Did you hear the news? India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, just a month after successfully landing a craft on the moon, declared that he would vastly reduce India’s space program, focusing exclusively on deploying satellites that could help India prepare for and adapt to a changing Earth, and redirect the majority of the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) resources on sustainable development priorities. As he said:
India’s last space voyage? Chandrayaan-3 heading to the moon. (Image from ISRO)
“India has just become the fourth country in the world to successfully land a craft on the moon. I’m confident that all countries in the world, including those from the Global South, are capable of achieving such feats. We can all aspire for the moon and beyond. However, now is not the time to go venturing to the moon and beyond. Instead we must heal our sickened planet. And put all resources into restoring the wounded ecosystems that human civilization depends on. India, the largest civilization in the world, has nothing to prove to anyone by pursuing space travel dreams. Humanity’s place is and will always be part of the Earth. The science shows very clearly that putting colonies on the moon and Mars, and mining asteroids, is at best part of our distant future, at worst a fantasy that is distracting us from more pressing matters of dealing with converging environmental crises and continuing poverty.
This past summer, the summer we sent our mooncraft Chandrayaan-3 to the moon,1 was the hottest in all of recorded history. Heat waves, floods, droughts, and storms are all getting more common due to climate change—a legacy of capitalist development in the west. While we have as much right to follow this path, we are choosing a different path. A path that Mahatma Gandhi and the spinning wheel on our national flag reflects. Simplicity, and equitable and sustainable development. Agriculture and industry will continue to be the heart of our economy, driven by renewable energy. We will work actively to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels, as the future of life on Earth—our only realistic home—depends on it.”
Ok, so none of that is true. In fact, after the successful landing, Modi only said the second line that ‘all countries from the Global South could also do this.’ But is that really the way countries show they are global leaders? Is this any different than neighboring (and rival) tribes building bigger and better Moai statues?
It’s tragic that as the collapse of the global ecology grows ever nearer (which will inevitably bring about the collapse of the global economy) billionaires and world leaders are making a mad dash to explore space. No problem if they want to launch climate satellites and other tools to help us become more sustainable and adapt to Earth’s increasingly erratic weather patterns (due to our excesses), but the idea that we should spend hundreds of billions of dollars on space exploration, when those dollars should instead be going to curbing human consumption, shifting to more sustainable forms of production of food, clean water, energy, and other necessary goods, is simply gross.
Is there much difference between erecting statues on an island or ejecting rockets to the moon? (Image from SOFCOR via Pixabay)
This is not a new sentiment. In the 1960s, philosopher Loren Eiseley wrote:
“To escape the cosmic prison man is poorly equipped. He has to drag portions of his environment with him, and his life span is that of a mayfly in terms of the distances he seeks to penetrate. There is no possible way to master such a universe by flight alone. Indeed such a dream is a dangerous illusion.”
(Eiseley even makes a very Gaian comparison that humans are like a white blood cell trying to explore the body but never realizing they are part of some bigger living body, and that there may even be an outside beyond the universe they inhabit.)2
But what’s most fascinating, and not so well known, is that during the 1960s, as America was fighting to win the “space race”3 there were demonstrations protesting the wasteful use of money on lifting people into space rather than helping lift people, and particularly Black Americans, out of poverty. At a protest outside of Apollo 11 launch in July 1969, civil rights leader Reverend Ralph Abernathy—accompanied by protestors and two mules to represent the extreme contrast between rural poverty and the NASA technological advance—said,
‘One-fifth of the population lacks adequate food, clothing, shelter and medical care. The money for the space program, he stated, should be spent to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick, and house the shelterless.’4
Even before this, Martin Luther King Jr. expounded in a Senate testimony on race and urban poverty in 1966, that
“in a few years we can be assured that we will set a man on the moon and with an adequate telescope he will be able to see the slums on Earth with their intensified congestion, decay and turbulence.”
As Abernathy noted at the Apollo 11 protest, “What we can do for space and exploration we demand that we do for starving people.” That goes for today as much as the 1960s. What we can do for exploration and ego, we can do for the poor and for Earth. The billions wasted in building rockets, manufacturing fuel, and sustaining space programs could be used to shift to sustainable and regenerative agricultural systems, replace coal plants with wind turbines, shift car parks to public parks and roads to bike lanes. Of course, as in the 1960s, humanity’s priorities are off. A song by musician Gil Scott-Heron after the Apollo moon landing captures this well:
“A rat done bit my sister Nell / With Whitey on the moon / Her face and arms began to swell / And Whitey’s on the moon / I can’t pay no doctor bills but Whitey’s on the moon / Ten years from now I’ll be paying still / while Whitey’s on the moon.”
Please End the Space Race
In 2011, The Economist mourned “the end of the Space Age” as the U.S. was winding down its space shuttle program and outsourcing space travel to corporations. Sadly The Economist editors seem to have been premature in their assessment as other countries pick up the baton. But perhaps if we recognize our planet is not a cosmic prison, but a holobiont that we are fully part of, tethered to, and dependent on, maybe we would act accordingly. Illusions of escape would disappear and perhaps even be replaced by celebration of the living and wondrous planet that provides us life. And hopefully with that would come a redoubled effort to heal and restore our one and only home.
We’ve turned away from space willingly before. In fact, in 1970 President Nixon said, “We must build on the successes of the past, always reaching out for new achievements. But we must also recognize that many critical problems here on this planet make high priority demands on our attention and our resources.” Time to prioritize solving critical problems again, before destruction of the Earth systems we depend on triggers civilizational collapse, and humanity’s brief jaunts into space become a barely-remembered memory or even just a myth.
Satellites and other tools to better understand our home and how to sustain and protect it are certainly worth preserving. It’s the fantasy of separating ourselves from our host and holobiont that must be let go. (Image of Hurricane Idalia in the Gulf of Mexico on 29 August 2023 from the International Space Station from NASA)
1) Chandrayaan means mooncraft or moon vehicle as this article explains. The rover is named Pragyan, or Wisdom, however, wiser would have been investing those resources into healing India’s relationship with Prithvi (Earth).
2) More recently Tom Murphy devotes a whole chapter on the absurdity of space exploration in his textbook Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet. For a shortened version, read this essay of his.
3) Another reminder that, like Moai-building, the space race started as a geopolitical rivalry between superpowers: as the Economist noted in 2011, the space race was “an outgrowth of the development of ballistic-missile technology… fuelled by cold-war paranoia about Soviet science and it happened at a time when America’s leaders were willing to spend huge amounts on propaganda.”
4) Reverend Abernathy’s words as recounted by NASA Administrator Thomas Paine on History.com. Amazingly, Paine agreed to Abernathy’s demands of using NASA know-how to help the poor—adapting sensors that detected indoor air pollution in space capsules to measure urban air pollution, and working to adapt spacecraft insulation for public housing. While part public relations stunt (according to the article), it showed that with passion—and pressure—resources can be shifted.