Outside of earth It will amaze you: On nearly every page, you’ll drop your jaw in response to mind-blowing revelations and nod your head vigorously at the sudden recognition of some of your own unrealized ideas (assuming you’re thinking about things like space leveling). It will also make you shake your head sadly at the many daunting challenges that author Erika Nesvold describes.
But surprise will win. Extraterrestrials: Questions and Ethical Dilemmas of Living in Outer Space It is really really good.
Deficiencies in STEM education
Nesvold is an astrophysicist. I worked at NASA. She can easily run equations to calculate how much fuel we need to get people, life support, and mining equipment to Mars.
But at some point, I realized that was the easy part. Her extensive education did not train her to do what she was truly interested in: building a just, equitable, sustainable, and enduring human society in space. So I began interviewing ethicists, historians, philosophers, anthropologists, lawyers, economists, and policy experts, and collected their insights on the podcast. Create new worlds. This book is an extension of many of the ideas that were initially explored there.
The chapter titles, all of which are questions, give a good indication of the issues they highlight in the book. Should we even level space? Why? Who will go? How will property rights be distributed and limited resources allocated? Do we need to protect the environment in space? How will we do that? What happens when someone breaks the rules or needs medical attention? What if this person is the only one who can fix the water purifier? Behind all these questions, which have yet to be answered by any public or private institution that is currently launching missiles into the air: Who decides?
Many of these issues have been dealt with, broadly speaking, in fiction. But Nesfolt does not really mention these acts except to warn of the dangers of taking them as prophetic.
Lessons from history do not bode well
Each chapter begins with three fictional vignettes, set in the past, relative present, and future—in the year 2100, in a space settlement that has only recently been established but is already in existence. All three are about different people leaving their homes; What types of people leave, their motivations, and the circumstances surrounding their decisions. Its goal is to remind us that settling in space is not just an endeavour for the human race as a whole. Rather, it will involve and affect the many individuals who make up this whole. It is a more effective conception than it seems it should be, and her narrative skills in connecting it belie her lack of a humanities education, which she bemoans.
The most common metaphors in thinking and talking about settling in space revolve around the colonization of the New World by Europeans and the fate-driven expansion of these colonists to the frontiers of the Wild West. This view depicts space as a blank, blank slate waiting only for civilized people to build a utopia within it. One problem with this framing is that the analogy may be more persuasive to Americans who are currently advocating stability in space. For those who weren’t raised on this mythology, it’s probably a lot less so. Another issue is that the outcome of these precedents is not encouraging at all.
Nesvold demonstrates many ways in which space settlement can repeat the mistakes of colonization, labor exploitation among them. The financiers who financed and profited from colonial enterprises were often not usually the workers who went to the new lands to build the colony and its infrastructure (except when they were; that’s what happened in Jamestown). In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the indentured servants who landed on the shores of America actually traded their unpaid labor upon arrival for the cost of their passage. These vulnerable workers, far from home in a difficult new environment, were at the mercy of their employers.
In 2020, Elon Musk suggested that people who want to go to Mars with SpaceX but can’t afford it can take out loans to cover a $200,000 fare and work on it once they get there. What happens, Nesvolt wonders, if their working conditions are so terrible? What’s to stop their employer—who controls their oxygen supply, remember—from holding them hostage until after they’ve paid off their debt? they cannot walk and try to defend themselves; There would be no living on Earth, or off the grid, in space.
But Nesvolt is not pessimistic. She points out that if we don’t want to bring war, inequality, exploitation, resource depletion, and injustice with us when we finally settle in space, all we have to do is eradicate those things on Earth first. And we must do so now, not once all the technical challenges have been solved and we are ready to leave the planet. If we want a civilization worthy of being exported into space, we must create it here.
“Certified music scholar. Freelance analyst. Social mediaholic. Hipster-friendly web nerd. Zombie buff.”