Keep Capitalism Out of Space
Paris Marx is joined by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein to discuss the science behind the new space telescope, the problems with the billionaire space race, and why we need to challenge the capitalist and colonial forces driving the the effort to commercialize space.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is the author of The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred. She’s also an assistant professor of Physics and core faculty member in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of New Hampshire, and a columnist at New Scientist and Physics World. Follow Chanda on Twitter at @IBJIYONGI.
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Paris Marx: Chanda, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: Thanks for having me.
PM: I’m really looking forward to chatting with you. I really enjoyed your book. I finally got the opportunity to read it recently. And I think that there’s such a great opportunity to have a really critical conversation about space and space science and how we understand these sorts of things. I would say that I find space pretty fascinating. But I certainly make no claims to understand space science to any significant degree. And so to start us off, I was hoping you could tell us a bit about the work that you do and what your research focuses on.
CP: So I am a scholar in two different areas of research. So my primary area of research is particle cosmology. So broadly speaking, I think about the origin of and evolution of space time and everything inside of it. That’s basically what a cosmologist does. And I focus on this from a particle perspective. And I’ve been particularly interested in the question of what is the dark matter. So we know that most of the normally gravitating matter in the universe, 80 to 85% of the normally gravitating matter is some kind of invisible matter that we can’t really see. And for historical reasons, this is called dark matter. So we know it’s out there, but we don’t really know what it is. We can’t really write down an equation that describes it, which I’m a theoretical physicist and so my primary interest is in how do we write down an equation that has the details on it? I also do research in Black feminist science, technology and society studies and I’ve been particularly interested in how race and gender shape how physics happens, and more broadly how science is done. But I’ve been particularly interested in physics, partly because in feminist philosophy of science, physics is often held up as an exception to the discussions, the critical discussions, that happen about the life sciences. And so part of my task has been saying no, actually, that stuff applies to the physical sciences, and particularly to physics too.
PM: I love that. And I really appreciated how that comes out in your book as well — how it’s not just this exploration of the science of space, but you really give us that kind of feminist angle, that angle on the social aspects of this research of what’s going on in this space. So I really appreciated that.
CP: I think that my relationship with the book — the thing I’ve been telling people over and over again, is that a book tells you about itself as you’re working on it. And so I actually went into “The Disordered Cosmos” thinking it was going to be an adaptation of essays I had been writing online that were critical of the physics community and how physics happened. And then when I actually sat down to write it, and even as I was, I was working on the proposal, I was like, oh, I need to say something about the kind of science that I do. And then it became a more important chunk of, of the book. And then I think, in the end, maybe this is just me summarizing in hindsight. I don’t know how much of this was planned. But I think that the end of the book, where I make critical comments about how we do science, and how we should be doing science, is maybe more compelling, because you’ve experienced my joy in the ideas at the beginning. And so you’re on that journey with me, and you’re like: Yeah, I understand why we should salvage this.
PM: I can certainly feel that. And you can certainly understand the trajectory of the book in that way and see how it’s really effective. I think, what really spurred the desire to have this conversation. For me, what brought me back to this topic, was seeing the newly released photos from the James Webb Space Telescope recently, and how they were really visually stunning. But what I learned through that what I was reading was that they also hold really important discoveries or developments to inform the understanding of the universe, what did these images tell us about the universe? And what might this telescope help us to learn in the future.
CP: So the Just Wonderful Space telescope as I’m calling it, and because he-who-shall-not-be-named, we’re hoping that his name will be removed from the telescope at some point, and that it will be renamed the Harriet Tubman Space Telescope. That’s my wish. But in the meantime, Just Wonderful Space telescope puts the acronym — JWST. So we have so far seen five images from the telescope. And maybe I’ll just say a little bit about my favorite one. So my favorite one is known as a deep field. So it was, I think, a 12-and-a-half hour exposure. And it was a very, very tiny fraction of space time. But it was a very deep look at space time, and relatively speaking, a broad enough cross-section that there are many galaxies in the image. So for people who were trying to figure out which one’s the Deep Field, that’s the one that unfortunately, Joe Biden got the opportunity to release to the public. That was the Monday night one, not the Tuesday morning release. We can talk about why I think that was unfortunate. And maybe fortunate on another side — it’s always good when the administration feels invested in what NASA is doing, because then like NASA’s probably gonna get better support. But as far as explaining things to the public, that was kind of a terrible release.
Anyway, I haven’t really said anything about the image; my sociology brain is kind of taking over. What I loved about that image was that almost all of the galaxies in the image were distorted. So they weren’t banana-fied. They were stretched out; they were at angles that were clearly not what the actual shape of a galaxy is. In several cases, there were multiple copies of the same galaxy in the image. And so all of this was a great example of a phenomenon that we call gravitational lensing. And so this is basically when there’s so much matter in a particular region of space time that the space time curves in really extreme ways, and acts as a funhouse mirror. So light can’t travel in straight lines anymore — it travels on curved lines. And so it’s coming to our telescope along these not straight paths. And that gives us a distorted image of what’s out there. For the Deep Field, those distortions are almost certainly caused by dark matter that we can’t see. And it was beautiful. In particular, there’s one galaxy. So if you go and look at the image, which everybody has to know, go look,
PM: I’ll put a link to the image in the show notes if you don’t know which one to go look at.
