Mars for the Rich: SpaceX, rhetoric, and the “final frontier”

Willb/ August 31, 2020/ lefty astronomy/ 5 comments

Thy flesh consumed

A simple browser game, styled after DOOM clone shooters of the early 90’s, MARS FOR THE RICH is promotional material for the song of the same name. Leaving an antechamber filled with nondescript wooden crates, the player – armed with a handgun – enters a sunken arena of floating stone and blood red sky. At its center, a pyramid and a golden statue.

Scaling the pyramid steps, empty gun in hand, the player finds the statue composed of two golden skulls flanking a floating bullet with a gold casing.

Interacting with the bullet pushes you back down the temple, and returning to the top to try again triggers the action of the game, loading you with 30 bullets and releasing an enormous swarm of rats from the pyramid.

“Mars for the Rich” begins playing, and you navigate the area, kiting the swarm as you fire hundreds of bullets into the mass of rodents. Consuming glowing fruits and ammo pickups enable you to continue fighting after taking and dealing damage. The game becomes increasingly hectic as the swarm steadily grows, until large three-headed flying rats rain fireballs down on the player.

5000 points in, multiple three headed giant flying rats down, and two turns of the song later, there’s no victory screen in sight. By now the point is clear: you won’t outrun the horde, and they won’t stop coming.

The song itself, off the fifteenth album from rock band King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, is sung from the perspective of a “poor boy” on a “deformed” Earth. The narrator contrasts their life laboring in fields with “blistered fingers” to wealthy Tsars on TV who live happy, luxurious lives on the terraformed red planet.

The metaphor is clear, and apt; the player takes on the role of the elite on mars, the horde of rats becomes the poor and unwashed Earthlings, invading the sanctity of Mars to consume their oppressors. Individual rats die, but no matter how many clips the Doomguy player unloads into the crowd, the many eventually overpower the few.

Infest the Rats Nest follows the promotional game soundly, with A-side tracks like “Superbug” in reference to the rise of drug resistance in response to human use of antimicrobials and “Planet B” in obvious reference to the drive for space colonization in response to climate crisis all bolstering the message of “Mars for the Rich.”

Militarization, Privatization, and complicity

“I would annex the planets if I could”

Cecil Rhodes

Gabrielle Cornish writes “How Imperialism shaped the race to the moon” (for the billionaire owned Washington Post, of all places) masterfully detailing how from humble beginnings in 19th century Russia through the tumultuous revolutionary period and onto the Soviet Union, narratives of space exploration in a socialist context differed drastically from those that to this day bolster American Imperialist interests. Soviets boasted the first person in space, first woman in space, the first black person in space, all the while producing propaganda which emphasized space exploration as the culmination of humanity’s collective labor. Losing the space race by most metrics, American media, fiction authors, and propagandists began producing utopian visions of outer space, paving the conceptual path for private interests like SpaceX, BlueOrigin, and VirginGalactic to propose their own brands of Space Tourism. Mars for the rich.

“New Planet” (1921) by soviet impressionist/socialist-realist Konstantin Yuon

In today’s age, science enthusiasts are bombarded with articles from science websites and major publications with titles like “Elon Musk Beats Jeff Bezos To U.S. Air Force Contract As Billionaire Space Race Blasts Off”, “Blue Origin Launches Its First Space Tourism Rocket In Seven Months – And Hopes To Take Humans To Space In 2020”, and “SpaceX’s Mars Colony Plan: How Elon Musk Plans to Build a Million-Person Martian City”.

Credits: NASA Ames Research Center

The space race rallying cries for this century frequent the science fiction of the past for inspiration, where capitalist realist visions of endless resource extraction, military domination, and human exceptionalism (implicitly, I’d argue, an extension of American exceptionalism in many stories) find a broad audience. Terraforming, mining, and the frequent destruction of celestial objects feature heavily; the irreparable destruction that is depicted in science fiction mimics our own Holocene extinction event with vanishing self-awareness. Classics of the genre, like Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars introduce characters like the Chief Executive of Mars (who wants to detonate the moon Phobos), introducing corporate language to the colonial administration and subjugation of the red planet itself.

