that is driving the militarisation of space, satellites, moons and indeed, whole planets. To pretend that the new drive to Space is in any way peaceful or progressive is to live in the clawing clutches of self-deceit.
For SpaceX read Star Wars.