The colonisation of space
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From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.
From the moment that space exploration became possible, astronauts have reported experiencing sensations of awe and connectedness, as they gaze back at Earth.
This phenomenon is known as “The Overview Effect”.
But as the private space industry grows, romantic ideas about space and our place in it have been obscured by the reality of its corporatisation.
Today, writer for The Monthly Ceridwen Dovey on the space industry entrepreneurs, and why we should be worried about what they’re planning.
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So Ceridwen, a really important term in the way that we think about space exploration is “The Overview Effect”. Can you tell me what that term “The Overview Effect” refers to and where it comes from?
Yeah, The Overview Effect is a very beautiful idea.
There was a researcher in the 80s called Frank White, who was really interested in what the American astronauts had experienced when they were up in space and whether they had had any kind of shift in spiritual awareness or consciousness when they were up there floating and gazing back at Earth and getting those, you know, incredible sense of the overview of the whole planet.
Archival tape -- Edgar Mitchell:
“It’s this notion of wonder and awe at seeing the universe and seeing life on earth from that point of view.”
There was something very beautiful about what some of them said, which is that, you know, they did have a feeling of transcendence.
Archival tape -- Sandy Magnus:
“It’s incredible how it hits you, that experience of seeing the atmosphere as this, no kidding, paper thin layer of air that protects us and keeps us safe...”
And, you know, when they look back at Earth, they didn't see a patchwork of national interests and borders the way that we experience it when we're living it.
Archival tape -- Chris Hadfield:
“You start to see the world as what it actually is: it’s one place. And I think we collectively are more liable to make good decisions for ourselves and for where we live the more clearly we can see the whole thing as one place.”
They kind of grasped at that notion of Gaia and the planetary system that's connected and interconnection of all things.
Archival tape -- Nicole Stott:
“I was like, holy moley, there is not a single thing on earth that’s alive or not alive that isn’t connected in some way and dependent on everything else.”
Archival tape -- Bob Kaple:
“So it's causing us to look in awe and amazement at the immensity of the universe.”
But I think what happened is that the idea then got a little bit co-opted or has in recent times as space has been privatised, and it's now become a kind of moral justification for anything that's done in space.
My problem with the term is that I feel it's increasingly being used to justify profit-making in space. And that's when I start to feel that the term is perhaps not serving the purposes it was designed to serve.
Let's talk about profit making in space. What do we know about the companies who are investing in space exploration at the moment? And how are they using this concept to frame their ambitions?
Well, you know, the privatisation of space has happened so quickly and it's sort of happened right in front of our eyes, but I find many people that I speak to have no idea that it's happening. And to give you a sense, you know, it used to be that about a third of things happening in space were military, a third were national governments, and a third were commercial activities. And for the first time this year, that commercial chunk has overtaken the others.
Archival tape -- Unidentified Woman #1:
“Commercial space is the big focus for the future of this company and the space economy continues.”
And there's many views on this. Some people think this is a wonderful thing, that this is a new economic frontier and a frontier economy, and that there's nothing more exciting than the idea of mining space resources and space minerals. But I'm horrified by this idea.
And I have started to really look quite critically at the mainstream companies that are starting to want to use it as a playground for their own business plans.
Archival tape -- Unidentified News Reporter:
“Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is selling tickets to space and says demand is sky high. The cost of going weightless? A quarter of a million dollars.”
So there's all the usual culprits, you know, there all the time in the media: SpaceX and Amazon's got Blue Origin and then Richard Branson's got Virgin Galactic.
Archival tape -- Richard Branson:
“Together we can make space accessible in a way that has only been dreamt of before now. And by doing that we can truly bring positive change to life on Earth.”
And so, meanwhile, he's busy recruiting the super wealthy on Earth to put down their deposit to get the first ultimate privilege of being the first tourist in space.
Archival tape -- Richard Branson:
“And here we are on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange launching the first spaceship company and the resources we get from this are going to enable us to do wondrous things.”
Once you start noticing this term being used in every single article, they're usually quite breathless, these articles. They're very excited about these space futures. And you'll notice that in almost every one, the overview effect is brought into it and never critically, never without any kind of background context to understand the strategic aims that these space industrialists might have for saying that what they're doing out there is is deserving of awe and wonder and actually using them in ways that I feel are very sinister.
Hmm. Yeah. What do you think is going on here? Do you think it's that it's a convenient term that's enabled them to be able to talk about what they do in these, you know, in these very benevolent ways? Do you think it sort of acts as a bit of a smokescreen for their purposes?
Yes, I think the hypocrisy that really gets to me is that they're at the same time as they're building space empires for profit, they are using this strange sort of smoke and mirrors tactic of saying, we're doing this for all of you. You know, we're going to build an interplanetary civilisation. And you can thank us for that. You know, are we going to save you all. And this is nothing new. If you look at Silicon Valley, I mean, it's the same kind of utopian tech speak which we used to kind of not think of very critically.
But I think in the wake of everything that we now know about the ways in which big tech literally can change the world for negative ways, I'm just surprised that people seem to take off their critical thinking cap whenever it comes to space, even though we know what these companies have done on Earth.
We’ll be back in a moment.
Ceridwen, we're talking about the space companies who are looking to profit from space exploration, and there are those who are promising to send people into space, but there are also others that have seen a different opportunity and that’s surveillance. Can you tell me about that?
Yeah, I mean, this is the irony, right, is that the overview effect encourages us to think about all the lovely things we can see from space and to have a warm and fuzzy moment. But of course, the reality is that, you know, since we've had satellite technologies and since we've been able to put artificial eyes in the sky, generally they've been used for not great things.
