The Dangerous Religion of the Corporate Space Race
Paris Marx is joined by Mary-Jane Rubenstein to discuss how ideas that underpinned colonization and Manifest Destiny are now setting the foundation for the billionaire space race and the plan to colonize the cosmos.
Mary-Jane Rubenstein is the author of Astrotopia: The Dangerous Religion of the Corporate Space Race. She’s also a Professor of Religion and Science in Society at Wesleyan University.
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Paris Marx: Mary-Jane, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us.
Mary-Jane Rubenstein: Thank you so much. It’s great to be here.
PM: I’m really excited to chat with you the visions of the tech billionaires, and what they want to do in space is always a topic of interest on this podcast, and we’ve had many people to discuss it in the past. But I think that your new book gives us a different way into this conversation that I think is going to be really interesting to explore and gives people some different insight into what is guiding these visions of space colonization and these other sorts of things. I want to start by talking about this term that you use in the book that might be new or less familiar to some of the people who are listening to the show. And that is NewSpace — so can you tell us what that means? Can you define it for us?
MR: Sure, so NewSpace is actually a term of self-identification among private companies that are invested in the burgeoning space industry. So NewSpace companies are companies that manufacture rockets, certainly, but new ones, not like Boeing — newer ones that. Or they are trying to manufacture lunar landers, or are trying to manufacture a private space station, like Blue Origin. Blue Origin, SpaceX, space mining companies — these all refer to themselves as NewSpace. There are also slightly subtler ones that work on virtual reality enterprises in outer space. So anyway, any space industry company can refer to itself as a NewSpace company, and again, that’s a term of self-designation. When I refer to something like The NewSpace Era, or The NewSpace Race, or something like that, I am referring to an increasing trend in the US political economic landscape to turn the space sector over to NewSpace. That is a move that really began in 2011, so that’s more of an outsider designation that’s I’m attributing to them.
PM: That makes perfect sense. It’s a good way to use their term, but also to define it in a way that makes sense if we’re trying to periodize this, to understand what is actually going on, and the political shifts that underlie this industry that is forming and growing in this moment. So just to be clear, these are more of the newer companies who were involved in this. Obviously, NASA and other space agencies have worked with private companies in the past, but there seems to be something quite distinct about this new era and these companies are defining themselves under NewSpace, rather than these ones that were previously contractors with the space agencies in the past. Would that be right?
MR: That’s right. Look, every historical development is a development, and every process is a process. Wherever you want to put the moment of transformation, somebody can say: Yeah, but it happened before that. I’m an academic, and everything’s blurry, etc. But I do think a turning point in the genesis of NewSpace, and the proliferation of NewSpace companies, does come in 2011 when Barack Obama announces the cancellation of the Space Shuttle Program, and the reallocation of funds from the public sector to the private sector — to be a spur to development for the private sector. He had had advisors saying — I know, you, Paris, are a scholar of the transportation industry — but just like cars and buses and airplanes are run, for the most part, by private industry, we should turn the space sector over to the private industry as well.
I think that that was a big turning point that comes in 2011. And then there’s this massive acceleration of NewSpace in 2015, with this stunningly bipartisan act that’s passed in the US called The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which assures investors that a resource that is recovered — that’s the language they use — a resource that is recovered by a citizen in outer space, can be owned and sold for a profit by that citizen. Of course, under US law, corporations are protected as citizens. So suddenly, in 2015, with the passage of this law, it became increasingly possible to make money in outer space. And so that’s really when the futures of these companies really took off.
PM: Can you talk about how that’s a break from how we usually see space law and how this is supposed to work based on previous treaties with the UN, that have been drawn up?
MR: It’s a complete mess. The only genuinely multilateral, almost, unanimous piece of space legislation is the Outer Space Treaty, which was ratified in 1967 by 100 and some odd nations. This included, crucially, the US and Russia and China and India — all thee big space players and the smaller ones, Canada — but all of the major players have ratified this treaty. The Outer Space Treaty says that planetary bodies are not subject to national appropriation, that nation states cannot own planets, or planetoids, nor can they own parts of them. So not only can you not own the moon, if you are the US, you also can’t own the Sea of Tranquility; you can’t own this particular formation.
So nation states can’t own planetary bodies. This piece of legislation in 2015, The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, first of all, it’s not a piece of international legislation. It’s a piece of US legislation that went around the UN and said: Alright, sure. No nation can own a planet or a part of a planet, but nations can own the stuff inside planets [Paris laughs], like water, or regolith or uranium if you find it, or something like that. So there seem to be two major moves here, well, three. One is that, the US first acts unilaterally to make this declaration independently of the United Nations, and then goes around through the Artemis Accords, and gets other people who agree with them, to make it a bilateral or multilateral agreement
Two, the US is making what seems to be a very strange distinction between a planet and the stuff that’s in a planet. I don’t quite know what the moon is, other than that which the moon contains. It’s very hard to make this distinction. Third, what we are increasingly seeing is, this legislation makes it clear, that although The Outer Space Treaty says that no nation can lay claim to a planet or planetary body, they had not anticipated the role that corporations would play. So they don’t talk about private citizens or corporations owning a planet, or a planetary body. So really, recent developments have exposed the loopholes in the only legislation, really, that we have that’s guiding behavior in outer space.
