Elon Musk wants to colonize the red planet, rich people first. Don’t confuse SpaceX with NASA — this will end badly
When CEO Elon Musk announced last month that his aerospace company SpaceX would be sending cargo missions to Mars by 2022 — the first step in his tourism-driven colonization plan — a small cheer went up among space and science enthusiasts. Writing in the New York Post, Stephen Carter called Musk’s vision “inspiring,” a salve for politically contentious times. “Our species has turned its vision inward; our image of human possibility has grown cramped and pessimistic,” Carter wrote:
“We dream less of reaching the stars than of winning the next election; less of maturing as a species than of shunning those who are different; less of the blessings of an advanced technological tomorrow than of an apocalyptic future marked by a desperate struggle to survive. Maybe a focus on the possibility of reaching our nearest planetary neighbor will help change all that.”
The Post editorial reflected a growing media consensus that humankind’s ultimate destiny is the colonization of the solar system — yet on a private basis. American government leaders generally agree with this vision. Obama egged on the privatization of NASA by legislating a policy shift to private commercial spaceflight, awarding government contracts to private companies like SpaceX to shuttle supplies to the International Space Station. “Governments can develop new technology and do some of the exciting early exploration but in the long run it’s the private sector that finds ways to make profit, finds ways to expand humanity,” said Dr. S. Pete Worden, the director of the NASA Ames Research lab, in 2012. And in a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week, Vice President Mike Pence wrote of his ambitions to bring American-style capitalism to the stars: “In the years to come, American industry must be the first to maintain a constant commercial human presence in low-Earth orbit, to expand the sphere of the economy beyond this blue marble,” Pence wrote.
One wonders if these luminaries know their history. There has be no instance in which a private corporation became a colonizing power that did not end badly for everyone besides the shareholders. The East India Company is perhaps the finest portent of Musk’s Martian ambitions. In 1765, the East India Company forced the Mughal emperor to sign a legal agreement that would essentially permit their company to become the de facto rulers of Bengal. The East India Company then collected taxes and used its private army, which was over 200,000 strong by the early 19th century, to repress those who got in the way of its profit margins. “It was not the British government that seized India at the end of the 18th century, but a dangerously unregulated private company headquartered in one small office, five windows wide, in London, and managed in India by an unstable sociopath,” writes William Dalrymple in the Guardian. “It almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history.”
The East India Company came to colonize much of the Indian subcontinent. In the modern era, an era in which the right of corporations to do what they want, unencumbered, has become a sacrosanct right in the eyes of many politicians, the lessons of the East India Company seem to have been all but forgotten. As Dalrymple writes:
As with all such corporations, then as now, the [East India Company] was answerable only to its shareholders. With no stake in the just governance of the region, or its long-term wellbeing, the company’s rule quickly turned into the straightforward pillage of Bengal, and the rapid transfer westwards of its wealth.
Democracy as we know it was considered an advance over feudalism because of the power that it gave the commoners to share in collective governance. To privately colonize a nation, much less a planet, means ceding governance and control back to corporations whose interest is not ours, and indeed, is always at odds with workers and residents — particularly in a resource-limited environment like a spaceship or the red planet. Even if, as Musk suggests, a private foundation is put in charge of running the show on Mars, their interests will inherently be at odds with the workers and employees involved. After all, a private foundation is not a democracy; and as major philanthropic organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation illustrate, often do the bidding of their rich donors, and take an important role in ripening industries and regions for exploitation by Western corporations.
Yet Mars’ colonization is a bit different than Bengal, namely in that it is not merely underdeveloped; it is undeveloped. How do you start an entirely new economy on a virgin world with no industry? After all, Martian resource extraction and trade with Earth is not feasible; the cost of transporting material across the solar system is astronomical, and there are no obvious minerals on Mars that we don’t already have in abundance on Earth. The only basis for colonization of Mars that Musk can conceive of is one based on tourism: the rich pay an amount — Musk quotes the ticket price at $200,000 if he can get 1 million tourists to pay that — that entitles them to a round-trip ticket. And while they’re on Mars and traveling to it, they luxuriate: Musk has assuredthat the trip would be “fun.”
This is what makes Musk’s Mars vision so different than, say, the Apollo missions or the International Space Station. This isn’t really exploration for humanity’s sake — there’s not that much science assumed here, as there was in the Moon missions. Musk wants to build the ultimate luxury package, exclusively for the richest among us. Musk isn’t trying to build something akin to Matt Damon’s spartan research base in “The Martian.” He wants to build Mars-a-Lago.
And an economy based on tourism, particularly high-end tourism, needs employees — even if a high degree of automation is assumed. And as I’ve written about before, that means a lot of labor at the lowest cost possible. Imagine signing away years of your life to be a housekeeper in the Mars-a-Lago hotel, with your communications, water, food, energy usage, even oxygen tightly managed by your employer, and no government to file a grievance to if your employer cuts your wages, harasses you, cuts off your oxygen. Where would Mars-a-Lago’s employees turn if their rights were impinged upon? Oh wait, this planet is run privately? You have no rights. Musk’s vision for Mars colonization is inherently authoritarian. The potential for the existence of the employees of the Martian tourism industry to slip into something resembling indentured servitude, even slavery, cannot be underestimated.
We have government regulations for a reason on Earth — to protect us from the fresh horror Musk hopes to export to Mars. If he’s considered these questions, he doesn’t seem to care; for Musk, the devil’s in the technological and financial details. The social and political are pretty uninteresting to him. This is unsurprising; accounts from those who have worked closely with him hint that he, like many CEOs, may be a sociopath.
Even as a space enthusiast, I cannot get excited about the private colonization of Mars. You shouldn’t be either. This is not a giant leap for mankind; this is the next great leap in plutocracy. The mere notion that global wealth is so unevenly distributed that a small but sufficient sum of rich people could afford this trip is unsettling, indicative of the era of astonishing economic inequality in which we suffer.
Thomas Frank, writing in Harpers, once wrote of a popular t-shirt he sighted while picnicking in a small West Virginia coal town: “Mine it union or keep it in the ground.” The idea, of course, is that the corporations interested in resource extraction do not care whatsoever about their workers’ health, safety, or well-being; the union had their interests at heart, and was able to negotiate for safety, job security, and so on. I’d like to see a similar t-shirt or bumper sticker emerge among scientists and space enthusiasts: “Explore Mars democratically, or keep it in the sky.”