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The Humanization of the Cosmos—To What End?

Peter Dickens (p.dickens1 [at] teaches at the Universities of Brighton and Cambridge, UK. His most recent book, co-written with James Ormrod, is Cosmic Society: Towards a Sociology of the Universe (2009). The interactive website linked to this book and intended to stimulate debate over the humanization of the cosmos is The Sociology of the Universe.

Society is increasingly humanizing the cosmos. Satellites have for some time been central to the flow of information, to surveillance, and to the conduct of warfare. As these examples suggest, however, the humanization of the cosmos is primarily benefiting the powerful. These include major economic and military institutions. Furthermore, the forthcoming commodification and colonization of the cosmos is again likely to enhance the interests of the powerful, the major aerospace companies in particular. The time has come to consider alternative forms of cosmic humanization. These would enhance the prospects of the socially marginalized. They would also allow humanity to develop a better understanding of the cosmos and our relationship to it.1

Humanizing Outer Space

The 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing is often seen as the high point of society’s relationship with outer space. Nothing quite so dramatic or exotic seems to have happened in outer space since. But nearby, parts of the solar system (including the moon, some asteroids, and Mars) are now being routinely circled and explored and analyzed by robots. Furthermore, President Obama has recently made important announcements regarding a new U.S. space program that involves manned missions to Mars by the mid-2030s.

But the NASA-based Constellation program to the moon and Mars has been cancelled. Instead, NASA will undertake a long-term research and development program aimed at supporting future forms of propulsion and exploration programs. Even more significant in the short-term is a proposed $25 billion being allocated to NASA to kick-start commercial manned spaceflight over the next five years. New forms of transport to the International Space Station will be funded, this time using innovative forms of “space taxis” designed by private sector space companies.2 These plans entail new relations between the private and public sectors in the United States.

Meanwhile, a presence in outer space is being developed by other societies. This is partly because such a presence is seen as an important symbol of modernization, progress, and social unity. The Indian government has announced a manned mission to the moon in 2013, the European Space Agency envisages projects to the moon and beyond, and the Chinese government is planning a similar project for 2020. This last development has caused some consternation over Obama’s plans. One suggestion is that the United States may after all be the next to send manned missions to the moon, because China’s space project is seen by some as a military threat that needs forestalling.3

Yet among these plans and proposals, it is easy to forget that outer space is already being increasingly humanized. It has now been made an integral part of the way global capitalist society is organized and extended. Satellites, for example, are extremely important elements of contemporary communications systems. These have enabled an increasing number of people to become part of the labor market. Teleworking is the best known example. Satellite-based communications have also facilitated new forms of consumption such as teleshopping. Without satellite-based communications, the global economy in its present form would grind to a halt.

Satellites have also been made central to modern warfare. Combined with pilotless Predator drones, they are now being used to observe and attack Taliban and Al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan and elsewhere. This action is done by remote control from Creech Air Force Base at Indian Springs, Nevada. The 1980s Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars” program, aimed to intercept incoming missiles while facilitating devastating attacks on supposed enemies. A version of the program is still being developed, with the citizens of the Czech Republic and Poland now under pressure to accept parts of a U.S.-designed “missile defense shield.” This is part of a wider strategy of “Full Spectrum Dominance,” which has for some time been official U.S. Defense Policy.4 Using surveillance and military equipment located in outer space is now seen as the prime means of protecting U.S. economic and military assets both on Earth and in outer space.

Less dangerously, but still very expensively, a full-scale space-tourism industry has for some time been under active development. Dennis Tito, a multi-millionaire, made the first tourist trip into outer space in 2001. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has now sold over three hundred seats at $200,000 apiece to its first tourists in outer space. The program is due to start in 2011, with spaceports for this novel form of travel now being built in Alaska, California, Florida, New Mexico, Virginia, Wisconsin, the United Arab Emirates, and Esrange in Sweden. Excursions circling the moon, likely to cost the galactic visitors around $100,000,000, are now under development.