PM: It’s really worrying, not only to see the US moving in this direction, but then to see that diplomats going around the world and trying to get other countries to agree on this. So do we see like a number of other countries moving in that direction? Because I know, for example, places like Luxembourg, seem to be trying to create a space economy by making laws that suggests that companies can go up and claim aspects of whatever celestial body or planet or whatever, and claim that for themselves. So then you set up the framework to begin to commercialize what is off of the planet?
MR: Absolutely. Certainly, the US has, by virtue of the Artemis Accords, garnered the support for this. What I really see as a un run around, that’s my own interpretation, I’ll lay claim to that. I don’t know, there will be 15 signatories at this point, who are all allies of the US. Crucially, they do not have the agreement, in this regard, of China or Russia, in part because the US space agency has barred itself from speaking at all, or working at all, with China. I think once one nation says: Well, look, we’ve decided that it’s appropriate to commercialize space. It’s very hard to be in a position of another nation that says: Well, but we think that it’s not. As we’ve seen from the history of terrestrial colonialism, we know that if people who don’t believe land is property come into conflict with people who do believe land is property, then the people who do believe land as property end up owning the land. The minute that the US throws down in this way is almost imperative that other nations do the same if they want to have a piece of it — if they’re spacefaring nations themselves.
PM: It’s such an important point and one that we’re going to come back to quite soon as we discuss this longer history and how it plays into it. I want to go back to 2010-2011, when Obama is canceling that program and starting to shift things into a more private orientation with NASA. What was the relationship in that moment between, say, the Obama administration and NASA and the government side of this? What was coming out of the tech industry, where you have people like Elon Musk, presenting this new vision for what human’s future in space is going to be? How is that influencing the policy decisions in that moment?
MR: Elon Musk, as you may know, spent years trying to get the US government to listen to him. He was like: I’ve got a company, it’s called SpaceX. And everyone was like: No SpaceX, that sounds ridiculous! I’m not gonna pay attention to that. So he ended up driving a multi-hundred foot rocket on a flatbed truck from Texas to Washington, DC, and parallel parking the thing on the street, outside the FAA, to get somebody to pay attention to him. So he had been looking for a long time for somebody to pay attention to him. It’s my understanding in the years around 2011 that Elon Musk was finally getting people to listen to him on the one hand. That there was pressure on the Democratic administration to relieve taxpayer burdens, and things like that. The stated hope — unless you know, everybody’s just demonic — but it seems like the state’s hope was to take pressure off the taxpayers, to fund this increasing industry, this burgeoning industry.
What’s actually happened though, of course, is that the NewSpace actors now are jockeying for government contracts. So the government, instead of paying NASA, is just paying private investors. So it’s not clear to me that any tax burden has been relieved off us, the ordinary taxpayers. But it does seem like at least that’s the way that it was sold. Also, of course, there’s the capitalist dream of turning everything over to private industry in order to spur innovation. There’s this long standing sense that NASA hadn’t done anything since the Apollo missions, it hadn’t moved anywhere. So again, the capitalist promise is if you turn a public industry over to private interest, you will spur innovation, and you’ll get a dying industry, bring it back to life again.
PM: Obviously, the marker of that is the fact that there’s not a human placing their foot somewhere else in the solar system or whatever, rather than the scientific explorations that have certainly continued to go on over that period.
MR: Right, nobody at the time has been like: Have you seen what Hubble has shown us by means of its deep telescopic photographs? The marker of it would, again, be the exactly the photos of the human conquering some kind of NewSpace.
PM: There needs to be another American flag planted on the moon before we can say that something’s been achieved.
MR: Not nearly enough flags, no.
PM: I do wonder if, with this next one, they’re going to have to bring up a Canadian flag as well. Maybe he’s just on this mission, scouting out the trip, and that he doesn’t actually land on the moon, this Canadian guy.
MR: We will see. As you may know, there was a whole subcommittee of NASA tasked with working out the ritualistic details of the Apollo missions. The initial idea had actually been to plant a UN flag when Apollo 11 reached the moon, or when it actually landed on the moon. To plant a UN flag, because after all, the US kept saying that it was doing this for all mankind. And because the science and the technology that had enabled the Apollo missions was clearly an international affair. There were scientists from all places who are sort of helping out on this. JFK had been promising, forever, that the reason that the US had to get to the moon before Russia was so that it could be a benefit to all humanity. So, as a marker of that, for all humanity-ness, the initial proposal was: Let’s plant a UN flag there. The NASA committee struck it down immediately and said: No, no, no, what we’re going for instead is that the US has done something, by itself, on behalf of all humanity. So then, you get the American flag. So it’ll be really interesting to see whether they plant an American flag and, I don’t know, douse it with maple syrup. I don’t know how you acknowledge the Canadian participation.
