One giant leap, for who?
SpaceX's next-generation Starship spacecraft atop its powerful Super Heavy rocket lifts off from the company's Boca Chica launchpad on an uncrewed test flight before exploding, near Brownsville, Texas, U.S. April 20, 2023. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
Like the colonial conquests of the past, in today’s space race, indigenous people are losing their land and identities
Peter Howson is an assistant professor in International Development at the Northumbria University, Newcastle
Colonialism has always involved boldly going to pinch other people’s stuff. Sure, infrastructure gets built in the new colonies. Building railways and ports has always been essential for Britain’s pillaging efforts. Apologists for empire like to claim that the British brought democracy, the rule of law and trains to those under her tutelage. But those trains, were sold in places like India to take trillions of dollars-worth of silk, spices, tea, opium, and cotton.
While the benefits of burgling the colonies was obvious for the British, the benefits of colonising Mars or the moon are less obvious. There’s no tea or spices. No air. Colonising the red planet will involve taking along everything the colonists will eat, drink, and breathe. To avoid freezing to death, nuclear generators will need to be packed. Solar panels don’t work very well. There’s not much sun on Mars. There’s no opportunity for wind power because there’s hardly any atmosphere. If the toxic dust covering the Martian surface doesn’t choke the colonists to death, depression and bodily degeneration will probably finish them off. The gravitational pull of Mars is a third of Earth’s. We know that the bone density, vision, and minds of astronauts after a few months of weightlessness on the International Space Station (or ISS) are often impaired, sometimes permanently.
Despite all the risks, another crew of paying customers took off with fireworks and fanfare in a SpaceX rocket bound for the ISS this week. It was the company’s second all-private mission to the ISS “dedicated to expanding access to low earth orbit for all.” For all who can afford it, that is. A single seat on the Falcon-9 rocket and an 8-day stay on the ISS would reportedly set you back $82 million. Yet, while the richest on earth adventure into the unknown, the bill for humanity’s celestial expansion is mostly being charged to those left behind.
Last month, the launch of SpaceX’s super-heavy “Starship” rocket ended in the wrong kind of fireworks. Just 4 minutes after lift-off, the vehicle self-destructed. Clouds of kerosene fuel and hydraulic fluid rained down on people’s homes in Port Isabel about six miles from the South Texas launch site. Debris broke windows. Toxic particulates and wreckage were scattered over 385 acres of parkland causing fires that burned across the Boca Chica State Park, home to endangered birds and ocelot.
Indigenous Carrizo Comecrudo residents of South Texas claim they hadn’t ever been consulted on the space-faring operations. “We never gave our consent,” said one of the tribe’s representatives at a protest in April. “Yet [SpaceX] are moving forward. It’s colonial genocide of native people and native lands.” Bekah Hinojosa of the environmental group Another Gulf Is Possible claims that environmental deregulation, tax breaks and subsidies have been used by the State government to lure SpaceX in.
Meanwhile local indigenous communities, who rely on Boca Chica’s fish to feed their families, feel their land has been offered up as a testing ground. Weeks before the Starship launch, Hinojosa’s home was raided by Texas police. She was arrested after being accused of writing ‘Stop SpaceX’ on a wall in downtown Brownsville.
Rocket launch sites are causing headaches for indigenous people globally. According to Permata Adinda, a journalist for Project Multatuli, Indonesia’s plan to furnish Elon Musk with a new spaceport on the island of Biak, West Papua, is fermenting anger among indigenous Warbon people. The proposed development is reigniting ethnic tensions and military violence. Indonesia’s plans to build a Biak spaceport date back to the 1980s.
Back then, those who refused to give up their customary lands to the Indonesian National Institute of Aeronautics and Space (LAPAN), meant being branded a member of the Free Papua Movement (OPM). These suspected terrorists were rounded up and arrested, or worse. In 1998, somewhere between 40 and 150 Papuans protesting land grabs were killed by the Indonesian military in what became known as Biak Berdarah, or the Bloody Biak massacre. For the Warbon people, losing their customary land is akin to losing their identity. But some believe the Biak spaceport deal is just a sweetener for Musk to build a new Tesla factory somewhere else in the country. The electric vehicle maker has so far signed contracts worth around $5bn for Indonesia’s nickel and other materials for the company’s car batteries.
In the UK, construction of another spaceport has kicked off this month in the remote Scottish town of Sutherland. As well as the impact rocket launches are likely to have on the areas golden eagles, according to the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) new infrastructure and increasing numbers of visitors will also make a mess in one the UK’s last true wildernesses.
By definition, space is devoid of culture, food, or nightlife. I would never want to go there. But elite fantasies of going where few have gone before, are impacting the lives of vulnerable people and wildlife on Earth in profound ways. Mars is (probably) devoid of any intelligent life, or anything else for that matter. Yet, the contemporary space race may prove just as unjust as past colonial conquests. We can discover new worlds, but let’s not destroy our own in the process.
Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
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