Considering a lack of transparency by local governments and the presence of a space corporation whose operations ensure that a legacy of colonization and imperialism are alive and well on occupied land, how do we do better?
Part of understanding Elon Musk and SpaceX is developing an understanding of human rights, history, and how that ties into space ethics.
At the bare minimum, those involved in the NewSpace industry can get real with what they’re doing and why, said Erika Nesvold, a PhD astronomer who founded the JustSpace Alliance with colleague Lucianne Walkowicz in 2018.
Nesvold began researching ethics and human rights in the context of space exploration after working on a project in the Silicon Valley in 2016. The experience left her disappointed with a NewSpace industry culture that ignores risks to human life in pursuit of interplanetary travel, so she started a podcast and connected with Walkowicz. “We’re trying to connect people who have been doing this fantastic work in their fields for generations on ethics, the history of colonization, and how to learn from the past,” Nesvold said.
Musk’s argument that humanity will cease to exist if he doesn’t launch rockets to Mars is less a public service and more a public relations game, she explained. “He can argue he’s doing this for the benefit of humanity, but at the same time, (Musk) is operating in a capitalist system and making a lot of money by doing all of this.”
It’s unclear how anything Musk is doing will benefit humanity as a whole or if it will do so equitably. As Musk clarified in 2018, SpaceX is developing Starship as a reusable rocket in part so that the company can sell rides – whether that’s to billionaire tourists, NASA, or the U.S. military.
Nesvold pointed out that objectively, the private space industry’s obligation is to shareholders, not the human race. There aren’t many places in the United States (or anywhere on Earth) that meet the conditions for space launches that aren’t already inhabited or in use. Key to any NewSpace discussion is centering the fair treatment of humans and the planet, especially people already struggling to be heard, she said.
Fairer treatment means companies can’t look away from their obligation to listen to concerns about the surrounding environment in the same way resource extraction companies are slowly being held to account in the court of public opinion. Nesvold argued the same idea applies to the RGV’s elected officials, who are obligated to transparency.
“Space is a place we could use, a place we could live, a place we could damage,” Nesvold said. “In all of those respects, it’s a place where we need to be very deliberate about how we explore, study, and move into.”