PM: I’ll be interested to see that, especially if they bring some maple syrup up to the moon. When you were talking before about the US starting to change these laws, and then pushing everyone else to do it, what came to mind was how you wrote in the book that Lyndon Johnson, when he was Senate Majority Leader, said that the communists going to space was like the Romans building the roads, the British ships, the US airplanes. A kind of first step to dominance, even as there was this talk of ‘for all mankind’ going on at the same time. But it does seem like in that case, the US had to show that it was going to beat communist Russia and not allow them to take over space. But in this moment, it does seem like the US is charging ahead and saying: We are going to do this thing; we are going to change the laws around this so that our companies can get up there first and have the first crack at all this stuff.
MR: So, Lyndon Johnson when he starts talking about this says, just as you’re saying: The Romans had control because they controlled the roads; the British had control because they control the seas. And now he says: The Russians have got a satellite in outer space. This is supposed to mean: Get up there, US, and take control of the spaceways because whoever has dominance at the spaceways will have dominance. It’s really with JFK that you start getting this broadly humanitarian patina over the US imperialism. Clearly, the primary mission is US imperialism. With JFK, you start hearing him say that: But it has to be US imperialism on behalf of everybody else, for everybody else. And this humanitarianism sort of ebbs and flows as the centuries go on. As you may know, the plaque that remains on the lunar lander, on the moon, signed by Richard Nixon says: These astronauts came here from the US with an American flag on behalf of all humanity.
I think that that language is almost gone from political rhetoric at this point. Even Donald Trump said in 2020 that we need to go back to the moon and then to Mars because it is America’s manifest destiny to conquer outer space. There was not a single mention of anybody else, not on behalf of everybody. It’s just what America is supposed to do for America. Even Joe Biden, when he talks about space, which is not often, will say things that don’t make a ton of sense, like: Americans are going to do this because Americans do great things, so we’re going to do this! But there isn’t that, again, that patina of humanitarianism. Ideological purity is basically gone, at least from the political rhetoric. NASA still has,in its statements about Artemis, or at least in its posters, it’ll say: For all humanity. It was deliberately sort of degendered. It used to be: For all mankind. But they don’t say what they mean. They just say it, so NASA still has a little remnant of it, but I think it’s gone from the politicians.
PM: Instead, we just get Elon Musk saying that he is spreading the light of consciousness and saving humanity by having us populate another planet.
MR: I think this is the one of the things that’s fascinating. It’s almost like US politicians have run out of tricks, like rabbits to pull out a hat. They don’t have, rhetorically, the tools to inspire the populace, at least when it comes to outer space. But I don’t really think when it comes to anything, but certainly when it comes to outer space, they don’t have it. That torch has been passed to these private, charismatic, CEOs of immense corporations. They’ve got stories that people listen to right when Elon Musk says: I am trying to save humankind. People are like: Whoa, he’s trying to save humankind. A lot more compelling then, we’re going back to the Moon and Mars because America does great things. I don’t think that stirs anybody at this point.
PM: It sounds a lot better, in Elon Musk’s telling of it, than listening to a politician say it these days.
MR: Because we’re on the side of the renegade; we’re on the side of the free-thinker, the unco-opted, self-made human, who sees his own way and does his own thing and calls it like it is.
PM: Absolutely, and you don’t have the same — obviously, there’s the growing escalation with China — but you still don’t have the same Cold War framing or mentality as existed with the Soviet Union, back the last time we had to do this whole thing. So I do want to go back to where these ideas around space colonization come from, because this is a really core central, piece of your book. Obviously, we talk a lot now about space colonization. There are a lot of ideas around this because it’s being driven by people like Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos. But these particular ideas are rooted in something much deeper and much more fundamental, that’s been guiding Western society for quite a long time. So where do you think would be the best place to start explaining this, to put the foundation of this for listeners?
MR: Okay, so I think the easiest place to start, and again, you can always say that, yes, this had its roots in the Islamic empire, let’s go to the 12th century, let’s go to the 11th century. I think the easiest place to put it is in the 15th century, the end of the 15th century, the dawning of the 16th century. This is when Pope Alexander VI gave — and I use this verb in an attempt to call attention to how ironic it is — gave the so-called New World to Spain through a papal bull that basically said: Hey, Ferdinand, and Isabella, you’ve been so good at ridding your own nation of Muslims and Jews, that we know that now that we’ve discovered these lands, they should go to you for the purpose of Christianizing them. There’s a document that was written that the Spanish conquistadors would read when they arrived at the shores of the so-called New World that basically laid out the whole authoritative structure.
It would say to any Indigenous person in what is now the US, who happened to speak Latin, which is to say, none of them: Hi, people in Latin, just wanna let you know, you,like us, are the creation of God, whom we call God, who is the only God in the universe. God made us. God made you. This God was incarnate in a person called Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus of Nazareth lived for a little time, and then he died. When he was dying, he gave his authority to a guy named Peter, who gave his authority to a bunch of dudes after him, the last of which is a dude named Alexander VI — are you paying attention? Alexander the VI just so you know, has just given us your land. This is to say what this document does is that it draws all of humanity into the same story. It says: We are all one. We’re all humans, we’re all children of the same God. That God told us that this land is Spain’s, sorry. You can either recognize that and submit yourself to the role of the Church, and of Spain, and then we’ll love you and we’ll celebrate you.