CP: Good! In the top right corner, there’s one galaxy that’s kind of orange and wiggly. It’s been called in a recent paper that was written by a group I’m including my mentor Priya Natarajan, and who is this an incredible dark matter expert. They call it the beret galaxy. I’m in love with that galaxy. I’ve been going on for a while — I’ll stop, but I’m in love with the beret galaxy.
PM: That’s completely okay. It’s great to hear you describe it. And one of the things I was wondering was if it would help, if what is coming from this telescope would help your research in dark matter and help to advance that as well.
CP: So I think, gravitational lensing is, and this is something I encourage people to just spend time looking at images of gravitational lensing, because they’re literally just mind blowing. And also, for people who are not visual for whatever reason to go look at the NASA alt-text on that image on their tweet was a phenomenal example of translating that into the written word that probably should get taught in writing classes. This is how you do description. But gravitational lensing is so powerful, because we are literally looking at the imprint of what we can’t see on space time. And that gives us the ability to translate that imprint into information. So, it’s a little bit like looking at dinosaur footprints. There was a recent story that I read in the newspaper about someone eating at a restaurant in China and looking down and spotting a dinosaur footprint in the ground, I’m pretty sure. This is definitely not my area of expertise. So don’t quote me on that. But that’s what I read, or I have chosen to imagine it’s what happened. But looking at that footprint tells you something not just about the foot of the dinosaur, but it tells you something about what the relative scale of the dinosaur must have been, because of how the feet scale and the mechanics and all of that. And so we can similarly do the same thing with gravitational lensing.
And so I think, for that particular image, this gives us insight into how dark matter is distributed, where dark matter is. Setting dark matter aside, there’s another part of that image. And now I can’t remember where it is, you can tell I wasn’t spending as much time. In other corners where the beret galaxy wasn’t, there is a bright red dot, I’m pretty sure in the bottom left hand corner of the image There’s a bright red dot. We all looked at that on the first day, and everybody was like: Is that a galaxy? If that’s a galaxy, that’s incredibly exciting. So there is a new paper out that claims that it’s likely a galaxy. And why is this significant? So it looks like a red dot. So to someone who doesn’t know these images, you might just think: Oh, it’s a very red star. The fact that it’s so red in a telescope that’s in the infrared — so we’re already well in the red regime — means that it’s very old. It’s very far back in time — really far back in time. It’s redshifted. So the further back we go, the redder they get. And this one galaxy, if there are more like it, it suggests that maybe we don’t understand galaxy formation, because the galaxy is maybe older than galaxies of that scale should be. So it suggests that big galaxies formed earlier than we thought, which is just a totally wild proposition. So that’s really exciting, and raises all kinds of questions about like: What did we miss in, not just this dark matter physics, but also the Standard Model physics. And I will say, actually, that my friends and I have already been talking about what this could imply, what we need to understand, and which experts we need to ask questions of to fill in our blanks.
PM: I promise we’re going to get to the more sociological questions in a second. But I have one more question on this topic, because it was fascinating and just hard for me to really comprehend how this is light from billions of light years away, which means that it’s that far back in history, that we’re peering in having these images in the particular image that you talk about, which is, if you think about how long our species has been around how long our planet has been around, it’s just hard to even conceive of those timescales. Is the goal with this telescope about finding planets to inhabit or things like that, as we hear more and more about colonization? Or is it more about learning about the development of the universe, and then what that teaches us about how everything came to be?
CP: Okay, so there’s a scientific question here, but there’s also a sociological question in there.
CP: This is an enormous project that has had involvement from around the world. So it’s pitched as a NASA mission —NASA led the mission. It had major contributions from the European Space Agency it was actually launched from — I’m going to put this in air quotes — a “European” site because it was launched fom French Guuana and Latin America. And French Guiana is a French overseas department. It’s not technically a colony. It’s some kind of in between colonial structure, though post-colonial structure. And there were also Canadians will never let you forget the contributions that Canadians have made. The entire time I was in graduate school in Canada, I just heard about the Canada Arm so many times on the space shuttle. Everybody was like: That was us. It was like: Okay!
PM: I’m Canadian, we hear about it all the time as well. That’s our contribution — it’s up there, take a look.