Since the Renaissance period of the sixteenth century, the word “humanization” has been used to connote something beneficial, especially to human beings. As we will now see, humanizing the cosmos is regarded in just these terms by some influential proponents of space travel and space colonization.

The Space Renaissance Initiative

One response to cosmic humanization is to welcome it as an early stage of a wholly beneficial cosmic human society, one eventually encompassing the solar system and beyond. Such is the view of the Space Renaissance Initiative, an international group of over seventy private organizations now promoting the expansion of society into the cosmos. The aims and ideals of the Space Renaissance are made clear by the Initiative’s manifesto published in 2010. It reads:

Help the Space Economy Revolution!

The global economy is entering a deep crisis, the worst since 1929. This is the second act of the “Crisis of Closed-World Ideologies”, which has been developing throughout the 20th century. In 1989 the fall of the Berlin wall was the Crisis of Collectivist Ideology. The recent massive failure of the financial system is the Crisis of Neo-Liberal Ideology. Both these ideologies failed because they are based upon a closed-world, terro-centric philosophy. There are now almost 7 billion humans making massive demands on planet Earth: we urgently need to open the frontier, and move to a wider vision of our world, so as to access geo-lunar system resources and energy. In short we need a new “Open World Philosophy”. The alternative would be the implosion and collapse of our civilization.5

In short, the Space Renaissance Initiative argues, society is undergoing massive social, environmental, and population crises because it is thinking too small. The energy of the sun can, for example, be made into a source of clean power from outer space, which would solve society’s energy shortages at a stroke. The Initiative argues that opening up the cosmos to humanity—colonizing the solar system, and opening up resources in the moon, Mars, and the asteroids—could be central to social and environmental salvation. The progress made by the private sector in developing technologies and efficiencies for space tourism means that commercial enterprise can now start planning to venture still further afield.

The philosophical roots of the Space Initiative are no less than the sixteenth-century Italian Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

With the enlightened patronage of such families as the Medicis, an unprecedented new age of development took place: arts knew a wonderful age of innovation, culture took on some essential principles of classical Greek philosophy, and modern science was born, with men like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and later Copernicus and Galileo leading the way. This movement led to the Age of Enlightenment and its most famous offspring: the American and French Revolutions.

The manifesto also praises the writings of Descartes, Voltaire, and Jefferson. The belief of these philosophers in the enterprising individual, in freedom, in liberty, and in reason all mean that political power should be vested in the common person and not in states, kings, and nobility. The Space Renaissance Initiative believes in these concepts, seeing them as the basis of a new, progressive, liberating, humanization of the cosmos.

But there are surely major problems here. For example, any claim that the Medici family (and similar families such as the Borgias) helped overthrow feudalism is far-fetched. The Medicis were bankers and merchants who made their money at the center of an emerging global mercantilist capitalism, one based in Northern Italy. They used this money to enhance their position within their feudal societies. Members of the Medicis even made themselves into popes, thus further enhancing their wealth and that of their many illegitimate offspring. Another of the Medicis was made the Queen of France. The language used by intellectual elites of the day was Latin. This appealed to scholars across Europe but not to the great mass of individuals living in Florence, Milan, or Venice.6

The Medicis and individuals such as Leonardo are often celebrated as examples of “The Renaissance Universal Man,” one capable of spanning every kind of human practice such as art, music, and politics. This “Man” is perhaps best symbolized by Leonardo’s famous image of a male human being, stretched over the circle of the cosmos, his head in the heavens and his bowels located in earthly regions. But this Renaissance Man—or Woman—can also be seen as prefiguring the self-centered, narcissistic individualism of our own day, one seeing the whole of the cosmos at his or her command. This kind of modern human identity has since been enhanced by consumer-based capitalism and, given the problems it creates both for ourselves and our environment, there seems rather little reason to celebrate or restore it.