Or you can try to fight it and if you try to fight it, we will absolutely destroy you and all of your children and all of your nations and all of your things and all of your holy sites. It is that movement of claiming a new land, on behalf of a primarily white, European descended power in the name of all humanity, while talking about a universalized humanity that you see, renewed in the 19th century, as white descended Americans make their way across the entire continent in the name of what’s called Manifest Destiny — God as having chosen them to take the entire continent. Then you see the moment the space program is announced and given legs in the early 1950s when a former Nazi rocket scientist now in the US, Wernher von Braun, says that outer space is now the final frontier, the last frontier, and it is America’s Manifest Destiny to conquer that space. So in the name of God, because God wants us to do it and for again, all of humanity. These are broad brushstrokes, but I think you can draw a very clear line across the seas, and then across the North American continent, and then right up — well, it’s not really up — but out into outer space.
PM: Out at least, out there! [laughs]. I think that you’ve connected it really well and it’s interesting to understand that and to see how those threads continue from all those hundreds of years ago through to what we are talking about now, and what is supposedly supposed to guide us into the future, decades and centuries, basically, if we are to follow the vision that Elon Musk and these people have given us. One of the important things that you outlined and in telling this history in the book is how, by recognizing the role that Christianity had in shaping Western politics, ethics, science, and how we see our societies growing and expanding and spreading to new places, basically, that then shapes or gives permission to capitalism for a certain economic model. It does so because there is this linkage between science and technology in changing in how we perceive nature, and how we think about nature, in order to serve this model. Can you talk a bit about that aspect of it and the changing views on nature, the changing views on science and technology and these sorts of things, and how that helps this particular model to spread, not just in Europe and to the New World, but across the world?
MR: I fully recognize that our listeners here might be like: Come on, God has nothing to do with this. This is a totally secular space industry. Sure, Mike Pence and Donald Trump refer to God, but they don’t mean it. What I want to encourage everybody to consider is that they didn’t mean it in the 15th and 16th centuries, either. The God language has always been, when it comes to this kind of imperialism, a means of making people feel better about the conquest that they’re about to undertake. Alexander VI promised the New World to Spain, not because he was really excited about all those souls in the New World, but because he was really excited about the gold and the spices and the riches that the land contained. This is an operation of what I would call Imperial Christianity. It is not some sort of pure-Christian doctrine.
It’s not inherent to all Christian teaching, it’s a kind of political Christianity — and all Christianity is political, but this is a particular kind of political Christianity — that teams up with Empire in order to increase, economically, the position of the nations that it has teamed up with. Sylvia Wynter makes this point very clearly in a piece called, “The Pope Must Have Been Drunk,” basically, to give this land to Spain. The point is that the Church has, at least since the 15th century, been an accessory to the expansion of European imperialism and capital. The Church’s role has become more diffuse as we move from the Roman Catholic endorsement of The Doctrine of Discovery of the Americas to a more Protestantized, more diffuse idea of God having a hand in Manifest Destiny, to the even more secularized idea that some God, we don’t even always talk about, wants America to be out there in outer space, to the idea that Elon Musk is saving human consciousness.
But all of these attempts to conquer space and to take its resources and use them are relying on what seemed to be very secular ideas, that I want to argue have particularly religious inheritance. Some of these secular ideas include first, the idea that land is property. Second, the idea that land is just land, that it has no value in its own right that it is only there for the comfort and wealth of human beings. And third, perhaps most importantly, the idea that humanity is separate from the rest of the earth and all of creation, and that it’s not only separate from the rest of creation, but it’s more important than everybody else out there. These are not objective ideas. These are not ideas that hold for everybody.
They’re not ideas that people throughout all time have taught — they’re not ideas that many communities continue to teach. They are specific interpretations of Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew bible, which becomes the first book of the New Testament, a book in which a disembodied God creates humans as distict from the rest of the Earth, gives the Earth to humanity, for their betterment, tells them they are in charge of it, and also designates humanity in the image of God, the dominion of God. So these are religious inheritances — it doesn’t matter if no one is talking about God. If you have got a totally anthroprocentric, Western descended viewpoint that holds that humans are the most important thing, that land is just there for human use and that humans are somehow separable from the rest of creation, you are operating within the world view that imperial Christiniaty is. Does that get at all to the big question you were asking?
PM: Absolutely. I think you’ve covered it really well. That sets it up for the audience and explains why we have these particular ideas today, and how our culture, politics or economics, all these sorts of things, have moved in this direction of seeing land, seeing the economy, seeing whatever in this way. I was particularly struck in the book, when you explain how the domination of Christianity over Paganism, which in itself was a bunch of different beliefs, but really helped to ensure that when you are extracting resources, cutting down trees, all these sorts of things, that you don’t need to think about the spirits and the trees, or the forests or anything like that. You can destroy them because those things obviously don’t exist.