CP: So that is to say that not only are there many nations involved, but there are obviously a lot of scientists involved. And so all of these scientists are motivated in different ways, and by different imperatives. The Just Wonderful Space telescope is going to be fantastic for looking at exoplanets. And that’s certainly one of the goals. And the question of why we spend all this money on exoplanets. So there’s the pure, we’re just interested, we want to know what’s out there. We’re curious. And certainly, that’s what’s driving some of the scientists who are doing the work. As for what’s driving the people who give us the money to do the work, I think that part of it is exoplanets enlivens the public’s imagination. It keeps the public focused on space in a particular way, partly because it gets the public thinking about well, what if we could travel to another planet. Even though like scientifically, that’s probably a deeply unreasonable proposition, because like, we just can’t travel that far, like, even like the closest planet would take, like a bajillion years to get to — not a scientific statement — but it would take a really long time, and we don’t have the technological capacity. But I do think as far as public relations goes, exoplanets are very successful.
It’s also the case that exoplanets as a subfield of astronomy and planetary science has, maybe because it’s a younger area of research, is actually more diverse. There are more students of color in the field; there are more people of color; there are more white women, non-binary people across racial identities, who are rising through the ranks in that area. So I do think that there is also that element of it, which is people from traditionally excluded and marginalized groups are seeing people like them doing that work. And that makes exoplanets interesting. So there’s that socio-technical component, as well. I think an instrument like this is incredible, because there’s so many things that it can do. It’s meaningful for me as a cosmologist; it’s meaningful for the exoplanets people. It’s clearly meaningful for the galaxies people. I always feel like I have a little bit of tension with the galaxies people because they’re like: Yeah, galaxies are all just standard model particles. And I’m like, you can’t get a galaxy without dark matter. What are you talking about? This is like another point of sociological tension and political tension that we could get into.
But I think what drives the instrument is it takes all of these different passions, and political concerns, and so-called political “imperatives,” again, air quotes around imperatives. One thing that I learned recently that I didn’t know was that JWST is designed to be serviceable. So as far as I know, there’s no plan to service it. But it does need fuel in order to maintain its orientation. And it is supposed to run out of fuel. So I can also see that for the people who are thinking about being more spacefaring, mining, those kinds of questions of how do we make serviceable instruments, it was also a technological experiment to see if we could make an instrument like this, anything that that does have implications for the more capitalist divisions of our future.
PM: I appreciate you outlining that. And we’ll certainly come back to those capitalist visions later in this conversation. I think this question really kind of helped us bridge the scientific and sociological parts of our conversation. One of the things that stood out to me as I was watching NASA’s livestream of the release of these images, was that a few moments, they talked about the telescope as being our telescope — something that is owned by the people of Earth, and that is serving us. And I couldn’t help but think of how that contrasted with recent splashy displays from companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX, and how they are very much not for the public, but for billionaire directors. I wonder what you make of that notion that the telescope is quote, unquote, “ours.”
CP: I like the thought behind it. I love the idea of the Harriet Tubman Space Telescope by the people and for the people. And one of the things that I write about in “The Disordered Cosmos” and as I think is part of my vision as a public intellectual, is that I actually do think that there is something there. Our relationship to the night sky, our relationship to wanting to understand how things work, both here on Earth and beyond the atmosphere, I think is spiritual. And they don’t mean that necessarily in a supernatural way. I just mean that that’s part of how our species is. And if you think about it from an anthropological perspective, we evolved under the night sky. For most of our species existence, it’s us and the night sky. We didn’t have electricity and lots of nighttime lighting and all of this. So I think that part is real. And as with many real things, propagandists are very good at taking advantage of that. And I think part of capitalism’s effectiveness is how it takes the things that we care about, and then tries to sell them back to us. And also takes things that we care about and mangles them and tries to sell the product back to us as if it is superior.
And so I think, just to think of the example with what’s going on with the SpaceX constellations, they’re literally planning to have tens of thousands of satellites in the sky. They’re visible to people with just small backyard telescopes, they’re totally messing with our ground base facilities. Those of us who are working on the Vera C. Rubin observatory, and which is under construction in the Atacama Desert in Chile, we’ve now completely had to reconfigure our pipeline for data analysis, because all of those things that the satellites are in the images. Now, that’s a completely undemocratic decision that has been made on behalf of the entire planet, humans and nonhumans, right. And we’re still learning about how animals who are not human use the night sky for navigation and use that level of lighting for navigation. So we don’t know what that impact is going to be on other species. We don’t really know what that impact on ice is going to be. Frankly, it’s not a question that got asked. And there was really no regulatory barrier that was like: You can’t do this. So coming back to the repackaging question, it was repackaged to us as this will give people Internet in rural places, and so it has to be done. And anybody who asks questions about this is an asshole. Sorry, I don’t know if I’m allowed to cuss.
PM: You are!
