The Final Frontier? The Enclosure of a Commons of Outer Space

Introduction by
Rachael Squire, Oli Mould, and Peter Adey

This forum offers a rich set of contributions grappling with the potential enclosing and enclosures of outer space. It starts from a simple premise: if geography has its roots in ‘earth’ writing, what can the discipline contribute to the current race for near space?

I

n February 2018, when Elon Musk sat aboard the Falcon Heavy and blasted off into space, a new age of space exploration took off with him. His company, SpaceX, is now part of a range of corporations (funded by white male billionaires) that are competing with one another to claim the right to colonise space, Mars, the moon and even asteroids. The financial might of these corporations eclipses some of the State-led space agencies (such as NASA, who themselves are increasingly looking to private suppliers) and work is well underway here on Earth that is preparing these corporations to be the gatekeepers to the heavens. 

These projects have been set, questionably and unevenly, by these elites against a wider backdrop of planetary apocalypse - from ecological catastrophe, the threat of thermo-nuclear war, over-population, and enslavement by AI. These catastrophic realities and imaginaries only fuel this march to the moon, mars and beyond. Within such a fraught and anxious context, the practices of SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic are framed as natural and important extensions of work to find innovative solutions, offering shiny, tech heavy escape valves to unfolding earthly crises.  

Figure 1: Source here.

As a result, near and outer space are currently being colonised and commandeered by a capitalist, masculine and patriarchal class, intent on new frontier profiteering (as the not-so-subtle phallocentric imaging in Figure 1). As the idea of the commons for the benefit of all mankind fades into the distance, planets and asteroids are being drawn into the gravitational pull of private companies and, at a glance, the potential rewards are staggering. One Asteroid contains enough precious metal and raw material to build over the entirety of the Earth’s surface and there are 16,000 in reachable space alone. There is enough fuel and solar energy that, if harnessed, would mean fossil fuels would never need to be dug out of the ground again, let alone burned. There is so much water in the form of ice in near space, that even if we were to obtain a fraction, crops would never fail again. Under an earthly logic of resource extraction, the potential abundance of Space is revolutionary. The debate is far too important to be left unscrutinised and in the hands of capitalists to exploit. Erstwhile, states and governments do not seem to be retreating from the position that space can be both a private and public endeavour, but actively enforcing it through new combinations of private enterprise under the umbrella of the protection of burgeoning militaristic national space forces. 

To be sure, such tensions are hardly new and their debate has filled the frames and pages of science fiction writers, films and literature, the discourse of physicists and space engineers, politicians and commentators, for well over a century and not just from the right or white. Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star (1908, see Figure 2) envisages a socialist Martian utopia, free from the gravitational pull of an earthly capitalism, while Myles Jonson (2019) highlights that space has long ‘been the place of…Black intellectual and creative thought, when billed with the task of imagining black freedoms’.

Figure 2: Early edition to ‘Red Star’ source here.

Today, alongside this fast evolving industry, geographical inquiry and broader work has begun to shift from its traditional etymological base of ‘earth writing’, to consider the ways in which outer space is embroiled within our notions of the geographical imagination. It has also meant retreating from solid material ontologies that had presumed a level of socio-material stasis to the foundations of our political forms, social actions and practices of inhabiting spaces and territory (Peters et al. 2018). Instead an understanding of outer space may require what Peters et al. (2018) and others have determined as material imaginations ‘beyond terra’ or, indeed, the elemental imaginations we have drawn from the Earth to what Melody Jue (2020) has recently called a ‘milieu-specific analysis’.  