Those resources are there for humanity, for mankind to use to better itself to sell or whatever. And you don’t need to think about these bigger questions anymore. What it brought to mind to me, and maybe some Icelandic listeners will hear this and say: Oh, this is just a stereotype about us. But I’ve heard stories that, apparently, in Iceland there are still fairy stories about fairies and gnomes and things like that, and that sometimes there are protests around development, saying that: This is in a traditional place where these sorts of mystical creatures would be so it shouldn’t be built here. But I think that was a connection that I made as I was reading that in the book.
MR: Well, look, when the water protectors protesting the North Dakota Access Pipeline, are saying: Water is sacred. What they’re saying is: You may not poison this water for the sake of profit, whether it’s because there are spirits in the land, or whether it’s because the element itself is alive, or whether it’s because the element itself exists in kinship with other beings and human beings. The conviction that the more the human world is itself alive, or is itself even sacred, puts a limit on the extent to which humans can exploit that more than human world. Of course, humans can’t, nobody can, live without making some kind of use of land, making some kind of use of what we now call resources. But there is an immense distinction between living in a subsistence manner, taking what you need, and also giving back to the land so that it can regenerate itself. Then living in a manner that prioritizes profit over everything else, so it tries to maximize productivity and attacks the soil, agriculturally, and cuts down trees. Rather than using parts of them and clear cuts forests and removes mountain tops. None of that, from a subsistence standpoint, is necessary. It’s only necessary if you’re privileging profit over everything else.
PM: I think that as you described that, you can also see the incentive to argue that these things don’t matter, that we don’t need to think about the history of where these ideas come from. That we don’t need to think about how it has influenced our culture, as it stands today, because that obviously goes against the desire to extract these things, the desire to continue this economic model. If we do interrogate it, if we do think about what is actually undergirding it — what is guiding it, what has made it possible and what continues to make it possible — then that allows a challenge to it to say: This is not natural. This is not the way that things have always been, we can think about these things in a different way. If we start to do that, then that’s a big threat to the people who have benefited from the system and continue to do so. As you’re saying, want to see it extend into space now too.
MR: That’s the hope. The hope of this particular book is to say: All of our actions are guided by stories, and the actions of the contemporary space race are guided by a particularly destructive set of stories, but they’re just stories. There are other stories, there are other people telling stories. If everything we do is guided by stories, which I firmly believe it is, we can listen to better stories, we can listen to stories that reflect our collective values better than these particular ones do.
PM: Absolutely. Speaking of stories, to get Americans, and to get the world, interested in the space race, last time this became a big thing, obviously, we have a new version of it now. You talked about a number of things that ensured that these ideas, that you’re talking about, were then brought into this larger project and extended out to space. You talked about Wernher von Braun, but he also inspires Disney and the stories that Disney puts out around space. Can you talk a bit about von Braun’s vision and how that gets brought into American popular culture and becomes accepted as the idea of what should be guiding the American space program?
MR: Sure. I should say that I owe all of this to my colleague, Catherine Newell, who’s written a marvelous book called “Destined for the Stars” that unearth this history. But here’s the way it goes, in 1953, Collier’s Magazine, in the US, publishes a series of articles under a big cover that says: Man will conquer space soon. The articles they’re in are written by a number of these transplanted German rocket scientists, who came to the US through a then secret CIA operation called Operation Paperclip. The US went in to Ally-liberated Germany and basically kidnapped a bunch of rocket scientists and offered them amnesty from war crimes in return for their service to the US military. Wernher von Braun is probably the best known of these rocket scientists. He had developed the V-2 rocket that decimated London. In 1953, Wernher von Braun, writes the lead article that he calls “Crossing the Last Frontier,” this is the first reference that I found to space as the last frontier, or the final frontier.
During the Gold Rush, the California governor called California the last frontier. So as you’re pushing out, because any farther than that you’re in the ocean, so von Braun in 1953 says: No, actually, there’s a new last frontier, and this one, thankfully, is infinite. So this is just really it, the final last frontier, and it’s outerspace. And he and his colleagues write these pieces in order to petition the US government to create a space program, right now. They’re saying: We need space dominance right now, in 1953. And the US is like: Meh. This is before NASA by the way,lNASA is not established yet. But the person who does listen, bizarrely, is Walt Disney. Walt Disney had been trying to break ground in Anaheim, California on Disneyland. He has a whole thing planned out, he was going to have Sleeping Beauty’s castle anchoring, a place that he was going to call Fantasyland. Then he was going to have Adventureland where you could go off and visit, supposedly, exotic countries that were very far from the US, a this sort of Orientalist dream.