CP: But anybody who asks about this is an urban, elite asshole who doesn’t care about people in rural communities. But you can’t convince me that SpaceX went to people in rural communities and said: What are your primary concerns? And that people in rural communities were like: Yeah, so screw the fact that we have difficult time getting doctors and adequate medical care, and all of the services that we need for dealing with all of the basic needs our community has, really our primary thing was that we wanted satellite dishes and we wanted satellite Internet. It’s true that having access to the Internet is very important. I don’t want to diminish that. But I don’t think that that question was really asked of rural communities. And so the way that they are held up to us as like: You hate the real America. That’s the whole story. And so I think that the telescope becomes part of that conversation, because we depend on on SpaceX to launch things for us now. I was just on Urban Radio on Sirius XM yesterday talking about the discovery of a multi-planet system. And that satellite that made that discovery was launched on a SpaceX Falcon — Falcon 9.
PM: I think it’s concerning, especially when you see the narratives that they’re using around connecting rural communities, and how that then serves as a justification for what they’re actually doing. It’s not actually what’s primarily motivating them. And if you really cared about connecting rural communities, we could have funded that publicly ages ago and actually connected up those communities so that they had access to the internet. I want to pick back up on the NASA question for a second. And I think we’ll come back to the night sky in just a minute. Because I agree with you that I think that there is something nice in the idea that this is like an infrastructure or a piece of equipment that is serving us, that is serving the public, this telescope, that’s something that we would hope and that we would imagine. But then at the same time, you can’t disconnect that from the history of nationalism that has kind of pushed the American space program and the European and Canadian space programs that are associated with it. And so I wonder how that shapes the way that these agencies see space and what the goals that they hope to achieve from it are?
CP: So I think that the goals haven’t changed very much in like 60 years. Unfortunately, I think that a lot of what goes on in space now, in terms of how we motivate, or I shouldn’t say we, but how legislators are motivated. The people who control the money, even the people who appoint who was the head of NASA, continue to be motivated by both nationalism and capitalism. I think what we’re seeing now, actually, is an emergence of a different capitalist push than what we saw in the 60s. And maybe that’s where things are changing. And I say different, because often, you know what happened to under the Apollo program, the push to get to the moon, the push to beat the Soviets to the moon. And I can only guess at what it looks like from the Soviet side, but I know the American side better. But that push is articulated as a nationalist push. But as I was about to say, the underpinning of that was a competition between capitalism and “communism.” I put communism in air quotes, right? Because at that point, we’re in Stalinism. And I don’t think that’s fair to the Marxists. But that’s how it was publicly articulated. And so even as it was this nationalist like America, first America’s best, the value there was America’s first and America’s best because America is capitalist. So I think we need to draw that connection that that nationalism and the capitalism aren’t separable.
I think what’s changing now, and this is a transformation that I think we really started to strongly see under George W. Bush’s administration, but also something that continued apace under Barack Obama was the push for NASA to become a facilitator for commercial activity and space and for commercial enterprise in space. And so we end up in this kind of endless frontier scenario, where we’re now doing Manifest Destiny, we’ve quote, run out of United States, and I use we hear real loosely because that’s not why my family was brought here. But I think that it is a form of Manifest Destiny that now Manifest Destiny is going into space. And I think that one of the things that I would like people to really pay attention to is under, I mentioned, Barack Obama, this continues under Donald Trump. And the Trump administration actually put forward a new regulatory vision for space that for the first time, ignored international traditions of how we do space, how we do space diplomacy. And instead of rejecting that approach, the Biden administration has picked it up. And my understanding is, is that actually part of what Joe Biden was doing in Saudi Arabia, was getting Saudi Arabia signature on that document.
PM: No way.
CP: Yes, And this is something that makes statements about mining on the moon, and beyond. And so we are entering this new era where the US government is again, acting as facilitator for capital commercial interests. We’ve gone from the former Cold War arguments, but I think we’re also entering a new one. Whatever your opinions, and I think mine are fairly nuanced and critical might be about what the Chinese government establishment is doing, or the US any government establishment, let’s just say, I do think that there is no this push now to see us as in competition with China. And we see that with the CHIPS act. And even the now the discussion this week about sanctions on superconducting components and all of that, I think that this is something that is happening on the ground, but it’s happening in space simultaneously. And I’m not sure that the press is articulating that connection for the public in the ways that they should.
PM: I think it’s a really important point, because as you’re saying, this initial space program was driven by this competition between Soviet Union and the United States by capitalism and communism. And it seems like, for a while, that interest in sending humans to space in particular, but I think the interest in NASA in general kind of waned for a while, and then you see it pick back up, right as China is rising to become this competitor to the United States is funding its own space program. And then there’s an opportunity then for the space capitalists like Elon Musk, but a much bigger industry beyond that, to take advantage of it for their own benefit, and for the commercialization, the privatization of space.