The general point is that the vision of the Space Renaissance Initiative, with its prime focus on the power of the supposedly autonomous and inventive individual, systematically omits questions of social, economic, and military power. Similarly, the Initiative’s focus on the apparently universal benefits of space humanization ignores some obvious questions. What will ploughing large amounts of capital into outer space colonization really do for stopping the exploitation of people and resources back here on earth? The “solution” seems to be simultaneously exacerbating social problems while jetting away from them. Consumer-led industrial capitalism necessarily creates huge social divisions and increasing degradation of the environment. Why should a galactic capitalism do otherwise? The Space Renaissance Initiative argues that space-humanization is necessarily a good thing for the environment by introducing new space-based technologies such as massive arrays of solar panels. But such “solutions” are again imaginary. Cheap electricity is most likely to increase levels of production and consumption back on earth. Environmental degradation will be exacerbated rather than diminished by this technological fix.

A simplistic and idealistic view of history, technology, and human agency therefore underpins the starting point of the Space Renaissance Initiative. Humanization in this shape—one now finding favor in official government circles—raises all kinds of highly problematic issues for society and the environment. What would an alternative, more critical, perspective on humanizing the cosmos tell us?

The Cosmos: Capitalism’s New “Outside”

Instead of indulging in over-optimistic and fantastic visions, we should take a longer, harder, and more critical look at what is happening and what is likely to happen. We can then begin taking a more measured view of space humanization, and start developing more progressive alternatives.

At this point, we must return to the deeper, underlying processes which are at the heart of the capitalist economy and society, and which are generating this demand for expansion into outer space. Although the humanization of the cosmos is clearly a new and exotic development, the social relationships and mechanisms underlying space-humanization are very familiar.

In the early twentieth century, Rosa Luxemburg argued that an “outside” to capitalism is important for two main reasons. First, it is needed as a means of creating massive numbers of new customers who would buy the goods made in the capitalist countries.7 As outlined earlier, space technology has extended and deepened this process, allowing an increasing number of people to become integral to the further expansion of global capitalism. Luxemburg’s second reason for imperial expansion is the search for cheap supplies of labor and raw materials. Clearly, space fiction fantasies about aliens aside, expansion into the cosmos offers no benefits to capital in the form of fresh sources of labor power.8 But expansion into the cosmos does offer prospects for exploiting new materials such as those in asteroids, the moon, and perhaps other cosmic entities such as Mars. Neil Smith’s characterization of capital’s relations to nature is useful at this point.

The reproduction of material life is wholly dependent on the production and reproduction of surplus value. To this end, capital stalks the Earth in search of material resources; nature becomes a universal means of production in the sense that it not only provides the subjects, objects and instruments of production, but is also in its totality an appendage to the production process…no part of the Earth’s surface, the atmosphere, the oceans, the geological substratum or the biological superstratum are immune from transformation by capital.9

Capital is now also “stalking” outer space in the search for new resources and raw materials. Nature on a cosmic scale now seems likely to be incorporated into production processes, these being located mainly on earth.

Since Luxemburg wrote, an increasing number of political economists have argued that the importance of a capitalist “outside” is not so much that of creating a new pool of customers or of finding new resources.10 Rather, an outside is needed as a zone into which surplus capital can be invested. Economic and social crisis stems less from the problem of finding new consumers, and more from that of finding, making, and exploiting zones of profitability for surplus capital. Developing “outsides” in this way is also a product of recurring crises, particularly those of declining economic profitability. These crises are followed by attempted “fixes” in distinct geographic regions. The word “fix” is used here both literally and figuratively. On the one hand, capital is being physically invested in new regions. On the other hand, the attempt is to fix capitalism’s crises. Regarding the latter, however, there are, of course, no absolute guarantees that such fixes will really correct an essentially unstable social and economic system. At best, they are short-term solutions.

The kind of theory mentioned above also has clear implications for the humanization of the cosmos. Projects for the colonization of outer space should be seen as the attempt to make new types of “spatial fix,” again in response to economic, social, and environmental crises on earth. Outer space will be “globalized,” i.e., appended to Earth, with new parts of the cosmos being invested in by competing nations and companies. Military power will inevitably be made an integral part of this process, governments protecting the zones for which they are responsible.

