The Confinement of Outer Space

By Annika Elstermann

To begin, let us look towards the stars. Culturally, the firmament has always held a fascination for writers and audiences, not just in a mystical sense, but also as a place which exists and which might be reached, traversed, visited, explored, but which is as yet uncharted. Literature about space travel existed for centuries before even the first plane ever left the ground, and there has been a continuous stream of science fiction literature and other media, with tonal shifts and changing trends, of course, ever since.

The allure of this setting is obvious: the unknown, a space where anything might be; a void to project onto, to imagine beyond the confines of our own planet, rules, and norms; an opportunity to think differently and to conceive of alternative scenarios which might just be in our future. This distinguishes much of science fiction from fantasy literature: There is no Middle-Earth or Hobbiton outside of movie sets, but outer space exists and might theoretically be traversed – it merely is pragmatically, at that moment in time, out of reach.

Or at least it was until recently. Space travel has, since the mid-twentieth century, first become a reality, and particularly in recent years been made to appear potentially commonplace and attainable. This of course is not inherently a good or bad development. Valid arguments can be made in favour of space travel, such as its value for scientific research in many different fields, or simply the human spirit of exploration and curiosity. These are not what this essay is about, or at least not directly. Instead, it is concerned with the potential confinement and control of the imaginary that comes with current ambitions and advances in private, commercial space travel.

The appeal of outer space and other planets as a locus to imagine alternative social structures does not only apply to humanity in general, but also to individual multibillionaires such as Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, who – unlike the general public dreaming of faraway planets – are working towards making their imagined scenarios a reality. As long as they are purely fantastical, any amount of stories can coexist and serve as alternatives to one another and to the current state of society. Through its relative accessibility, literature is largely democratic in this way, and science fiction and space travel stories are particularly useful as a sort of narrative petri dish in which we can try out ideas and communicate hopes and warnings alike. Once such futuristic visions are shifted from the the hypothetical to the actual, however – when someone starts building a rocket and drafting plans for settlement – they begin to loom over the fictional: The more concrete and monolithic a project, the harder it becomes to think of it not as an inevitable given, but rather only one of a myriad possible paths. This is potentially problematic not just purely in terms of literary creativity, but also regarding the question of who gets to shape society, and whether that trajectory is based on open debate and consensus, or the ideas and values of a few individuals.

There has been a notable trend in recent years of very public endeavours to establish physical or virtual parallel communities which do not primarily follow the rules of a democratically elected government or communal social values, but rather are aligned with the visions of single entrepreneurs and corporate interests. This does not necessitate actual escape from the confines of Earth. In similar ways in which Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos’ space company) and SpaceX (Elon Musk’s) are moving to stake claims in space before sufficient and measured legislation exists and can be enforced in the interests of the global population, Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta (formerly Facebook) is advancing on virtual reality by positioning itself as the driving force behind the metaverse. Such a simulated space on its own offers potentially limitless possibilities beyond earthly regulations, since even the rules of physics needn’t necessarily apply. While like SpaceX, Meta is a large company, and such projects involve a great number of people, there is an individual clearly at the helm: Mark Zuckerberg is the company’s founder, its largest shareholder, CEO, and chair of the board, and due to the Meta’s particular structure, he holds essentially absolute veto power. Zuckerberg also appears very visibly in promotional material introducing the company’s vision of the metaverse and the many ways in which it promises to transcend the boundaries of our current reality.

In regards to space travel, SpaceX infamously made an early bid to throw off Earth’s shackles by including this phrasing in its Terms of Service for Starlink, a constellation of currently around 2,000 satellites which supply internet access:

“For Services provided on Mars, or in transit to Mars via Starship or other colonization spacecraft, the parties recognize Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities. Accordingly, Disputes will be settled through self-governing principles, established in good faith, at the time of Martian settlement.”

While this might simply be a publicity stunt and would, in any case, likely not hold up in court, the idea itself as well as its phrasing reveal a lot about the underlying vision of Mars as a “free planet”, a blank canvas where the rules of society can be decided from scratch.

Concrete plans for large-scale settlement of another planet or virtual reality may be relatively new, but Musk and Zuckerberg are far from the first wealthy businessmen to want to found a society with different rules and according to their values in an “other place” (as described by Michel Foucault in 1967). In the 1920s, for instance, Henry Ford drove the construction of the city of Fordlandia in Brazil, not only as a company town for the workers on his newly established rubber plant, but as Ford’s vision of an ideal city: Midwestern suburbia – including hamburgers, canned peaches, square dances, and abstinence from alcohol and tobacco – in the Amazon jungle.1 (Like the associated rubber plant, the vision of the town was doomed more or less from the start, with one main factor in both being Ford’s refusal to take into account local conditions or expert advice.) As with employees in his US factories, who were at times under similar moral restrictions, Ford was convinced that he knew what was best for everyone, and society would be greatly improved if people did as he said (see e.g. Ford 1922: 2ff., 128f.).