CP: Virgin Galactic hasn’t come up. But I think that Richard Branson is worth mentioning, partly because he beat Jeff Bezos. The fact that we were talking about this three-way billionaire space race — actually my favorite take on this was the Saturday Night Live skit that they did afterwards, I thought that that was maybe the most brilliant capture of what a disaster the whole thing is. I find Richard Branson to be really interesting, because he really positioned himself as the good guy. And I should say once that my mom had a really bad experience on a Virgin Atlantic flight, and was going up to the Virgin offices, and happened to be in the elevator with him. And she was telling somebody about the bad experience she had, and he was deeply concerned, and took care of it and was really nice. And so, I think there’s also this element of it being these cult of personalities, like: Oh, you can’t say anything critical but Richard Branson because he’s actually a nice guy, he seems on a one on one level. He was real nice to my mom, right? He’s still a billionaire, and billionaires shouldn’t exist economically. And I don’t mean that he shouldn’t be alive. I just mean that it shouldn’t be possible financially for anyone to be a billionaire.
So he’s an interesting character, because he’s positioned himself as the good guy. And when he went up to the edge of the atmosphere — I’m not sure that I agree that he went to space, but let’s be generous and say when he went to space — when he came back down, he talked about this as the beginning of opening space for all of us. And he tried to pitch this to us in democratic terms. But, real talk, we’re not all going to space. There will never be the capacity for that. We are, I hate saying stuck with Earth, because Earth is fucking awesome. If we could just be cool to it, literally cool to it. But so I don’t think we need to escape. But I do think that’s again, an example of this repackaging that’s happening, to encourage us to be like: Well, that guy is awesome; let’s follow our benevolent billionaire dictator, or you choose your other like apartheid Clyde [Azealia Banks’ nickname for Elon Musk]. He’s not at all benevolent, but people just think he’s smart, and they like to follow him. Probably gonna get hate mail for saying that. But they’re —
PM: Not on this show — I think you’ll be fine on the show, very anti-Elon Musk podcast. I think it’s so fascinating to hear you describe it that way. And one of the things that comes to mind, as you describe this kind of escalation of the privatization of space, is how that even infects the National Space Programs. You can see how NASA is driving right now and really helping to push that. But even recently, there was the story of Russia wanting to pull out of the space station. And I watched a program, a discussion about that on Al Jazeera. And one of the things that I guess the expert from Russia was saying was that this collaboration has become less lucrative for Roscosmos, because they’re no longer sending the astronauts into space, to the same degree that they used to; they’re no longer sending up the satellites, and all these other rockets that they used to send up to bring all these payloads into space. And now, instead, that’s being taken over by a lot of private US companies. And so the kind of collaboration that used to exist isn’t as lucrative financially. So there’s less of a political encouragement to continue that sort of thing. And so when I heard that, I just thought, Okay, so we’re seeing this general privatization, but we can also see how that then influences what the space programs themselves the national space programs are doing and how they’re reacting.
CP: I have to say, I’m really sad about Russia’s plan to pull out of the International Space Station. And I say that from a variety of like, emotional levels, one of which is my inner idealist, that I do think that there continues to be something powerful about that international collaboration, happening in public in outer space. And that being something that at least ties us together. And actually, I’ve been watching the drama on Apple TV “For All Mankind.” And I think it does a really good job of highlighting why those moments and activities that seem really symbolic, are politically and materially meaningful. I really do think that there is that element of it. As someone who works with a telescope that is actually physically on the International Space Station, it’s really worrisome. So I work with the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer, known as NICER. It’s a little x-ray telescope that’s on the International Space Station. And so, this is clearly not the most important thing, but it does actually have implications for this so-called pure science that we are doing that if the International Space Station, if at some point, it’s abandoned, or if it’s transformed into, say, a more defense oriented mission, or whatever the things that the US establishment may choose to decide to do with it, if they’re the only ones there. The idea of international collaboration and cooperation means that it bounds the US establishment a little bit and what it can aspire to do with the ISS. And that changes if it’s no longer an International Space Station, and it’s now the US Space Station, particularly with this growing emphasis on the Space Force and that kind of thing.
PM: I think it’s a really important point. And then you can also see it being less about collaboration, then competition between not just the United States and Russia, but China as well and other players that are seeking to extend their footprints into space. I want to come back to these questions on capitalism and colonization in space in just a second. But as we’ve been talking about this, the National Space Programs and the role of the state in funding these things, one thing that comes to mind and that stood out to me in your book, was this discussion of funding for science and the importance of that how those things get chosen. And this is also an important conversation for people who are thinking from a tech angle as well, because many of the technologies we rely on are the result of public funding, as much as Silicon Valley would would like us to forget that important detail. In your book, you talked about how funding for particle physics has declined in favor of what you called quantum information, or, what is called quantum information? How should we think about the importance of funding for basic science, and what guides the decisions over how it gets distributed?