Some influential commentators argue that the current problem for capitalism is that there is now no “outside.”11 Capitalism is everywhere. Similarly, resistance to capitalism is either everywhere or nowhere. But, as suggested above, the humanization of the cosmos seriously questions these assertions. New “spatial fixes” are due to be opened up in the cosmos, capitalism’s emergent outside. At first, these will include artificial fixes such as satellites, space stations, and space hotels. But during the next twenty years or so, existing outsides, such as the moon and Mars, will begin attracting investments. The stage would then be set for wars in outer space between nations and companies attempting to make their own cosmic “fixes.”

Crisis, Outer Space, and the Restructuring of Capital: Some Evidence

What evidence is there that economic, social, and environmental crises lie behind the growing humanization of the cosmos? One indication is that, between 2004 and 2009, the global space economy (this including commercial satellites, military hardware, space tourism infrastructure costs, and launch services) increased by 40 percent.12 So, while the global economic crisis starting in 2008 has been grabbing the headlines, the sectors involved in the outer space economy have experienced very rapid growth. In 2009 space industry and government budgets involved in outer space rose by 7 percent to $261.61 billion. A 2010 survey of the global outer space economy puts this as follows: “amidst a widespread international economic crisis, the space industry proved resilient, demonstrating growth and expansion into 2010. While several other leading industries suffered dramatically, and many governments struggled to remain fiscally viable, the space industry defied the upheaval and broadened its fields of endeavour.”13

All this suggests not just that the outer space economy is doing well while other sectors are doing less well, but that growing investment in the solar system is a response to global economic crisis. Again, this growth of the private space economy underlines the significance of President Obama’s shift toward private sector “solutions” to space humanization. The private sector has long argued that, in terms of creating technological innovation and reducing costs, it is superior to NASA and other government agencies. Now—and, it should be noted, with extensive earlier financial backing from NASA—it is advancing itself as capable of taking over large parts of the space program.

But, at the same time, restructuring within the space industry is following some very familiar lines. Close links and mergers are taking place between large monopolistic companies and the smaller enterprises celebrated by the Space Renaissance Initiative. For example, Northrop-Grumman, one of the leading U.S. defense manufacturers, has recently bought Scaled Composites, the latter having pioneered lightweight materials used for space tourism vehicles. Northrop-Grumman has for many years designed and constructed satellite-guided drones used in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. This merger raises the prospect of skills and technologies originally designed to take wealthy people into outer space being developed to observe and eliminate warlords—and others—back on earth.

Space-X is another relatively small space tourism company. It was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, a cofounder of PayPal. But this small enterprise is now rapidly growing as a result of a number of contracts from the American Airforce. Launch services provided to the USAF by Space-X are resulting in contracts worth up to $1 billion. Other links, this time between big and small capital, are also developing. Bob Bigelow, for example, has long been an important but small-scale contender in the outer space tourism business. His proposals have included hotels on the moon and in other parts of outer space. He has already constructed 1:3-scale working models of these projects. Now, his company is in close partnership with Boeing, the exceptionally large aerospace company. Together, they will supply the space taxis outlined by President Obama. They will take astronauts and scientists to the International Space Station. Bigelow declares himself very enthusiastic as “part of the Boeing team”: “We’re very excited about this program and the Boeing partnership in general. Boeing brings with it unparalleled experience and expertise in human spaceflight systems, which will be combined with Bigelow’s Aerospace’s entrepreneurial spirit and cost conscious practices.”14

But another, more downbeat, assessment is that the individualistic, entrepreneurial spirit endorsed by the Space Renaissance Initiative is, in practice, being co-opted into the military-industrial complex.

Space Law: Making the Survival of Humankind Profitable

Given the increased emphasis on the commercialization of outer space, it comes as no surprise to find the question of private property in outer space opened up for debate. If capital is to undertake a space program and commodify nearby parts of the solar system, it needs reassurance that its investments will be protected by law.