Recent contributions from Dickens and Ormod (2016) and Dunnett et al. (2019) have attempted to shift the geographers gaze from our immediate Earthly surroundings to consider how the space of outer space inflects the way we conceptualise the myriad of geographical concerns. Within these narratives, feminism (Seag, 2017), labour geographies (Dunnett et al., 2019), warfare (MacDonald, 2007), time-space compression, and environmental catastrophe (Klinger, 2019) are all traditional geographical concerns that have been used in these recent writings as frames to analyse the cosmos. Elsewhere Indigenous geographer, Deondre Smiles (2020) has highlighted the logics of settler colonialism that course through space-bound initiatives, exploring in the process the very real colonial legacies and violence associated with space exploration. In wider social sciences and humanities research these questions are also gaining traction. Space archaeologist, Alice Gorman, for example, asks what might happen if the Moon was given the status of legal personhood, and explores the tensions in understanding space as a cultural landscape (Gorman 2005). Meanwhile, anthropologist Michael Oman-Regan calls for a Queering of Outer Space (see also 2019) while Kimberley McKinson asks whether black lives will matter beyond earth, particularly given that space exploration is overwhelming white (as the spoken word artist Gil Scott-Heron so eloquently puts it in his piece ‘Whitey on the Moon’, and Peter Williams critiques in his painting ‘He Was a Global Traveller’ shown in Figure 3) Then there are those questioning whether we should be looking to the inhospitable deserts of Mars at all when Earth is in such need of our attention and energy (Deudney 2020). 

Figure 3: Artist Peter Williams explores Afrofuturist themes in this painting titled “He Was a Global Traveller.” (Peter Williams, “He Was a Global Traveller,” 2020, oil on canvas, 72 x 96 inches. Source here.

In spite of this evolving work, the pace of change and scale of capitalist endeavours in space has somewhat outpaced the capacity of academics to respond. This special forum seeks to move to address this, offering a rich set of contributions grappling with the potential enclosing and enclosures of outer space. It starts from a simple premise: if geography has its roots in ‘earth’ writing, what can the discipline contribute to the current race for near space? To engage with this question, we have framed this geographical narrative into two parts: the mechanisms of enclosure, and the potential avenues of critique, focused around embodied and material engagements. For if the capitalist enclosure of Space is to be resisted and the boundless resources it contains utilised to create a fairer society here on Earth, then understanding the (im)materiality of this resource will be vital, just as it demands a wider understanding of its resources as beyond the material-possessive-extractive but as ethical, conceptual, philosophical, spiritual, cultural potentials to think with and to imagine our worlds otherwise with. 

The contributors to this series have all been writing and researching along these lines either directly or indirectly, and hence provide a grounded starting point for geography to engage with, and begin to tackle, the growing possibility of an enclosed future in outer-space. As critical scholars, there is a need to challenge and engage with a  powerful capitalist system concerned with realising futures that are inherently exclusive, violent, and unequitable. As many have highlighted before us, questions abound as to who these futures are for, who is imagining them and foreclosing others, who will be able to participate, and what happens to those left behind. Indeed, Musk has faced recent controversy in suggesting that ‘regular’ people might be able to participate using a loan that they can then pay off by working on Mars, portending another form of bonded or indentured labour. Would settlers have their passports removed until they paid off these debts, or be unable to access transport home? Unchecked, space exploration and colonisation, as Oman Reagan (2019) argues, becomes a vehicle for the ‘violent imposition of earthly normativity on landscapes elsewhere’. This is not to mention the primacy being given to human life. For Carl Sagan and others (see Coates, 2018), even if microbial life exists on Mars, it should be left well alone by humans set to contaminate, rather than seen as a new ‘terra nullius’ that invites settler-colonial appropriations and violences. 

Clearly, space is needed for the imagining of other commons and versions of outer space futures that are ‘freed from recognisable reproduction’ and normative ideals here on Earth (Oman Reagan 2019). This is of course challenging in a context where the barriers to entry are monumental, where an elite few have such a grasp on available technologies, resources, and personnel, who potentially control the informational and media platforms from which critique is possible, and from which settlers and publics might organise, mobilise and stage interventions, and where the greatest form of resistance might be to re-direct attention to the plight of Earth before it becomes a Mars like wasteland. And yet the consequences of not having such discussions are just as monumental. This collection seeks to make some more room for these debates to unfold and to provide a springboard to further discussions within geography and beyond on outer-space futures.