CP: So I think it’s worth starting by saying that basic science is a political category that’s constructed, it’s socially constructed. You can tell from my facial expression, I don’t like admitting that because things would just be a lot simpler. If there were things that I could just declare, that’s basic science, it’s objectively basic science. But I think we’re allowed to have a broad variety of views of what counts. And the conclusion, if you look at historians of science, I’m thinking of Joseph Martin’s beautiful book about the history of solid state physics, “Solid State Insurrection.” And in it, he says that physics is what physicists say it is. And the context for that is that for a long time, solid state physics, which is now better known as condensed matter physics, and it crosses over with material science, but think about superconductors, and all the things you’re hearing about in the news, that are very representative of what actually dominates research in physics at this point, there was a point at which people were like: No, that’s applied physics. And you guys can’t sit with us — literally, they wouldn’t let them join the American Physical Society, which is our primary professional organization. And there was a whole fight about that. So our understanding of what counts as basic science and what counts as central to what it means to be a physicist changes with time, as the economic value of certain areas transforms, as different people end up in positions of power to influence with their discursive perspective on things. So I do think that there’s that element of it.
The question that I put forward in “The Disordered Cosmos,” and maybe try and propose some frameworks for thinking about what our answer to it might be. I don’t know if I have an answer. But I want to think about what are the ethical guidelines that we should measure against when we say is this a good idea is to ask the question, what motivates us. I think it’s fantastic to be excited about exoplanets. But I think it matters why you’re excited about exoplanets. And I think it matters why you’re finding exoplanets. So exoplanets is an easy one to pick on, because we’ve been talking about it a lot. But let me talk about my own field, particle physics. Particle physics, its history begins, really, in the Manhattan Project. There’s, of course, a scientific story that goes behind that, just the basic nuclear physics. But particle physics basically broke off from nuclear physics after the Manhattan Project. And the reason that that was even possible, really had a lot to do with the fact that after the Manhattan Project, the US government was like: Yeah, we’ll just give you guys money, because you seem to be really useful to us when we give you money. And they continued to fund scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project. The Department of Energy just gave legacy money to people.
And actually an interesting, long-term outcome of this is that a lot of the research groups that have been getting that legacy money had been kind of continuously getting it. It had been inherited through the institution by new crops of faculty, until the Obama administration came along, and they democratized the funding a little bit. And so groups that had been used to just not even asking for the money suddenly had to start applying. And this was a big blow to the legacy groups. And it’s also why research groups like mine at the University of New Hampshire, we just got Department of Energy money for the first time, a few years ago — it opened the door. So I just want to say that lineage is very, very clear. And so the question we have to ask ourselves is: Is being useful for building weapons of mass destruction — which like when we talk about WMDs, the United States is the captain of industry there — but is that really ever you want to make the case for ourselves, like: Hey, we might help you build another weapon of mass destruction, so just keep funding us? And I know that that’s not really what we say anymore.
Usually, what we say is, particle physicists gave you guys the worldwide web. But there’s a backstory there of why we were getting the money in the first place. So I think the question has to be: how do we make the case for why science matters? And why science should matter to people in the communities that usually we, scientists, have traditionally ignored? Why should rural America cares about particle physics when they have all sorts of concerns about factories closing and lack of job opportunities, and corporate farming and families losing their farms and all those questions — the pressures to use certain seeds that are proprietary that you have to buy new every year. Why should they care about what we’re doing in particle physics? It is on us to make that case for the spiritual significance and the cultural significance. And there, we are on the same page with the arts. We matter the way that novels matter. People don’t like that, because the arts are severely underfunded, which like, Yes, correct, we should be in that struggle with the arts.
PM: I love that. And, I think it also helps me kind of go back to something that we were talking about earlier. And this is the night sky and our relationship to that, and the relationships that we hold to these things that we almost take for granted in a way, and how over time, experiences like the night sky have already been slowly rolled back, with the light pollution that we experience, and how that makes it so much more difficult to have this experience with it. There’s this experience with the night sky. This is something that the human species has this relationship to; this is something that particular cultures still have a very strong relationship to that maybe some of us have kind of lost that more direct connection to or don’t think about so much anymore. But now there are these ideas coming along for how we should approach space. You were talking about SpaceX, about how just one man or one group of people should be able to decide what is going to happen to the night sky, what you can actually do, what you can send up into space. And we have very little recourse against that.
Then not only is it just that one decision that causes these things to happen, but now, a company like Amazon is trying to follow suit and put their own satellites up to add even more. And there were these French and British companies that just merged who are trying to do something similar. So it’s not just having SpaceX kind of pollute the night sky in that way with all of these satellites that you’ve mentioned, and are causing these problems. But then you have other companies that follow suit, because this is a negative externality. It’s something that they don’t think about — there’s no regulations or cost to not considering it. And so I guess that’s a larger way of me of asking, what are the risks of extending these notions of capitalism and even colonialism into space, especially as this supposedly billionaire space race and the privatization of space are gaining momentum?
CP: I mean, really fuck colonialism, right? I have to open with that. The fact that everybody’s talking about Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, these are our hot buzzwords right now. But in very clear cut ways people are so the opposite have done with colonialism, but actually, they’re trying to extend it and color it in. And so actually to give a concrete example of this, I have found myself multiple times recently looking at the Artemis website, on NASA’s website. So Artemis is going to be the next mission to go back to the moon and our new commercialization/Cold War drama, that is going to be a lot less fun than for all mankind, because it’s real.