Heinlein’s fascist, 1959 military science fiction classic Starship Troopers does the conceptual legwork for a militarized cosmic frontier. Thankfully for the troops, only 40 years later the wit of Paul Verhoeven would thoroughly dismember Heinlein’s heroic vision.

In the sixth chapter, “Prospecting the Final Frontier” from her book The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power, author Megan Black explains how the department of the Interior, born of the need to direct and control corporate led settler-colonial expansion in the 19th century, collaborates with NASA not only to prospect Earth from the heavens, but to prospect the heavens themselves. Black writes,

“…the Johnson administration and the space bureaucracy began touting extra-terrestrial minerals—seemingly boundless and, equally helpful, inoffensive. Celestial bodies were not populated, after all. In April 1964, a deputy administrator of NASA, Hugh Dryden, told the readership of the New York Times, ‘Geologically, we have no reason to doubt that the moon and the nearby planets, being solid bodies, may be rich in rare mineral resources, possibly offering economic returns far outweighing the costs of exploration'” (page 188).

While the rest of the solar system may not be populated like the Earth is, colonists invading ecosystems and terrain with little understanding or foresight has led to widespread devastation. Even today, wildfires which were once regulated by indigenous practices rage in California. The same extractive and destructive process, even in the absence of ecologies as we understand them now, would spell disaster for microbial life that might exist in the solar system, not to mention the destruction of landscapes that have persisted for millions of years. And lest we forget, even if luxury spaceflight is made reality, luxury requires labor, and labor requires exploitation. Woe to those workers forced to porter today’s ruling class across the heavens.

Which brings us to the 21st century moment, where the Obama administration’s NASA budget awarded government contracts to SpaceX, essentially using taxpayer money to subsidize private spaceflight. Now, the privatization of spaceflight is all but complete, with Trump administration Vice President Mike Pence writing in the Wall Street Journal, “In the years to come, American industry must be the first to maintain a constant commercial human presence in low-Earth orbit, to expand the sphere of the economy beyond this blue marble.​”

A colony by any other name would be just as sweet

Make no mistake, the rhetoric of colonization applied to space exploration is no lapse in judgement. While writers like Dr. D.N.Lee, Keith A. Spencer, Caroline Haskins, and Dr Zuleyka Zevallos have written well on this topic, their analysis focuses heavily on the rhetoric of Musk, Bezos, and space colonization, and not the foundation of the problem: existing colonialism and imperialism, looking to release the pressure generated here on Earth into the vacuum of space.

Writing for her series “The Urban Scientist” in Scientific American, Dr. D.N. Lee says “When discussing Humanity’s next move to space, the language we use matters.” Here she details,

“Elon Musk’s vision for the humanity and colonizing Mars makes me incredibly uneasy. It’s not that Elon Musk has said very many inappropriate things, it’s that so much of the dialogue about colonizing Mars – inspired, initiated and often influenced by Musk – uses language and frameworks that are a little problematic.”

Lee’s article provides important pushback against Musk’s dominant media narrative, and uses this issue as a wedge to discuss important matters of diversity in STEM. Still, I can’t help disagree in one key aspect; Musk’s language and framework is harmful precisely because he says and does inappropriate things. Notable for suppressing unionization at his Tesla factories, Musk’s fortune is the byproduct of a Zambian emerald mine his father owns, and he grew up white in apartheid South Africa. Its precisely his position of power, a billionaire who predicates his wealth on the expropriation of the labor of his workers, which informs his rhetoric. Musk is at best a useful idiot for multinational capital, drawing public attention away from the horrors of late-capitalism by smoking weed or fighting with his wife on twitter. At worst, he’s a ruthless exploiter who sees the expanse of the Solar System as his corporation’s birthright.

