The first human steps into outer space during the middle years of the 20th century have been among the most spectacular and potentially consequential events in the globalization of machine civilization on Earth. Over the course of what many call ‘the space age,’ thinking about space activities, space futures, and the consequences of space activities has been dominated by an elaborately developed body of ‘space expansionist’ thought that makes ambitious and captivating claims about both the feasibility and the desirability of human expansion into outer space. These views of space permeate popular culture, and at times appear to be quite influential in actual space policy. Space expansionists hold that outer space is a limitless frontier and that humans should make concerted efforts to explore and colonize and extend their military activities into space. Space expansionists claim the pursuit of their ambitious projects will have many positive, even transformative, effects upon the human situation on Earth, by escaping global closure, protecting the earth’s habitability, preserving political plurality, and enhancing species survival.
The feasibility, both technological and economic, of space expansionist projects has been extensively assessed, but arguments for their desirability have not been accorded anything approaching a systematic assessment. In part, such arguments about the desirability of space expansion are difficult to assess because they incorporate claims that are very diverse in character, including claims about the Earth (past, present, and future), about the ways in which material contexts made up of space ‘geography’ and technologies produce or heavily favor particular political outcomes, and about basic worldview assumptions regarding nature, science, technology, and life.
By breaking these space expansionist arguments down into their parts, and systematically assessing their plausibility, a very different picture of the space prospect emerges. There are strong reasons to think that the consequences of the human pursuit of space expansion have been and could be very undesirable, even catastrophic. The actual militarization of the core space technology (the rocket) and the construction of a planetary-scope ‘delivery’ and support system for nuclear war-fighting has been the most important consequence of actual space activities, and much of actually existing ‘nuclear arms control’ has centered on restraining and dismantling such space weapons. Looking ahead, the creation of large orbital infrastructures will either presuppose or produce world government, potentially of a very hierarchical sort. Space colonies are more likely to be micro-totalitarian than free. And extensive human movement off the planet could in a variety of ways increase the vulnerability of life on Earth, and even jeopardize the survival of the human species.
Much of space expansionist (and popular) thinking about space and the consequences of humans space activities has been marked by basic errors in practical geography. Most notably there is the widespread failure to realize that the expansion of human activities into Earth orbital space has enhanced global closure, because the effective distances in Earth’s space make it very small. The formidable natural barriers to human space activity is inaccurately labeled a ‘frontier.’ Also, arguably the most important practical discovery of the ‘space age’ has been an improved understanding of the Earth. These lines of thinking also suggest the outlines of a more modest and Earth-centered Space program appropriate the current Earth age.
Daniel H. Deudney is associate professor of political science, Johns Hopkins University.
He holds a BA in political science and philosophy from Yale University, a MPA in science, technology, and public policy from the George Washington University, and a PhD in political science from Princeton University. During the late 1970s he served as senior legislative assistant for energy and environment, and legislative director, to Senator John Durkin (D-NH). During the early 1980s he was a Senior Researcher at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington D.C. His areas of research are general International Relations theory, international political theory, and contemporary global issues (nuclear, outer space, environment, and energy). His publications include RENEWABLE ENERGY (Norton, 1983), co-author; and CONTESTED GROUNDS: Conflict and Security in the New Global Environmental Politics (SUNY, 1998), co-editor. His most recent book is BOUNDING POWER: Republican Security Theory from the Polis to the Global Village (Princeton University Press, 2007), which was co-winner of the Jervis-Schroeder Prize for the best book in international politics and history by the American Political Science Association, and was co-winner of the Book of the Decade award from the International Studies Association. His current book project is EARTH & SPACE: Space Expansionism, Geopolitics, and Earth Keeping. In over twenty years of teaching he has received four major teaching awards, most recently the Alumni Distinguished Teaching Award at Johns Hopkins University.
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