PM: I should say, I do feel very nervous sometimes watching that show. And like they’re out in space, when they do some of these sequences where they’re jumping between the spaceships and stuff. My heart is in my chest, even though I know it’s just —
CP: — Look, 1 G [constant acceleration in space] is your friend. People asked me if I want to go to space. And I’m like: No, I’m good. I am not at a point in my life where I have to wear a diaper yet, so I’m good [laughs]. That alone! They haven’t figured out poop and pee in space, so I’m good. Being in a place where gravity helps take care of that. We have an infrastructure that works with the natural effect of gravity, then I’m good. But to come back to what I was saying about Artemis, you go to the website, the exact wording I’m going to paraphrase a little bit, but the first sentence on the website says something like: We will land the first woman and first person of color on the moon. And that’s their opening salvo. And who wrote this copy? I used to be a NASA postdoctoral program fellow and I loved my time in code 600 at Goddard Space Flight Center. It was really one of the most idyllic workplaces that I’ve ever seen in my life, so no shade on them. But really, I know that NASA is capable of writing better copy than that. And really, reading between the lines as a Black woman, I’m like, okay, so you mean a white woman and a man of color? Like, that’s her that that reads? Is your like, we will make commitments but there are limits. We will not promise a woman of color. That’s going too far!
But I think like also this sales pitch of like: We’re going to do colonialism, but it’ll be representatively diverse. Sure, the cops are still going to be shooting people in the back. And ICE is stil going to be kidnapping people in the neighborhood where I grew up, but the first woman and the first person of color will be going to the moon. And it’s interesting because people ask me sometimes about “whitey” on the moon, and that narrative from the 60s, and they were like: But you seem interested in us doing this space and spending money on it. And here’s the thing: NASA does what it does on — relative to the defense budget relative to even what like Amazon Studios is probably spending on movies this year. Definitely what Disney and Marvel are spending on movies this year — a shoestring budget. NASA is not taking too much. If you want to talk about where’s all our money going, it’s not NASA. NASA is not your money sink problem. It could be if you tax billionaires properly, all that offshore stuff, that’s your money problem.
But it is also the case that they want us to believe the story that that is solving our problems here on earth, by having the first woman and first person of color who is probably a man on the moon. And that’s the heart of “whitey’s” on the moon is don’t believe that hype. In fact, the reason “for all mankind” is called “for all mankind” is because that was the plaque that they put on the moon, is that they went for all mankind. First of all, they said mankind. That was probably accurate; they definitely did not mean all people. They were harassing trans people in government at that point. So they definitely didn’t mean non-binary people. But women were also not in the equation. But I really think that they’re going to tell us that they’re doing it for us. And it’s not, maybe it’s for me, because I’m part of that community, maybe. But it’s not for the community that I came from in East LA; it’s not the community I am where I went to school in South Central or South LA, as it’s now called. And we can’t believe that height — we just can’t.
PM: I think that’s such an important point to make. And I wonder, when I think about what NASA is doing, and what is actually important for it to be focused on, it seems like the desire to send a human to space to the moon comes up at these times when it needs to, obviously show itself to be superior to someone like China, or Russia or whatever this other state power is. Whereas it seems like the real learning, certainly, the space station is providing science and stuff for us to learn from. But the notion that we need to land people on the moon, and that is helping us to make these real discoveries, or, we need to start colonizing Mars or something like that. It seems like that is driven more by a desire to kind of beat the chest rather than to do science. Would that be a right way of understanding it? Or do you think it’s more complicated than that?
CP: Well, I wish it stopped at beating our chests. Because then just landing there would be enough to just be like: Yo, we did it! We showed that we could win that race. And that was kind of what it was in the 60s. Because that was the limits of what they thought they could do — politically — not just like in terms of like what we had the engineering capacity to do, but politically what they thought they could get away with. And so everything is looking at what do they think they can get away with politically now. And the fact that they are going around and getting different countries to sign this treaty that talks about mining on the moon is really clear. They think that they have the technological capacity to engage in mining. And they think that they can get away with it politically. Those nuclear weapons that hold people back 60 years ago, those are still a threat. I don’t know why people aren’t — we’re doing global warming right now. I shouldn’t say we; I really shouldn’t say we. But there are a small group of people that’s willing to roll with global warming. Joe Manchin: Hello! Kyrsten Sinema: Hello! So I think that capitalism requires endless expansion to live. And so they need to feed the beast, and they’re now planning to feed the moon to the beast. They’re now planning to feed Mars to the beast; they’re now planning to feed whatever asteroid they can get their hands on to the beast. This is capitalist destruction, moving off of Earth’s surface, into the solar system, deeper into the galaxy. It is, in some ways, and we could do a whole other episode about this, debatable, but in some ways, the anti-“Star Trek.” In other ways maybe it is exactly what “Star Trek” is.