Then he was going to have Frontierland, where you could go and put on a Davy Crockett cap and ride in a little Mine Train and pretend that you were heading off to California to go make your fortune, like the glorious days of old Manifest Destiny the 19th century. So Frontierland was America’s past. Right opposite he was going to position what he called Tomorrowland. And Tomorrowland was going to give us a view of America’s future. It’s 1953 and Walt Disney is like: What the hell is tomorrow going to look like? Like what are we going to do if the Mine Train is the mode of transport for America of yesterday and the way of the Oregon Trail kind of thing? That’s Frontier Land. What’s Tomorrowland going to look like? What am I going to put there? I have no castle. I have no mine train. What am I going to stick there?
One of his animators, presents him with this copy of Collier’s Magazine and says: I don’t know, they’re a bunch of these rocket scientists saying that we’re going to conquer space. And Walt Disney writes the guy a blank check and says: Get them all; get them all here. This is going to be Tomorrowland. Tomorrowland is going to be outerspace. He gets Wernher von Braun to come in with his rocket prototype. He looks at it and he’s like: Damn, man, that is an ugly rocket. So von Braun then takes aesthetic recommendations from Walt Disney to make his rocket nicer looking, so that it can anchor Tomorrowland in Anaheim, California. And then that, Disney-tweaked Rocket, V-2 rocket prototype becomes the model for the Saturn V Rocket, from the Apollo missions.
It’s absolutely crazy. So in the process of doing all of this, in order to sort of announce the launch of Disneyland in 1955, and in order to get Americans on board, Disney releases a set of videos that feature among other people, Wernher von Braun, explaining to the American public how rockets are going to work, and how we’re eventually going to get to the moon. And so there becomes this sort of popular buy-in among everyday Americans, who start imagining themselves living on other planets, taking like a jetliner, kind of Pan Am, flight off to the moon to live there, or to visit there or something like that. We can really credit Disney there with selling the idea of space travel to the American public before Sputnik. Sputnik hits in 1957, and then suddenly, Lyndon Johnson is like: Dammit, we need a space program, and von Braun is like: I told you. Then the rest is history.
PM: It’s absolutely wild to see how influential Disney becomes in shaping this vision of what the future in space is going to look like. Obviously, taking these rocket scientists and von Braun and then of course, how that is all in place and ready to go when Sputnik goes up. All of a sudden, the US is scrambling to also have its own space program, so it can compete with the Soviets and make sure that they, as we were talking about, that they don’t capture space and take over space. One of the things that, I believe it was Lyndon Johnson that you quoted in the book, where he says that he wants the US to go to space to secure “the position of total control over Earth.” That, of course, is long before the talk of for all mankind and things like that.
MR: It’s the position of ultimate military supremacy. I mean, if you can bomb the Earth from outside the earth, that’s ideal. You want to be able to navigate to anywhere if that’s the way you do it. You don’t have to launch from Texas to get to North Korea, you can get to it much more easily from outer space, so that becomes the position of ultimate military control. So militarily, that’s the argument. But again, there has to be some degree of public buy-in, the public buy-in is not so much excited about space cannons, as Catherine Newell says, the public is excited about watching TV from living rooms in outer space. They’re like: Oh, we’re going to be like “The Jetsons.” I mean, that’s what “The Jetsons” is! “The Jetsons” is an imagined suburban lifestyle in the future.
PM: Based on the social conditions of that time, the wife still stays home, and takes care of the home, and all these sorts of things. You have the female robot made all these sorts of aspects of society in that period. I’m wondering, obviously, you talked about the military aspect of it, to what degree is that vision, or, to what degree to can we say that that vision is also inspired by von Braun, the fact that he does come from Nazi Germany? That he was working on rockets for that government? To what degree are those ideas driving his vision for what this military aspect of the space program is going to look like, and then that gets brought into these visions that the US adopts?
MR: Well, it’s a funny feedback loop because, of course, there’s the the military idea of wanting to gain ultimate military supremacy. But there’s also the political idea, the political economic idea, of just expanding the room of the nation state, of this getting more land. And that’s why we start hearing Manifest Destiny language sort of reignited in the 1950s, to say: Oh, gosh, there’s a new promise, there’s a new promised land and it’s in outer space. Von Braun was among the people who started using Manifest Destiny, and reigniting that Manifest Destiny language, in the 1950s. And if one asks: How the hell did von Braun know about Manifest Destiny? It’s because Adolf Hitler, and the agents of National Socialism, had learned the doctrine of Manifest Destiny from reading American history, and had rebranded it into the German doctrine of Lebensraum, which was the idea that the German nation needed more space to live in and to be excellent in and to be beautiful in.
They were invading Poland in order to expand the size of Germany because Germany needed more living space. Hitler said at one point: Look, our only destiny here is to invade this land, by which he meant Poland, and to treat the natives, native Polish people, as “redskins.” So he takes direct inspiration from the white conquest of the Americas and the displacement and destruction of Indigenous life and applies it to continental Europe. Then von Braun takes Lebensraum and retranslated it back to a new space era of Manifest Destiny, that he extends into outer space. There’s some of that, there’s also the little known truth, that again Catherine Newell unearths, that von Braun, during his denazification on American soil, became an evangelical Christian himself. He thought it was incumbent from a military perspective — from a political perspective, from an economic perspective and even from a theological perspective — to head into outer space where he imagined that the US would convert aliens to Christianity, just the way that the Spaniards had converted Indigenous Americans.