The issue is now being highlighted by an argument over the geostationary orbit (GEO). This is the 30 km-wide strip 35,786 km above the equator, one in which satellites can orbit at the same speed as the ground below them. With only three satellites in the GEO, a media conglomerate, a communications company, or a government surveillance agency can cover the whole world. No wonder it has been called “space’s most valuable real estate.”15 This raises the urgent question, one still not adequately resolved, of who actually owns this area of outer space. Is it owned by the equatorial countries such as Colombia, Indonesia, and Kenya under this strip? Or is it jointly owned and managed by all states?

The debate over the GEO is a microcosm of that concerning outer space as a whole. The present position is one in which the moon and other celestial bodies cannot be legally owned. Under Article II of the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty, the whole of outer space “is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”16 It seems clear that the intention here was to prevent ownership and commodification of outer space. But this is now being challenged. Mirroring the perspective of the Space Renaissance Initiative, lawyers promoting the extension of the private sector into outer space argue that the framers of the UN Outer Space Treaty “were deliberately ambiguous about private property as opposed to nationally owned property.”17

“Besides helping to ensure the survival of mankind,” these lawyers argue, “the settling of space—including the establishment of permanent settlements on the Moon and Mars—will bring incalculable economic and social benefits to all nations.”18 Sufficient profits must be guaranteed, and this can only be done by ensuring property rights in space. Future outer space treaties should, according to one group of space lawyers, allow private ownership of a circle of land about 437 miles around an initial base. This means the reward for ensuring the future of humankind would be about six hundred thousand square miles of cosmic real estate, approximately the size of Alaska.

Galactic Colonialism, Risk, and War

But even if it were desirable, the success of a galactic colonialism is by no means guaranteed. This is because the very venture of space colonization brings new risks. The fifteenth-century Renaissance and the Enlightenment placed great faith in science as a means of bringing “progress.” Now such progress is regularly challenged. Furthermore, much scientific intervention today stems from the crises stemming from earlier intervention, or what some social scientists have called “manufactured risk.”19 This kind of risk, for which no one agency or individual is usually culpable, is readily recognizable in space-humanization progress.

Note, for example, that there are now around fourteen thousand tracked objects circling around the earth, known as “space debris” or “space junk.” Improved tracking systems will increase the number of smaller, observable tracked objects to around thirty thousand, many of these causing potential damage. Even whole satellites may collide. Such collisions are estimated at millions or even billions to one. But on February 10, 2009, such a collision actually happened. A defunct Russian satellite crashed into an American commercial satellite, generating thousands of pieces of orbiting debris.20 Space junk poses a serious threat to the whole enterprise of space colonization, and plans are now afoot to launch even more satellites, designed to drag older satellites out of orbit in order to avoid collisions.21

Space colonization brings a number of other manufactured risks. The farther space vehicles penetrate the solar system, the more likely it is that they will be powered by nuclear, rather than solar, energy. It is not widely appreciated, for example, that the 1997 Cassini Mission to Saturn’s moons (via Jupiter and Venus) was powered by plutonium. One estimate is that if something had gone wrong while Cassini was still circling the earth, some thirty to forty million deaths could have occurred.22 No plans were in place for such an eventuality. Yet, as early as 1964, a plutonium-powered generator fell to earth, having failed to achieve orbit. Dr. John Gofman, professor of medical physics at the University of California, Berkeley, then argued that there was probably a direct link between that crash and an increase of lung cancer on Earth. Both President Obama and the Russian authorities are now arguing for generating electricity with plutonium in space, and building nuclear-propelled rockets for missions to Mars.23

Some of the wilder plans for space colonization also entail major risk. These include proposals for “planetary engineering,” whereby the climates of other planets would be changed in such a way as to support life. Dyes, artificial dust clouds, genetically engineered bacteria, and the redirecting of sunlight by satellite mirrors are all being advanced as means of “terraforming,” or making parts of the cosmos more like earth. This and the Cassini example further demonstrate the nature of “manufactured risk.” Science and technology, far from creating Renaissance or Enlightenment-style optimism and certainty, are creating new problems that are unforeseen and extremely difficult to cope with.

