A raging controversy has broken out about Elon Musk’s latest SpaceX project to blanket the Earth’s lower atmosphere with 42,000 satellites. It has already begun to be implemented. Musk generously wishes to enable internet access across even the remotest corners of the globe. Astronomers have begun to notice that the small number of satellites already launched are interfering with their ability to observe the universe.
Musk usually gets his way, even when there are good reasons for opposing it. There are, of course, bigger and better reasons for allowing him to get his way. To start with, he’s very rich (and getting richer), whereas there are no known billionaire astronomers. That makes the combat rather unequal.
Related to the influence of wealth are Musk’s political connections. US President Donald Trump, in an interview at the World Economic Forum last week, described Musk as a “genius” whom “we have to protect“ and “cherish.” Trump added this important observation on Musk’s strategy for space: “[He] likes rockets. And he does good at rockets, too.”
Interviewed by Business Insider, the director of the University College London Observatory, Giorgio Savini, expressed his concern with Musk’s project. He believes Musk’s satellites will seriously hamper astronomical observation. But his bigger worry is that, like everything else that happens when the initiative belongs to the private sector, things will get worse very quickly. Citing a famous slogan that sums up the logic of free markets, Savini explains: “It becomes like every other sector, a race to quantity. Bigger, better, cheaper.”
Here are today’s three 3D definitions:
Consuming an ever-increasing area of the natural world
Requiring continual replacement because of fear of obsolescence
Making it impossible to resist the temptation to buy objects one doesn’t need
The “bigger” factor isn’t so much about the size of objects. After all, the trend in the world of technology has long been toward miniaturization. Instead, it concerns the amount of sheer physical space — on the Earth or in the atmosphere – occupied by the objects produced, sold and stored, to say nothing of the volume of waste they represent at the end of their life cycles.
Most people see the “better” factor as unquestionably virtuous. Better means innovation. Most people have nothing but positive feelings about innovation. Yet the social logic behind commercial innovation implies not only accelerating obsolescence — translating as waste and pollution — but also the destabilizing effect on consumers’ psychology through their fear of not keeping up.
The “cheaper” factor highlights the fact that people with stable or increasing incomes will accumulate more and more material goods, just because it seems painless to do so. And in US culture, those who can’t afford it will still buy into it thanks to credit card debt.
In other words, the towering achievement of modern science that has produced our ability to adventure beyond the Earth’s atmosphere — a project initiated by the scientific community and the collective interests of governments — like everything else in today’s economy, is already being hijacked by private interests that have every reason to spin it out of anyone’s control.
And it can only get worse as other private companies join the for-profit space race. SpaceX has taken a pioneering role, but Jeff Bezos’ space company, Blue Origin, is unlikely to sit on the sidelines and not join the free-for-all alongside SpaceX. The sky is no longer the limit.
Throughout history, the night sky may well have been every civilization’s greatest tool for education. While the Earth contains challenges and wonders that every culture seeks to adjust to and master for the sake of its own survival, the night sky extends humanity’s vision far beyond the immediate horizon, inviting thinkers and wordsmiths to seek to build a mental and metaphysical relationship with the cosmos.
The night sky liberates the human imagination. The daytime dominance of the sun allows us to deal pragmatically with our immediate physical environment. It’s our gaze into what we still call “the heavens” that invites humans to discover the difference between earthly beings and cosmic existence. The daytime sky makes it possible for us to ”be” in the world. The nighttime sky tells us we exist in the universe.
Humans have always perceived the cosmos as an extended but unattainable order over which our race has no control. The night sky challenged every culture across the globe to imagine not just the forces at work in the universe, but also the question of why there is something rather than nothing. Far more than mundane socialization and problem-solving, the vision of the night sky provoked the thought that generated religious beliefs and creation stories but also scientific speculation.
The monumental advances in astronomy starting in 16th-century Europe with Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton began to transform humanity’s understanding of the night sky, moving it away from the mythical and toward the mathematical. But though the intellectual model was changing, the visual presence of the night sky kept the existential mystery of the universe alive to most of humanity.
That visual relationship with the universe changed radically under the combined effect of the arrival of electricity and massive migration from the countryside to cities. The urban sky lost its power to trigger human curiosity. At the same time, the breakthrough of physics and cosmic theory, thanks to Einstein and other great modern scientists, coupled with spectacular and continuous progress in the technology of observation, meant that the search for meaning from the night sky now belonged exclusively to the scientific and mathematical elite. The common urban dweller could read their horoscope in the papers but had no connection with the night sky or with the work of the scientists who were engaged in exploring it.
Though for a time it appeared that science would provide the final, fatal blow to the mystery celebrated in poetry and mythology that had enabled humans to come to establish an uncertain relationship with the infinity of space, science itself provided and continues to provide a window into cosmic mystery. The stable state theory of the universe that once dominated scientific theory in the 20th century gave way to the Big Bang, reminding humanity of its creation stories. The discovery of dark matter and dark energy that, according to the scientists, account for some 85% of the substance of the universe, has brought a new sense of wonder into scientific discourse.
There is important work to be done, not necessarily to arrive at an accurate and complete description of everything in the universe — which in the age of quantum entanglement seems increasingly illusory — but to better understand some of the things our current concepts cannot account for.
Much of that work involves observation. But on the Earth’s surface, humanity has taken on a different orientation. Science has given away its place on the pedestal of human thought to commerce. Just as religion and poetry seemed no longer to have a direct impact on people’s material lives as the logic of industry dominated Western civilization, science itself became divided between its vocation to improve humanity’s collective understanding of the universe and its duty to serve the needs of industrial production.
The same business interests that came to dominate government pushed science to focus on mass production and profit. Electricity became ubiquitous in places where the majority of people lived (with the possible exception of North Korea), meaning that only astronomers working in remote observatories, funded by government grants focused on research alone, had a relationship with the mysteries of the night sky.
Now, that access may be compromised by the need of people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to exploit even the atmosphere for profit. Perhaps their dream of colonizing Mars will permit future astronomers to have access to the night sky again. But in Bezos’ view, “‘Earth [will be] zoned residential and light industry,’ with heavy industry and mining moving to space.” Earth will be the ultimate gated community for a humanity of pure consumers. Amazon’s future fleet of space drones will deliver consumers’ packages in bulk from Mars and Venus to Earth-based warehouses. As a virgin territory, there might still be room on Mars for several of Musk’s huge colonies built in artificial bubbles alongside Bezos’ manufacturing facilities. But, for the moment, the two billionaires don’t see eye to eye on their plans for the red planet.
One thing is clear for those two pioneers: Their personal fortunes here on Earth are growing “bigger and better” by the minute. As for things getting cheaper, basic resources are already becoming rarer and dearer. People will soon be going to war over water as it becomes less accessible due to climate change. Following the rules of Wall Street’s investment logic, the two space visionaries probably see the developing planetary crisis as an opportunity that will accelerate the need to conquer other planets and draw investors to their expensive and prestigious projects.
When Musk invented the title for his space company, he proposed SpaceX as shorthand for “Space Exploration.” His current war with astronomers makes it clear that it should be more aptly thought of as “Space Exploitation.”
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.