by Joanna Chin I Staff Writer
Earlier this month, we examined the roots of space tourism and posited questions to examine these initiatives in an equity-minded way. To extend the conversation, we unpack another question: Are there ways for space exploration to be actually inclusive?
Space Tourism Under Scope
The companies pioneering space tourism believe that increasing civilian access to space will:
- Provide awe-inspiring views of the Earth that could transform our perspective of humanity and its interconnectedness. This is called the “Overview Effect.”
- Increase the potential for human settlement and industry on Mars and other planets, an ambition championed by SpaceX.
- Advance scientific research in areas such as microgravity experiments.
- Boost national economies by opening up commercial jobs in the space industry.
But the pursuit of space travel has never been exempt from critique. Poet Gil Scott-Heron’s now-iconic song “Whitey on the Moon,” released after the 1969 moon landing, lamented the fervor around space travel and the seemingly exorbitant expenses surrounding it.
He pointed to the stark dissonance between a nation bent on “progress” and sending people to space even as Black people suffered from racism at home on Earth.
This song has resurfaced in public consciousness through sci-fi shows like Lovecraft Country and the recent documentary release of the 1969 “Summer of Soul” concert, revealing that as a people, we are still wrestling with the ethics and equity issues around space travel.
The visionary ventures presented by Star Trek are in conversation with contemporary critiques around the commercialization of space travel. The critiques explore if space travel not only poses a distraction from socioeconomic and racial problems on Earth but also perpetuates them in a new sphere.
Space tourism is currently dominated by billionaires profiting from capitalism at the expense of others, although these individuals do contribute to charitable funds and offer scanty raffles and lotteries to extend the privilege to “ordinary” people.
Space travel could someday be as normalized as airplane travel, useful for improving human lives. And yet this begs the question of whether current efforts are simply an extension of American Manifest Destiny, another path to conquest led by the wealthy with little benefit for the have-nots.
These companies seek to appeal to human curiosity and imagination, not exclusive to one racial group. However, this vision stands in tension with the reality that the majority of those with the power to fund and regulate space tourism are white men who maintain 11% of the world’s wealth. Will leaving Earth for expeditions in space bridge this socioeconomic chasm? That remains to be seen.
Can space tourism be more than a white man’s dream? Are there ways to mediate between the possibilities space travel presents while being mindful of our present systemic injustices?
In a world wracked by an ongoing pandemic and struggling with medical and food shortages, the excitement around space tourism is considered tone-deaf and irrelevant by critics.
However, as professor of physics and astronomy Chanda Prescod-Weinstein responds, maybe there is a way for dreams of space exploration and engagement with the needs and injustices on Earth to coexist.
As it is, people of color are not entirely absent from visions of space, and there are persistent efforts to ensure their voices are heard.
The literary and media tradition of Afrofuturism, for instance, contests white-centric representations of the relationship between people, space, and technology. It often puts fantastical images of the galaxy in dialogue with questions of racial identity, justice, and colonialism.
Where We Go Boldly…
Afrofuturism provides one example of efforts to both diversify how we conceive of space and engage the systemic injustices present on Earth. Others are furthering the conversation by asking important questions about who goes to space, why, and what the human and environmental cost will be.
Scientific research that engages the needs of marginalized peoples also provides an outlet for the benefits of space travel to intersect with equity and liberation. Toward this end, Mission: AstroAccess, successfully sent a flight of 12 disabled ambassadors into parabolic flight this October.
Nonprofit organizations like Space for Humanity also aim to provide opportunities where space travel could be more accessible to people who are not billionaires with money to burn like exhaust. Still other endeavors promote STEM education for people of color.
Accountability and Inclusion
But why care about space travel when there are already enough issues to deal with on Earth? This question merits attention when there are competing interests between people trying to meet their basic needs and the pursuit of entertainment and exploration beyond our earthly soil.
Still, the reality is that the companies with concentrated wealth in our world are directing their vast resources toward this realm. Because of this, it is vital to hold them accountable and innovate ways to ensure that forays into space can benefit those of us co-existing on this planet.
We do not know what the future holds, but we do have the opportunity to speak to what current leaders in business, government, and society prioritize. As Americans devoted to racial equity, we can advocate for the inclusion of diverse voices in the decision-making processes that impact us all.