But even manufactured risks may be minimal in scope, compared with another risk stemming from cosmic colonization. This is outright war. Armed conflict has long been a common feature of past colonialisms; between colonizing nations as well as between the colonizers and aboriginal peoples. Satellites are already a means by which territories and investments on Earth are monitored and protected by governments operating on behalf of their economic interests. But the prospect of galactic colonialisms raises the distinct possibility of hostilities in space. Galactic wars may therefore be the product of galactic colonialism. Such a scenario was prefigured by the Star Trek science fiction television series in which the main role of “The Federation” is the protection of capitalist mining colonies.24

It is a discomforting fact that both China and the United States are now actively developing their own versions of “full spectrum dominance.” China demonstrated its capabilities in January 2007 by shooting down one of its own defunct satellites. In February 2008, the U.S. Navy demonstrated a similar capability, destroying a faulty U.S. satellite with a sea-based missile. An arms race in outer space has already started.

Humanizing Without Colonizing the Cosmos

But humanizing outer space can be for good as well as for ill. It can either, as is now happening, be in a form primarily benefiting those who are already in positions of economic, social, and military power. Or humanization can be something much more positive and socially beneficial. What might this more progressive form of cosmic humanization look like?

Most obviously, the technology allowing a human presence in the cosmos would be focused mainly on earthly society. There are many serious crises down here on Earth that have urgent priority when considering the humanization of outer space. First, there is the obvious fact of social inequalities and resources. Is $2 billion and upwards to help the private sector find new forms of space vehicles really a priority for public funding, especially at a time when relative social inequalities and environmental conditions are rapidly worsening? The military-industrial complex might well benefit, but it hardly represents society as a whole. This is not to say, however, that public spending on space should be stopped. Rather, it should be addressed toward ameliorating the many crises that face global society. Satellites, for example, have helped open up phone and Internet communications for marginalized people, especially those not yet connected by cable. Satellites, including satellites manufactured by capitalist companies, can also be useful for monitoring climate change and other forms of environmental crisis such as deforestation and imminent hurricanes. They have proved useful in coordinating humanitarian efforts after natural disasters. Satellites have even been commissioned by the United Nations to track the progress of refugees in Africa and elsewhere

So outer space technology can be used for tackling a number of immediate social and political issues. But these strategies do not add up to a philosophy toward outer space and the form humanization should take. Here again, the focus should be on the development of humanity as a whole, rather than sectional interests. First, outer space, its exploration and colonization, should be in the service of some general public good. Toward this end, the original intentions of the 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty should be restored. Outer space should not be owned or controlled by any economic, social, and political vested interest. The cosmos should not, in other words, be treated as an extension of the global environment, one to be owned and exploited. We have seen enough of this attitude and its outcomes to know what the result would be. Spreading private ownership to outer space would only reproduce social and environmental crises on a cosmic scale.

The Ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes (412-323 BCE) was once asked where he came from. “I am a citizen of the Cosmos,” he replied. All of us are, and should consider ourselves citizens of the cosmos. It belongs to all of us. But this does not necessarily mean our physical presence in the cosmos and travelling vast distances into the solar system, often creating formidable hazards. It means much more: creating an understanding of the cosmos and our place within it. The cosmos is important for human identity. Knowledge of the cosmos can provide humanity with at least provisional answers to some fundamental questions. How did we get here? What is humanity’s place in the cosmos? How is the structure of the universe developing? Is there life elsewhere? In what ways are humans, and other entities, part of the cosmos? What cosmic processes can we actually observe on an everyday basis?

There are some important lessons to be learned from debates in the past. Diogenes’ attitude to the cosmos, for example, was taken up in Russia just before the Revolution. This, of course, was another time of great social and economic turmoil. These upheavals helped to spur on attempts to regain a sense of what could be considered certain in an otherwise uncertain world. Before the Revolution, a loose-knit group of people known as Cosmists argued that a form of cosmic humanization was central to developing the next major stage of human evolution. New rocket technology combined with older forms of theosophic philosophy and occult thinking could be used, the Cosmists argued, both to perfect humanity and the cosmos itself. The cosmos would be humanized as a result of cosmic colonization, and at the same time humanity would develop a cosmic consciousness. This was even to apply to dead as well as living people. Penetrating the heavens was a means of finding the “corporeal particles” that had constituted the people who had died. These particles would enable people to be resurrected, using new medical technologies and remade into living beings. These resurrections meant that the massive number of human ancestors could be used to humanize the solar system and beyond. All these ideas then found widespread interest, partly because esoteric and occult philosophy was fashionable in Russia at the time, and partly because the idea of space travel was being made popular by the many journals and societies promoting amateur rocketry.25