PM: It’s a wild and chilling history when you actually go through it and see how these ideas travel, which is a lot of what your book and what this interview is about. I want to us to fast forward then, back to around this period and what we’ve been seeing in the recent past. So how would you say that these ideas then inspire the visions of people like Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos, as they present what our future in space is going to look like, as they draw their grand plans and try to sell the public on what this future is going to be?
MR: Okay, so I want to say from the outset that Musk and Bezos don’t tend to talk about God. I’m just going to get that on the table, they don’t tend to talk about God. What they do is they appeal to this broader — what you could call religious structure, even theological structure — of a threat of an impending disaster and the promise of an eventual salvation. So each of them — in their own way, they have different narratives, we can talk about it if you want — but each of them says: Disaster is coming for us; we can’t live like this forever. Either the earth is going to be destroyed, or humans are going to be destroyed — this is coming to an end, the world is coming to an end!
You can imagine them as these little prophets with beards on the street holding their little signs: The world is coming to an end, but follow me and I will lead you to a new world, a better world, where you can be totally free, you can use as much energy as you want, if you’re Jeff Bezos. You can be totally free from regulation, if you’re Elon Musk. Look, you’ve never seen this world, you’ve never been to this world, you doubt that such a world is possible. But I’m here to tell you that another world exists, and it’s going to be better than this one, and you’re going to get salvation there. So there’s this, again, broader religious structure that’s animating it.
And you see, again, in both of these figures, these old ideas that I was trying to talk about earlier, the sort of what you could call theologemes, like little theological units of instruction, of the inanimacy of the land. We don’t care at all about Mars for Mars’ own sake, if we’re entertaining the idea of nuking it with 10,000 missiles as Elon Musk is. So the inanimacy of the land, the land is somehow promised to a particular subset of humanity and the importance of human beings over everything else on the planet. You see these motivating these broader messianic promises for both of them.
PM: It’s fascinating to look at that. You explained in the book that they kind of need us to buy into these visions, to have faith in the futures that they’re selling because then that justifies the broader project of extending capitalism into these spheres. So that it’s not just here on Earth. It’s not just in the United States, but it’s moving on to these other celestial bodies and we can start to make money off of them. We can start to commercialize them. You quote Robert Zubrin in the book — who was a big pusher of Mars colonization and these sorts of ideas — who says that the US is in decline because it needs a new frontier. Can you talk about that aspect of it where these are visions, there is a faith that is needed that this is going to be our future, but the capitalist project that undergirds, that it serves as the foundation of?
MR: I actually think, in this particular regard, Bob Zubrin is different from some of the spacey CEOs. I think Bob Zubrin wants to colonize Mars for the sake of colonizing Mars. I think he really does believe America needs a new frontier, that frontier is Mars, we have to go there at all costs — prioritize Mars, get to Mars. Because why? Because everybody’s gotten stupid and lazy and without a new place for restless white folk to go. We’re just gonna keep deepening our addictions and fading into obscurity. We need a new frontier — Mars is the new frontier. Let’s go. I don’t think that Bezos or Musk is any less earnest than Zubrin, honestly, or honest. I think that they genuinely believe what they say. But I think what they hope is that it’s not only that we can expand our living space, but also that we can make a really good profit on the way and that that bigger story about the destiny of humanity, or the salvation of humanity, is a much more palatable story than the real story, which is: Capitalism, which demands infinite economic growth has reached real limits.
There aren’t a lot of places we can expand the economy into at this point on a finite planet. We’re running up against the limitations of resources. We’re running up against the limitations of what people are willing to buy. We’re just hitting some real limits. So if we’re going to keep going with this model of infinite growth capitalism, we need more space. We need more stuff. We need more stuff to sell and we need more land on which and from, which to sell it. That’s not a really rousing public claim. If you’re an investor, then that’s easy to get behind. But if you’re an ordinary citizen, like: Oh, yeah, I guess I’m going to support the emerging space sector, otherwise, capitalism is doomed! That doesn’t do anything. If all of that, if the expansion of the economy into outer space, is a mechanism, not for the salvation of capitalism, but for the salvation of the human species, then we’ve got something to get behind.
If in the meantime, it might also make us money, then it’s fantastic. You get to make money in the short-term, as you’re supporting all the space industries, and you also get to be supporting the salvation of the species, which is delightful. Who doesn’t want to support the salvation of the species? So people often ask whether or not I think that Elon Musk will actually ever get to Mars, or whether it’s actually possible to terraform it or it’s actually possible. I don’t think it ultimately matters. If it is, it’s going to be awful there and you shouldn’t go. But I don’t think it ultimately matters because what matters is that it’s that long-term vision, and that utopian vision, that selling the more near-term endeavors of these NewSpace corporations, you wouldn’t get a lot of buy-in if you just said: Hey, support this stuff because you’ll make a lot of money. It is: Support this stuff because you’re going to participate in the salvation of the species and also, incidentally, you’re going to make a lot of money.