This assumption of superiority of one’s own values and vision of society is not dissimilar to Musk, who seems convinced that he alone can solve issues surrounding free speech,2 traffic, and Mars colonisation. Yet Ford, in contrast to today’s billionaires, appears more transparently patriarchal. Meta’s messaging regarding the metaverse, for example, is drenched in rhetoric of community and collaboration. The company’s website copy not only claims that “[t]he metaverse is the next evolution of social connection”, but also promises “[a] future made by all of us[:] The metaverse will be a collective project that goes beyond a single company. It will be created by people all over the world, and open to everyone” – a democratic web of developers enthusiastically contributing to a shared vision. In actuality, Meta is facing antitrust concerns, not just in the US, but most recently in Germany, too, partly because of their acquisition of several AR/VR-related companies, development studios, games and other software. Additionally, as Shirin Ghaffary and Sara Morrison write,

“[i]f Facebook succeeds at being a pioneering founder of the metaverse, then it would be the company building and selling virtual reality headsets used to access that metaverse, and it could control a major app store distributing metaverse apps. This would all give Facebook a level of control and influence over the future internet that it doesn’t have today on the mobile web.”

Effective monopoly control over the metaverse app market is comparable to being in control of the bouncers at the entrance of an exclusive club. Meta (and by extension Zuckerberg) could easily block developments which are unwelcome for any moral, economic, aesthetic, or other reason, thus significantly shaping the way society evolves in this purportedly limitless and collaborative space. A similar level of control applies with Musk’s recent acquisition of Twitter, which he himself called “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated” – now under Musk’s domain.

Commercial space travel, too, is framed not as the future of wealthy individuals, but of humanity in general. One of the claims of Richard Branson (of Virgin Galactic) on the occasion of his own trip to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere in July 2021 was that everyone present was there “to make space more accessible to all”. Earlier this year, Virgin Galactic opened its ticket sales for space tourism to the general public; at the price of $450,000 per ticket, however, space is quite some way removed from being “accessible to all”.

In similar rhetoric, Elon Musk has announced that the conditions and costs of space travel should “be such that anyone can go if they want, with loans available for those who don’t have money” (@elonmusk), following this up with the suggestion that those loans could be worked off on arrival, since “[t]here will be a lot of jobs on Mars!” (@elonmusk).

Considering that Musk himself projects that the trip to Mars will cost between $100,000 and $500,000, colonists who are not independently wealthy could hardly expect to work off the transportation debt within a year or two. Additionally, Mars is currently uninhabitable, and many of the jobs involved in constructing a base for settlement would likely be dangerous. In a society where some are owners – of space ships, materials, abstract wealth – and others work as indentured servants, the question of who has to take on the dangerous tasks, and who gets to make decisions about social structures and life in the new colony hardly arises. And just like that, the “self-governing principles, established in good faith” mentioned in the Starlink Terms of Service feel a little less openly democratic.

Unlike Fordlandia, which was obviously a top-down endeavour, the construction of the conditions for life in outer space as well as in virtual reality are framed as democratic, collaborative efforts where the man at the top is a passionate facilitator, an organiser, rather than effectively an autocrat in potentia. But not only is power to shape that particular vision concentrated at the top: particularly the non-monetary cost is largely borne by those who will never reap the benefits. Each rocket launch, to give just one example, has an enormous environmental impact. This includes local ecosystem toxicity at the launch sites (see Dallas et al. 2020: 8) as well as emissions – not just their amount or type, but also their location in the upper atmosphere, where they can have warming effects and damage the ozone layer. Active launch sites also threaten wildlife and considerably impact the lives of local communities – through the launches, and (perhaps felt more significantly in everyday life) as a large employer moving into an area that is already inhabited, constructing sprawling complexes of industrial buildings, and essentially establishing a company town around them.

So what does all of this have to do with literature? When it comes to space exploration, the real and the imaginary are intertwined in ways which are to an extent particular to the genre of science fiction. Astronomer Carl Sagan, for instance, once stated that “[m]any scientists deeply involved in the exploration of the solar system (myself among them) were first turned in that direction by science fiction” (Sagan 1978: 7). If we consider space travel stripped of all romantic rhetoric, we wind up with a person “sitting in a tin can”, as David Bowie sings in his 1969 “Space Oddity”, hurtling through space with a considerable risk of explosion or other life-threatening technical failure. Success is uncertain, and even if it is attained, it comes at the end of a long, arduous process. Without notions of adventure, excitement, and the heroic forging of humanity’s future, who would take on such a task? From the earliest endeavours, this type of narrative has always been part of space exploration. Presidential speeches such as John F. Kennedy’s 1962 address at Rice Stadium (“We choose to go to the moon […] not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard”) or Ronald Reagan’s eulogy after the Challenger disaster (Reagan 1986: 11) are saturated with motifs of human striving, hope, and heroism. This contributes to the construction of a mythology and human self-narrative, which draws from, is echoed in, and generally goes hand in hand with fictional depictions of futuristic space travel.