Bibliography

Coates, A. 2 August 2018, Sorry Elon Musk, but it’s now clear that colonising Mars is unlikely – and a bad idea, The Conversation, available here.
Dickens, P., & Ormrod, J. (2016). Introduction: the production of outer space. In The Palgrave handbook of society, culture and outer space (pp. 1-43). Palgrave Macmillan.
Deudney, D. (2020). Dark skies: Space expansionism, planetary geopolitics, and the ends of humanity. Oxford University Press, USA.
Dunnett, O., Maclaren, A. S., Klinger, J., Lane, K. M. D., & Sage, D. (2019). Geographies of outer space: Progress and new opportunities. Progress in Human Geography43(2), 314-336.
Gorman, A. (2020) Could the moon be a person?, Cosmos Magazine, available here.
Gorman, A. (2005). The cultural landscape of interplanetary space. Journal of Social Archaeology5(1), 85-107.
Jonson, M. (2019) Black Utopia: Reclaiming outer space, Afropunk, available here.
Jue, M. (2020) Wild Blue Media: thinking through seawater, Duke University Press. 
Klinger, J. M. (2019). Environmental Geopolitics and Outer Space. Geopolitics, 1-38.
MacDonald, F. (2007). Anti-Astropolitik—outer space and the orbit of geography. Progress in human geography31(5), 592-615.
McKinson, K. (2020) Do black lives matter in outer space?, Sapiens, available here.
Oman-Reagan, M. (2019) Politics of planetary reproduction and the children of other worlds. Futures110, 19-23.
Oman-Reagan, M. (2015) Queering Outer Space, Medium, available here.
Seag, M. (2017). Women need not apply: gendered institutional change in Antarctica and Outer Space. The Polar Journal7(2), 319-335.
Smiles, D. (2020) The settler logics of (outer) space, Society and Space, available here.

Oli Mould is a lecturer in human geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, with interests in creativity, urban theory, the commons and social theory.

Rachel Squire is a lecturer in human geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, with interests in undersea geopolitics, territory and extreme spaces.

Peter Adey is professor of geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, with interests in mobilities, emergencies and security. 

essays in this forum

Near-Earth Object Geographies: Collision Heritage and Planetary Precarity

This short essay outlines an agenda for critical social research on cosmic collisions that links emerging theories of resilience and the elemental with the substance of impacts historical and anticipated. Our aim is to call for more widespread reflection on our ‘planetary precarity’ and to position that precarity much more firmly alongside an all too often terra-bound, or discretely ‘earth-limited’ environmental politics.

By

Gareth Hoskins and Kimberley Peters

Enclosing the Cosmos: Privatising Outer Space and Voices of Resistance

The following discusses enclosure, disimagination, and Ethnofuturism to problematise futures of asteroid mining: highlighting how popular NSE discourses draw upon a Eurocentric rendition of a ‘Grand Historical Narrative’. Through this, we may begin to challenge the totalising concept of ‘humanity’ oft-invoked by asteroid mining advocates and turn a more critical lens to these purported futures and the discourses (re)created to justify them.

By

Craig Henry Jones

Space Architectures: Living Under the Dome

I wish to take a closer look at one of the more dominant and prolific architectural imaginaries that surrounds many of these future interpretations of a society in space, notably that of the dome. Specifically, I wish to use the dome as a lens through which to explore our possible relationship with extra-terrestrial living and how the social and political problems of Earth may find themselves transposed in its architecture. 

By

Ed Brookes

Subterranean Space: The Interplanetary Mine and a Politics of Life?

Those eagerly hailing Space as a solution to a ‘post-scarcity’ world, might do well to reflect on the current state of Earth; any solution to planetary dilemmas that continues the export of capitalism and its environmental imprint off-Earth should proceed with caution. We only need reflect on the damage extraction has wrought on various Earthly frontiers- now including the deep ocean, a space about which we know so very little, to appreciate the need for care and humility.

By

Harriet Hawkins and Flora Parrott 

Automation, Robotics and Off-World Frontier-Making

In this essay, we explore the nexus of relations between national governments, capital and technological development involved in the opening up of new resource frontiers in outer space. While debates about off-world mining are often concerned with whether it will ‘succeed’ or not, we are more interested in what it tells us about contemporary frontier-making and what the rendering of extreme environments ever more legible to state and capitalist interests means for resource politics and struggles in the decades ahead.

By

Andy Lockhart, Aidan While, and Simon Marvin

When Things Fall from the Sky: Understanding Rocket Stages on the Kazakh Steppe as Imperial Debris

I want to use the concept of “imperial debris” (Stoler 2008) to examine rocket debris on the Kazakh steppe. Imperial debris denotes the material and social afterlife of structures, sensibilities and things that result from an imperial formation, not necessarily of the capitalist hue.

By

Christine Bichsel