PM: Absolutely. I completely agree. I’ve argued the same in the past. If you look at Jeff Bezos, he says: We basically have a choice. We stay on Earth and we’re doomed to stasis and rationing, or we go into space, build these colonies, have a trillion people, and we have growth and dynamism well into the future. You can see how that then justifies what Elon Musk is doing in Texas, where an environmental preserve is is put at risk to enable his space fantasies, but also we ignore ,not just the environmental damag. But also how he’s putting these Starlink satellites all over the planet and the potential impacts of those things get downplayed, and all of these potential issues get pushed to the side.
As you say, it’s not just about earning profit. It’s that we need to do this, to save the species, to ensure that we have a future, and that future is in space. I think it’s very worrying to see how that works and how it does work, not just on parts of the public, but also on policymakers. I wanted to end by asking you about this because at the end of the book, you say that, obviously, we are driven by these ideas right now, and that this is driving a lot of the public conversation, but also the direction of lawmakers and of governments, as they are helping to try to realize this vision that these tech billionaires are putting out there. But it isn’t set in stone, that this has to be the way that we think about the future, that we think about space, that we think about our economy and society and all these other sorts of things. So if we were going to challenge the visions of the space billionaires and this particular orientation towards space, what would that look like?
MR: I think that there are a lot of alternative visions out there and some of the ones that I propose are first, I think, crucially, would be the process of listening to and learning from the stories of various Indigenous communities across the world that have managed to live on their land, with their land, as their land for generations, for centuries, in some cases for millennia, without decimating it. And to use those stories of reciprocal care, of kinship with land, as different kinds of models for existence, both on Earth and elsewhere, if we’re going to go elsewhere. I think it is important, also, to listen to the experiences and the testimonies of those Indigenous communities who are saying: You know what? It’s actually from our perspective, not the case, that space is uninhabited.
The Bawaka people of Northern Australia have written an academic paper saying: We have just learned about what Musk is doing with Starlink and we’ve learned about it because even in the outback, when you look up at the sky now, you can’t see the stars the way that you’re supposed to see them because you’re seeing all these satellites instead. Or because the light is blocking them out the light reflected from the satellites. Where they explain there is that according to their ontology, outer space is not uninhabited. Rather, it’s inhabited by the spirits, the lives of people who have died before them. At anytime a person from the Bawaka community dies, they’re sent up, ritually, passed the atmosphere, through the solar system along the River of Stars or the Milky Way, where they dwell forever and help regulate the affairs of the community on Earth. And if the spaceways are polluted, and if we’re attacking other planets, and if we’re nuking them, we’re disturbing the greater ecological balance between the living and the dead, between Earth and the solar system, between Earth and the entire galaxy of which we are a part.
So both technologies of how to live on and with land, in a mutually beneficial way, and also the stories about who is out there, seem, to me, to be important to listen to. It seems important to me also to branch out a bit and look into the world of fiction, of science fiction and of speculative fiction, particularly science and speculative fiction written by communities whose lands have been expropriated from them or who have been dispossessed from their own lands. I’m thinking particularly of Indigenous Futurism, Afrofuturism, these genres that imagine very concretely, other ways of building community, rather than centering profit and exploitation. Third, it’s important to listen to the exegesis, which is to say that commentary on the Bible, of contemporary Christians, in particular people like Pope Francis, who happen to have a very important job. He has said very clearly, that the idea that humans dominate the earth is false. It is a false reading of Scripture, it is inappropriate. It was done in the interests of nation states, and it has done untold harm.
The task of the Christian is to live in kinship — he actually uses this term — brotherhood and sisterhood with the rest of the planet, for the sake of the well-being of the entire planet, particularly, if we’re talking about human beings who are poor on the planet. So it’s like even Christianity itself, in its most institutional form — which is to say, the Roman Catholic Church — has moved on from this line of thinking. It is a line of thinking that says that it doesn’t matter what we do to land. The line of thinking that says that humans are the most important thing on the planet. These are some of the places we can listen. So it seems to me that those stories are kind of everywhere — you can find them everywhere. The question is, how we figure out how to center them, and how we figure out how to use them to approach our exploration of outer space in a different way?
PM: Absolutely. I think it’s essential. This is something that is ongoing right now, both from thinking about different ways of seeing the world. I feel like this is making progress, but even questioning these older ideas. In Canada there have been calls, in recent years, to get the Pope and the Church to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery going way back. So what does that mean for the way that we see land for the legal and economic structures that we’ve built up on top of it? These are all huge questions that I think we’re all grappling with as a society and are important to grapple with. Your work and your book gives us an in to think about these futures that were being sold by these very powerful people, and to think about them in a different way, and hopefully to challenge them. I would recommend anyone go pick up the book because it’s absolutely fascinating. Mary-Jane, thank you so much for joining me!
MR: Of course! It was such a delight to talk to you. Thank you so much.