It goes without saying that the strategies of space humanization adopted by the Russian Cosmists a century ago now seem wholly implausible. Dabbling in the occult would also now find little support. The Soviet authorities under Lenin consciously suppressed the mystical and occult side of Cosmism. The concept of space travel was used as a means of asserting atheism, since the rejection of religious superstition was a key part of the Soviet’s political project. The first astronaut, Yuri Gagarin, duly confirmed that he had not seen God while circling the earth.26 Lenin and others recognized that the Cosmists were guilty of equating outer space with God and purity, and the earth with chaos and imperfection. This is an insidious and very misleading ideology, one which has, since the days of Plato, filtered down to the present.27

Despite such criticisms of the Cosmists, their underlying idea of humanizing the cosmos to form a new kind of cosmic consciousness remains useful in our own day. Satellites, space-missions, and earth-bound technologies such as telescopes and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) are certainly capable of improving humanity’s understanding of the cosmos and its evolution. But it is best not to anticipate too much in the way of a science creating absolute certainties. It is often argued, for example, that NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite shows evidence of the Big Bang and the very early universe. The LHC is hoping to determine the condition of the universe shortly after the Big Bang. Yet for a vocal minority of cosmologists, the Big Bang actually never happened and the “evidence” for the Big Bang accumulated by COBE remains highly questionable.28

The most useful long-term contribution that cosmology could make would be to demonstrate that the processes and entities affecting outer space are much the same as those experienced on Earth. The starting point for such a view would not be Plato but alternative, less well-known, ancient Greek philosophers such as Anaxagoras. He argued in the fifth century BCE that there is no fundamental difference between the heavens and the earth. The sun and the stars, he believed, are rocks even bigger than Greece. They are on fire, having been torn loose from Earth by rotary movements. Such a view stemmed directly from observations on Earth, including observation of whirlpools and the heated metals in the blacksmith’s forge.29

Very few modern cosmologies have attempted to create such theories, basing them on readily available observation and making them more amenable to popular experience and knowledge. Hannes Alfven, for example, argued that the universe is alive with a plasma of electrical and magnetic fields. Plasmas of this kind can be reproduced on earth and can even be observed in phenomena as common as the plasmas made for fluorescent lighting.

The point is that it is by no means necessary to visit outer space to understand what the cosmos is like. The heavens and Earth are one. To be sure, cosmologists making such arguments find little support from mainstream science and its funding institutions. Yet they offer the kind of “humanized” cosmos that is needed: one that helps people understand and be part of the cosmos without colonizing, owning, or conquering it.