PM: I think that’s such an important point, though, to recognize it’s about pushing it and seeing what they can get away with. And now they think that they can get away with more than what they got away with in the past and they have the capacity to try to do so. I have two final questions for you, if that’s okay. Obviously Elon Musk talks a lot now about the need to extend the Light of Consciousness to another planet.
CP: Just to describe for people — I just rolled my eyes very hard. Okay, keep going!
PM: Happy that you mentioned it. It seems like an obvious question to ask, but should we be desiring to settle other planets at all, especially at this moment when we face so many problems — the climate crisis being a major one — here on Earth that we really need to solve, and need to be focused on in this moment.
CP: We gave little kids toy versions of things because we know that they might break those. So if you’re a normal person, you don’t give your kid a $1,000 gift that can just break the first time you drop it. If you’re dropping that kind of coin, it’s pretty robust against destruction by a child. That’s something that we understand. And I think that we have to be more humble and understand that we are still in that stage of learning how to maintain balance with a global ecosystem, and not drop it and have it break. And all of the problems that we have here on earth will go with us to space — there is no escaping ourselves. As I write in an essay in The Baffler called “Becoming Martian” in January of this year, we’re stuck with ourselves. And apartheid Clyde and I are stuck with each other here on earth for the moment. There’s no escaping those problems. And so the idea that, let’s say, we had the technological capacity to control the climate on Mars, that doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t take the kinds of problems that we introduce into climates with us to Mars. We’re already having to worry about contamination with microbes on Earth.
There was a recent story about some space trash, basically, or some trash that was found recently on Mars. It turned out to be a partisan thing that we sent, because how else did it get there? There aren’t a lot of options. So here in New Hampshire, there are all kinds of discussions about a new garbage dump. We’re having these fights in our communities about our garbage dumps. You look at low earth orbit, and increasingly, it’s like: Oh, yeah, look at that species, they don’t know how to deal with garbage at all. They just have no concept of it. And so I’m sure that there will be companies that are going to come along and say, that’s our area of expertise, we will deal with the garbage for you. The problem with that, of course, is that then those companies have incentive to ensure that there’s always a supply for them. So there’s no incentive to just eliminate the garbage entirely, but just to always manage the problem. And that’s kind of how the capitalist thing just keeps growing. So we have to learn to be in equilibrium with the ecosystem that we have — I don’t think we have a choice about that. And if we can’t do it here on Earth, we can’t do it anywhere else.
PM: An essential point. To close our conversation, we’ve been taking a critical look at space, how we think about space, in this conversation. Really key to your work is really taking these decolonial, these feminist approaches to space and to space science and to science more generally. What can we learn from other ways of seeing space science and science more generally? And other ways of knowing, more generally?
CP: Yes, just to turn things a little more optimistically, because I know I’ve said a lot of maybe cynical sounding things, I have a lot of hope, when I think about the work that the JustSpace Alliance is doing. And you know, the work of Lucianne Walkowicz and their colleague, Erica Nesvold. And I know Lucianne better than I know Erica, but I’ve been very impressed by their work and the work of the entire organization. And one of the things that I really appreciate about JustSpace Alliance and some of the other folks that I can think of like Dr. Divya Prasad, who I think is also involved in JustSpace Alliance, is asking these questions of: What can we learn from ways of thinking that are not colonially oriented? And that means getting outside of Western frameworks from the last 500 years. If we’re really going to talk about being a global community, then that means looking to global thought beyond one small peninsula on the edge of Asia, the people, the descendants, the intellectual and biological descendants over those people who have since colonized a lot of the rest of the world.
And so I do think we can learn from Indigenous thought, for example, just to choose a broad example. But I want to really caution people against seeing indigenous thought as a material to be collected for our use. And so I think that there is something that we have to learn from Indigenous thought, but that means paying attention to Indigenous people, and being attentive to and engaged with Indigenous struggle. So in the context of those of us in North America, understanding that “land back” is a real demand, understanding how our institutions of higher education benefited from settler colonialism and are built on settler colonialism. So when I talk about learning from Indigenous thought, I mean learning from that Indigenous thought of there’s colonialism that we have to deal with right here on Earth right nowt. That said, I think when we think about, for example, the struggle around the 30 Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, and the Kanaka Maoli, Indigenous knowledge keepers struggle to protect the Mauna from further desecration and further development, that is a place that really informs us about what that dynamic between colonial science and Pano science — as some Kanaka people there have called it — is going to look like and that tells us a lot about what that struggle for the moon and for Mars is going to look like too.
PM: I really appreciate you ending with that example. I think at this moment, as we’re seeing this push for the commercialization of space, for the privatization of space, for a new Cold War or something like it and space gets wrapped up in that, these are really the perspectives that we need to have on what is going on in space, but also our world more generally, and how we push back on those things. So Chanda, I thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.
CP: Thank you so much for having me.