But I think the step change, again, that we're sort of on the brink of is that we are developing the technologies to basically export surveillance capitalism into space. It's already pretty much there. And so much of what's in space is classified because it's already a militarised zone.
But a company, you know, like World View Enterprises, for example, which is a US company, and they've developed something called a Stratellite.
Archival tape -- World View Enterprises Advertisement:
“We deploy state of the art lighter-than-air Stratellite, vehicles with sensors and navigation hardware attached to giant balloons into the stratosphere.”
And this is going to have such incredible visual data and such accurate visual data that it will be able to tell if someone on the ground is holding a gun or a shovel, which is such a chilling image to me.
Archival tape -- World View Enterprises Advertisement:
“Stratellites operate in the stratosphere at lower altitudes than stallelights, navigating using winds at different elevations and offer persistent observations of areas of interest for months at a time.”
And, you know, I was looking at who are the first customers that they've got lined up. And of course, it's the US Department of Defence and it's gas and oil companies who are, of course, desperate to extend and find further savings that they can extend their business models on. So, that's the dystopian underbelly that I talk about of the overview effect that, you know, if we want to be have the power to be able to look back at Earth, we need to be really careful about who's doing the looking and then what they're going to use that visual data for.
Mmm. OK and so do you think that, here in Australia, we are engaging enough with these problems? Are we thinking critically enough about the way that the commercialisation of space could play out, and what the consequences could be?
I mean, our own space agency, the Australian Space Agency, we've only had it for a couple years. And instead of building on an incredible history of space diplomacy, which Australia has, really working hard on all the UN treaties over many, many decades and to keep space a peaceful zone, we have basically said that our only goal is to triple the local space industry.
If we continue down this path, we will essentially have rivalrous claims made both in the orbits around Earth in terms of who's getting to put what where, and then particularly on the moon. Now that there's such a focus on getting back to the moon, mining the moon, creating bases on the moon. I'm just really worried that once you've allowed people to make a claim to make profit from that sort of activity, which the US has done, which is very controversial because it's actually illegal, many people believe, according to International Space Law, where you're not meant to own space resources. But the US has given its own citizens the right to mine and own and sell space resources.
And we, I think, have maybe assumed that these things are all very far off from happening. But in fact, we are on the precipice of this huge change. And once these things have happened, once the moon started to be mined for profits, once private companies like SpaceX have started putting tens of thousands of Starlink satellites into very low orbit around the Earth, and many other companies will follow, we will have reached a point of no return and will be very hard to roll that back.
It's all happening, but it's all happening in such a way that no one is really picking up the loose threads. And I have wondered, you know, if again, in a few decades there'll be some sort of Panama Papers type massive scale investigation of corruption in these space industries because they just seem so perfect and ripe to be corrupted. It's like the perfect storm of an unregulated frontier economy that's being allowed to do whatever it wants
Mmm. Ok and so Ceridwen, if we leave aside the overview effect, and the way it has allowed us to see space exploration as inherently benevolent, are there other ways that you think we should be conceptualising our role in space?
I would love for us to learn from all the mistakes that we've made on Earth in terms of the human centric approach to the natural world. And I would really love for us to even be asking the first principle questions like, not all humans believe we should explore space or that we have any kind of moral right to do that. It's, again, just an assumption that, of course we’re going to go out there.
And it's the same kind of manifest destiny madness that took Americans across their whole country devastating communities as they went and environments thinking that this was their God-given right.
Whenever I have conversations with people about this stuff, I mean, they look at me a bit weird at the beginning. But when we actually get into it and people realise that we're on the brink of letting companies mine the moon for profit and not for science, but to make money, something changes in their eyes. And it's horrifying, I think, to most of us. But have we been asked? You know, who asked us as Australian citizens if that's what we wanted from our space agency, to triple a local industry and say more and more stuff up into space for profit?
Like it's just a lot of this comes back to awareness and understanding what's happening. And of course, because private companies are not as accountable as governments, they can do it under cover of night, quite literally, you know, stealth operating, very little reporting about their practises such that suddenly they can surprise us by starting to launch satellite constellations like SpaceX did in 2019, completely shocking the whole world, including professional astronomers whose science has now been really terribly affected by what they're doing.
So, yes, vigilance, I think, and independent, you know, ways of holding these companies accountable. We've gotten very sophisticated, I think, in how we think about Earth environments and how we protect them and what we've done wrong. And it would be great to take that same wisdom with us out into space.
Ceridwen, thank you so much for your time today.
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Also in the news today...
The first vials of the Pfizer vaccine for Covid-19 have arrived in Australia ahead of the national rollout.
Frontline health and quarantine workers and those in aged care will begin to receive the vaccine from next Monday.
The government expects 60,000 doses to be rolled out by the end of the month.
And Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews says the state is in a good position to open back up on Thursday, but hasn’t ruled out a longer lockdown.
Victoria recorded one new local coronavirus case yesterday, the mother of a three-year-old who previously tested positive.
I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.
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The early era of space exploration was dominated by romantic ideas of universal connectedness. But the increasingly privatised nature of the space industry has obscured that vision. Today, Ceridwen Dovey on the new space industry entrepreneurs, and why we should be worried about what they’re planning.
Guest: Writer for The Monthly Ceridwen Dovey.
Background reading: Pale blue dot in The Monthly
7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, Michelle Macklem, and Cinnamon Nippard.
Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.
Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.
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