  1. On the beneficiaries of cosmic militarization, see chapter 3 of Peter Dickens, James Ormrod, Cosmic Society: Towards a Sociology of the Universe (London: Routledge, pb edn. 2009). Also Dickens and Ormrod, “Who Really Won the Space Race?” Monthly Review 59 (2008): 30-37.
  2. Clive Simpson, Tim Furniss, “‘Obama seeks to explain vision for space,” Spaceflight 52 (2010): 205. William Harwood, “Obama ends moon program, endorses private spaceflight,” (accessed 04/30/2010).
  3. “Obama Moves to Counter China With Pentagon-NASA,” (accessed 05/09/10).
  4. United States Space Command (1997) Vision for 2020, The main organization resisting the militarization of outer space is the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space. See
  5. “Help the Space Economy Revolution!” (accessed 04/30/10).
  6. Chris Harman, A People’s History of the World (London: Verso, 1999).
  7. Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital, (London: Routledge, 2003.[originally published 1913]).
  8. The distinctive feature of this cosmic imperialism would, of course, be that there are no aboriginal people to resist capital’s incursions.
  9. Neil Smith, Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell 1984), 40, 56.
  10. For debates on these issues see, for example, V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (New York: International Publishers, 1969) and David Harvey, The New Imperialism (London: Oxford University Press, 2003).
  11. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Press, 2000);. Hardt and Negri, Multitude (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2006).
  12. These figures are taken from Space Foundation (2010) The Space Report,
  13. Space Foundation, .4.
  14. This quote and the information on Bigelow are extracted from (accessed 04/30/10).
  15. This quote comes from Christy Collis, ”The geostationary orbit: a critical legal geography of space’s most valuable real estate,” in David Bell and Martin Parker, Space Travel and Culture (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009); The Sociological Review. This is currently the most authoritative source on the legal and cultural issue surrounding the GEO.
  16. United Nations, Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (New York: United Nations, 1967).
  17. Alan Wasser and Douglas Jobes, ”Space Settlements, Property Rights and International Law,” Journal of Air Law and Commerce 73 (2008): 59. See also Philip R. Harris, ”Overcoming obstacles to private enterprise in space,” Space Policy 24 (2008): 124-27.
  18. Wasser and Jobes, 38.
  19. Ulrich Beck, Risk Society (London: Sage, 1992); James Ormrod (forthcoming), ”Galactic Risk Society,” University of Brighton, UK.
  20. William Ailor and Holger Krag, ”Space Debris and Space Safety,” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 62 (2009): 261-64.
  21. Jonathon Amos, “Tiny cube will tackle space junk,” (accessed 09/28/10).
  22. Karl Grossman, The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1997). Grossman is reporting on research by Dr. Ernest Sternglass, professor emeritus of radiological physics, University of Pittsburgh.
  23. Alexis Madrigal, ”Russia Leads Nuclear Space Race After US drops out”; Karl Grossman, ”Obama Seeks to Revive Space Nuclear Power,”
  24. See Anne Lancashire, ”Attack of the Clones and the politics of Star Wars,” Dalhousie Review 82 (2002): 2, 235-53.
  25. Michael Hagemeister, “‘Russian Cosmism in the 1920s and Today” in Bernice G. Rosenthal, ed., The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture (New York: Cornell University Press, 1997); Asif A. Siddiqui, The Red Rockets’ Glare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
  26. See Virgiliu Pop, ”Viewpoint: Space and Religion in Russia: Cosmonaut Worship to Orthodox Revival,” Astropolitics, 7: 150-163. Gagarin later admitted to being a Christian, this despite not having seen God in the cosmos.
  27. Similar divisions between a “pure” cosmos and a chaotic earth persist in much contemporary cosmology, including Big Bang theory. To make matters worse, the further reaches of the cosmos are described by this theory in mathematical forms only understandable by scientific elites. The mere beauty and simplicity of the theory, as also suggested by Plato’s original cosmic model, is considered sufficient evidence of their correctness.
  28. For discussion and critique of Big Bang theory, see Eric Lerner, The Big Bang Never Happened (New York: Vintage, 1992); Frankel H. Norris, Out of This World (Ashmore: Cardiff University Press, 2003); Lyndon Ashmore, “Big Bang Blasted!” Booksurge, LLC, (no place of publication given). Alan Woods, Ted Grant, Reason in Revolt (London: Wellred Publications, 1995); Peter Mason, Science and the Big Bang: A Critical Review of 'Reason in Revolt' (London: Socialist Publications, 2007); Peter Dickens, ”Society, Subjectivity and the Cosmos” (forthcoming), Journal of Critical Realism (2011). Despite the growing number of critiques of Big Bang, however, the theory remains central to contemporary cosmology.
  29. See Lerner, chapter 2. Plato’s model resonates with the rigid divide between mental and manual labor and the supposed superiority of former. By the same token, the naturalistic view of the cosmos represented by Anaxagoras undermines this rigid divide and emphasizes the connections between mental and manual work.
2010, Volume 62, Issue 06 (November)
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