Welcome to the age of space skepticism – and a growing revolt against the elites

Over the past decade, a new form of skepticism has emerged about human activities in space. It appears to be based solely in the Western world, and centered around the idea that increasingly ambitious space plans will harm humanity and neglect the Earth.

Things are different in China, but this will likely change eventually. Our best data, a survey published in 2020 by Lincoln Hines, shows a remarkably high level of support for China’s space programs. This is despite the cost, the occasional debris falling from the sky and the memory of the deadly 1996 Xichang disaster, when a Long March 3B heavy aircraft carrier crashed into a nearby residential complex.

What does this all mean for the future of space exploration?

Western skepticism about human activities in space is actually not new. There were space skeptics before there were even astronauts. In January 1920, the New York Times ridiculed pioneer rocket scientist Robert H. Goddard for not “realizing” that rockets in space would have nothing to push against and would therefore be immobile.

Once astronauts arrived, new predictions of failure emerged. Once the existence of the Van Allen radiation belts was confirmed in 1958, skeptics claimed that these radiation belts would kill anyone foolish enough to fly to the moon. This is a claim that continues to be repeated by conspiracy theorists who deny the moon landings.

There were also political concerns. Civil rights activists demonstrated at the gates of the Apollo 11 launch site in 1969, arguing the money could have gone to inner-city poverty. African-American civil rights activist Malcolm

Environmental concerns

However, things are seriously heating up now. The new age of space skepticism is anti-elite at its core. This is not surprising given the widespread cost of living crisis and the fact that billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are among those most vocal about the benefits of exploring, mining and colonizing space. Musk’s decision to send a Tesla roadster into space drew criticism from many people, including scientists.

There are other concerns too. Many scientists are concerned about the increasing number of satellites and space debris blocking the sky, and about objects being sent into space that could contaminate alien worlds.

There are also concerns about the environmental impact of drawing so much attention away from our own world. In 2021, Greta Thunberg and the environmental activist group Fridays for Future published a fake ad (see below) recommending that “the 1%” move to “Mars, a pristine planet.” This was followed by the words: “For the 99% who will remain on Earth, we better solve climate change.”

The ad conveyed the feeling that the billionaire elite has no special attachment to our shared planet.

Academic scientists have also expressed their concerns. The book Dark Skies by political scientist Daniel Deudney argued for a centuries-long postponement of space ambitions. And philosopher Bruno Latour’s more populist analysis, Down to Earth, says we need to learn new ways to inhabit the Earth and focus our attention on it.

Indigenous concerns

Image of Navajo President Buu Nygren.
Navajo President Buu Nygren. wikipediaCC BY-SA

This new space-skeptical movement also strives to join the cause of indigenous peoples. In January 2024, there were protests from the Navajo Nation over the landing of human remains on the moon as part of the Peregrine mission, a place they consider sacred.

Their argument is increasingly supported by space skeptics and others. Linda Billings, a NASA consultant who is rare among space insiders for her oppositional view that space expansion is a neoliberal ideology, believes the Peregrine incident is part of a broader pattern: Most space activities benefit a few and are not a ‘benefit to humanity’. .

There is already a pattern of dissent at many launch sites, such as the European Space Agency site in New Guinea, which was subject to a blockade in 2017 by protesters concerned about wage issues, privatization and the behavior of French government in general.

In Europe, indigenous Sami reindeer herders in Sweden protested in 2021 against the launch of a balloon linked to a US-led climate manipulation project. The Esrange launch site near Kiruna is an area of ​​important resources for the Sami reindeer herders who pass through and occasionally take shelter when the launch siren goes off.

Accidents can and will happen. In April 2023, a rocket that was supposed to land in Sweden crashed in the mountains of Norway.

So far, indigenous people’s complaints remain focused on specific issues, rather than being critical of the expansion of space as such. And in general, indigenous attitudes toward space are varied and not uniformly hostile. But a growing number of problems could easily fuel broader skepticism among Indigenous communities.

However, it seems that it will be difficult to stop the expansion of space. In the Peregrine case, even a last-minute meeting at the White House could not convince NASA. The launch went ahead, but then failed due to a propellant leak and was eventually returned to Earth.

In the future, individual missions may be postponed for one reason or another, but expansion will still occur. But even if it fails at its primary goal, the spread of skepticism could still result in a deeper polarization of views on space. At some point it will almost certainly contribute to the mainstream of political dissidents.

Ultimately, an increasing minority of people view the expansion of space as an elite pastime. They also see indigenous discomfort as an indication that we can either care for the Earth or look to space – but not both. This zero-sum game that focuses on the Earth or space has a simplicity that appeals to many. But it’s a false dilemma.

Much of what we know about global warming is the result of linking research from space with research on Earth. Venus, for example, has suffered its own catastrophic climate change. And the cosmologies of many indigenous peoples paint an integrated picture of Earth and space.

We need this. A return to a less isolated view of the Earth, coupled with advances in science and technology for the good of humanity. Some people who are super rich may also get richer along the way, but this has been an uncomfortable side effect of almost all human progress, from improved health care to civil rights, cell phones, and the Internet. Harming ourselves to spite the elites is not a recipe for a better world. Expansion into space is no different, even as it offers a unique opportunity to apply lessons from Earth to find sustainable ways to explore space that are respectful of our planet and our people – as well as alien worlds.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Tony Milligan receives funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (Grant Agreement No. 856543).

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