Commercial space travel also borrows from science fiction: William Shatner, an icon of space exploration as Captain Kirk on Star Trek, has travelled to space on one of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rockets, and Elon Musk has now been mentioned twice by name in episodes of Star Trek: Discovery, thus becoming part of the show’s lore.

Furthermore, since much science fiction experiments with ideas of potential futures, it is at least in some ways necessarily based on what we currently know to be possible, with creativity filling in the blanks. As humanity’s reach into and knowledge about the universe expand, the space for wild imagination in this particular genre of fiction will shrink a little.3 This in itself is not a bad thing; with new discoveries, new spaces for the imagination might also arise. Where it becomes problematic is if these new spaces, and thus for instance the alternative forms of society we might come up with, are besieged by the interests of CEOs before we ever get a chance to populate them with ideas: The story Elon Musk is writing about the colonisation of Mars cannot become the only version of the future that we can imagine, lest it turn into reality. Musk himself has stated that “[t]here’s so many things that make people sad or depressed about the future, but I think becoming a space-faring civilization is one of those things that makes you excited about the future…that is the intent of BFR [SpaceX’s Starship], is to make people excited about the future.” The plans for Mars colonisation and similar projects by Meta, Blue Origin, and other corporations, might serve as exciting distractions from the “things that make people sad or depressed about the future” – manifest issues and injustices in our world today. Yet they don’t offer solutions; in many ways, they might make things worse. The prospect of indentured servitude in a hostile environment should not be our only way out of worries resulting from poverty and global warming, just as an escape into virtual reality should not be regarded as a solution to isolation and a lack of intersubjective connection in the modern world. Presenting these exciting hero narratives as desirable visions of the future not only distracts from problems we might tackle in the here and now – which those same heroes are often contributing to – but can also limit the imagination of completely different futures.

When we think of the minds at work in the field of space exploration, we might mainly think of astrophysicists and engineers. However, many of the questions at the heart of how we want to shape our future fall firmly into the domain of the humanities – not as a secondary discipline subordinate to the seemingly inevitable achievements of technology, but as one with its own suited set of methods such as the analysis of narratives or the tracing of developments and continuities across time. Rather than wait for the next billionaire to race into space, we should begin to tackle these questions in earnest. To what extent is the future set in stone – are we invariably fated to colonise the solar system? – and how much of it is based on convincing narratives? Who constructs the frame within which imagination is then allowed to roam a little less freely than before, and how can we escape those confines and retain autonomy? Why even make the trip to Mars at all, if all that awaits us there is dust and debt?

References

Dallas, J.A., S. Raval, J.P. Alvarez Gaitan, S. Saydam, and A.G. Dempster. 2020. “The Environmental Impact of Emissions from Space Launches: A Comprehensive Review“. Journal of Cleaner Production 255 (May): 120209.

Ford, Henry, and Samuel Crowther. 1922. My Life and Work. Doubleday, Page & Co.

Foucault, Michel. 1984 [1967]. “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias“. Translated by Jay Miskowiec. Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité, October.

Ghaffary, Shirin, and Sandra Morrison. 2022. “Can Facebook Monopolize the Metaverse?“. Vox. 16 February 2022.

Grandin, Greg. 2009. Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City. New York: Picador.

Kennedy, John F. “Moon Speech (Rice Stadium)”. Nasa.Gov, 12 Sept. 1962.

Reagan, Ronald. 1986. “Transcript of the President’s Eulogy for the Seven Challenger Astronauts“. The New York Times, 1 February 1986.

Sagan, Carl. 1978. “Growing Up With Science Fiction“. The New York Times, 28 May 1978.

Images

The Stellar Forge“, ESA/Hubble & NASA, J. Lee; CC BY 4.0 Acknowledgement: L. Shatz.

A Glittering Globular Cluster“, ESA/Hubble and NASA, A. Sarajedini; CC BY 4.0

A Stormy, Stellar Nursery“, ESA/Hubble & NASA; CC BY 4.0.

About the Author

Annika Elstermann is a postdoctoral researcher at Heidelberg University’s English Department, where her current research project concerns literary depictions of journeys across inhospitable spaces: deserts, oceans, and outer space. Her first book, Digital Literature and Critical Theory, will be published with Routledge later this year. She can be contacted at annika.elstermann@as.uni-heidelberg.de.


Notes

1. For a detailed account, see Grandin 2009.

2. Musk’s letter to the board, included in the official SEC filing of his bid, reads: “I invested in Twitter as I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe, and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy. However, since making my investment I now realize the company will neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form. Twitter needs to be transformed as a private company. […] Twitter has extraordinary potential. I will unlock it.”

3. This is not to say that imagination is not alive and well in many subsets of science fiction, particularly beyond the mainstream. There is, however, a strand of popular space travel literature of which a certain degree of scientific plausibility seems to be expected.


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