Missing the point, Keith A. Spencer, writes in Jacobin, “Sure, let’s colonize Mars — but without Elon Musk’s help.” Spencer, who covers the topic of privatization of spaceflight across many publications, correctly recognizes the failures of previous colonial ventures, saying “Indeed, when it comes to colonization, we should hope humanity has learned from its past mistakes and is ready to set upon a more democratic process. Perhaps Earth can agree to hold a public discussion before we set about strip-mining Mars’s glorious dunes, vistas, and mountains, lest the tallest mountain in the solar system become a trash heap like Everest.”

Yet, Spencer’s advocacy trades privatization for government agencies. Instead of private companies, Spencer tees up NASA to lead ventures to “colonize Mars.” We shouldn’t let Phelps Dodge colonize the West, we should let the Department of the Interior manage it!

Falling short as well is Caroline Haskins’ article in the Outline, “The Racist Language of Space Exploration.” Haskins’ article, like Lee’s, is thorough and convincing, but it falls short by historicizing colonialism. The thing to understand is that colonialism is still being actively resisted all across the world because it is still ongoing. In this way space exploration/colonization from any colonial power is therefore a perpetuation of ongoing colonialism.

Science enthusiasts, astronomers, and conscious consumers of media must be able to recognize when the rhetoric concerning a topic points to a deeper injustice. We can’t allow the colonization of the solar system in any way, by corporation or capitalist government, just as we can’t allow the colonization that is ongoing on Earth. The Mars for the Rich mentality now sold to us by wealthy white billionaires isn’t the product of a few evil men using bad language, it’s the logical conclusion of an imperialist state, forced always to find some new frontier, less it be consumed by the rot at its core. Remember: We’re the rats. Its time to feast – maybe before they board the rockets.

Update: 9/14/2020 – A good friend of mine, Frank Tavares, whose game when you arrive remains one of my favorite pieces of electronic literature of all time, published a similarly fantastic white paper titled “Ethical Exploration and the Role of Planetary Protection in Disrupting Colonial Practices” which makes a case effectively for considerations pertaining to much of what I discussed in this article. I’ve linked the draft here, and if you’re looking for some material closer to the heart of the astronomy community (not that my blog isn’t an important pillar of the scientific community) I’d give it a read.

Update: 10/12/2020 – was pointed to this great comic/article in the nib that was posted last year. check it out!

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About willb

I'm Will, an undergraduate astronomer studying transition disks, direct imaging, and planet accretion and formation at the Follette Lab at Amherst College. I use they/them/theirs pronouns.

5 Comments

  1. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. Fall asleep on the exclamation key Grandma? Either that or you’re more excited than I am after my third cup of coffee.

  2. If there are no natives, can there be colonialism?

    RED Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, Ken Stanley Robinson.

    1. In this article I argue yes, because the same people who seek to claim and extract resources in space are currently engaged in perpetuating colonialism against native people on Earth. The island of Mauritius is a good example of a similar arguement; it was uninhabited but still “colonized” because Portuguese, Dutch, British, and French colonists brought slaves and servants to the island, ripped up wealth from the land, and decimated the local flora/fauna.

      Robinson’s books treat the problems of corporate resource extraction quite well – his more recent stuff (2312, Aurora, etc) seems to be in highly critical dialogue with the Mars Trilogy of the past. Love his work, I read the Mars Trilogy in high school!

  3. I don’t even drink coffee, and that’s how excited I am to read your latest piece, Will, and not just because I finally understand some of it! The bigs have their atmosphere-appropriate flags designed and waiting for shipment to parts and places they plan to claim for country, corporation, or perhaps individual (which egomaniac will be first?), so they can all continue fighting over resources off Earth into the unforeseeable future, part of which you, W.O.B., will witness, for longer than E and I will. The possibilities are truly disturbing. But then so is life on Earth. I feel so sanguine about it all. Or is it squeamish that I feel? I’ll just stay fluid and alternate.

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