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Spaces Forces: a Letter from the Editor

"Who owns outer space? And why are Silicon Valley billionaires so very obsessed about blasting off in rockets to spend time on Mars?" –Leo Hollis, editor

Leo Hollis15 October 2021

Spaces Forces: a Letter from the Editor

Across history, engineers, writers, scientist and philosophers have gaze up into the awesome infinity of outer space and contemplated their own existence within the universe. They have thought about how the physical laws allow planets to orbit each other; for stars to glow and eventually, after billions of years, to implode; and for rockets to break through the membrane of the outer atmosphere and travel to unknown realms. They have contemplated what life might be like out there, and how it might afford a tabula rasa on which to script the new social contract. On the other hand, others have looked into the night sky and announced ‘I want that.’ In Space Forces, Fred Scharmen searches for answers to these two questions: Who owns outer space? And why are Silicon Valley billionaires so very obsessed about blasting off in rockets to spend time on Mars?

I was first introduced to Fred by fellow Verso author, Adam Greenfield, author of Radical Technologies. I was intrigued: what was an architect doing thinking about life in outer space? He had just completed a work on the Gerard O’Neil’s NASA Space Settlements proposals. This project from the 1970s had produced the images that had come to inform our ideas of what the future of space life might be: cylindrical space stations that appeared to take scoops out of the normal world – bucolic pastures, perfect suburbs, luxury hotel living - and raise it up into a utopian thought experiment.

What Fred’s new book shows is that people have been thinking the same questions for some time, and for a multitude of reasons. For most, outer space offers a canvas on which to rethink the world. And proof that when they are considering life amongst the stars, they are really thinking closer to home. Thus includes Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the first space scientist, whose quest to conquer space coincided with the 1917 revolution. The British socialist physicist J D Bernal wanted to build new worlds of peace and social harmony as an alternative to the war worn planet. How the former Nazi engineer Wernher von Braun came to the US and become involved the Space race between the superpowers. The chapter on the NASA architect Jesse Strickland presents the paradox of the hope of creating a better society out there while as a black man, was forced to live day to day in segregated America.

And to the present day. In 2015 Obama signed U.S. Space Launch Competitive Act, which set out a new legal framework to answer the question: who owned space and who could exploit its resources? In an era that promise infinite riches from asteroid mining, and the extraction of rare materials from the moon and other planets, should we treat space as we do the sea with clear maritime laws and national waters, or as a commons where there is not rules of ownership?

Layered upon this is the argument between two Silicon Valley billionaires about why we should exploit these resources. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos believes that we have to explore space to bring back the thing that will make the Earth liveable again. In contrast, Elon Musk considers our home a dead planet and we, or at least the super rich, have to prepare for the colonization of distant lands. As a result, just as the lower atmosphere is starting to fill up with space debris, so it is being determined by junk ideas. This is the future that Fred predicts; it is a chastening portrait of how we repeat the mistakes of history.

–Leo Hollis, editor

Space Forces: A Critical History of Life in Outer Space by Fred Scharmen is one of our Verso Book Club selections in November. Find out more here!

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Space Forces
Many societies have imagined going to live in space. What they want to do once they get up there - whether conquering the unknown, establishing space "colonies," privatising the moon's resources -...

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