This is the 2nd in a two-parter diary. Here is a link to the first part. I originally started writing this back in November, but, like all good things, life got in the way. Anyway.…
I was reminded of this piece when I read the article on thenib a few days ago, because it mentioned Lucianne Walkowicz, and her Decolonize Mars conference. I first heard about Dr. Walkowicz and her Decolonize Mars event via a National Geographic article. At the time, it made me think that we needed to start discussing goals and language for our space activities, which have crystallized into 3 questions
How many get to go?
Why are they going?
Who gets to go to space?
LANGUAGE AND SPACEFLIGHT
Dr. Walkowicz is appearing on NatGeo’s Mars show, which is why National Geographic was interviewing her. In the article, she raises the issue of how to describe our interactions with Mars. One of the big ones she mentions is colonization
Even if words like “colonization” have a different context off-world, on somewhere like Mars, it’s still not OK to use those narratives, because it erases the history of colonization here on our own planet. There’s this dual effect where it both frames our future and, in some sense, edits the past.
Given this history, many people in the space community have moved away from the word colonization. However, this creates a new problem — what word do we use when we are talking about many many people (think hundreds or thousands, or even hundreds of thousands) living, working, raising a family, etc in space? The problem is just saying all of that can take time that people don’t always have. So, as a consequence, many in the space community have taken to using the word settlement as an alternative. However...
I think the other one is “settlement.” That comes up a lot and obviously has a lot of connotations for folks about conflict in the Middle East. I think that’s one that people often turn to when they mean “inhabitation” or “humans living off-world.”
This brings up a conversation I had a few years ago, where a colleague proposed as an alternative “permanent utilization and operation beyond LEO”, because he didn’t think settlement language could be taken seriously. I pointed out that his alternative suffered from two problems. First, you don’t actually need a large number of people living in space to make that happen (or arguably any). And second, it suffers from being a long and consulted statement, and lacks the single word “elevator pitch” that is needed.
Bringing this back to the NatGeo article
Instead, I prefer using a couple of extra words, like “humans living on Mars,” or something that is maybe longer but more specific to what I mean. In the 1970s, Carl Sagan really liked the idea of space cities, because cities have lots of different kinds of people in them, generally speaking. But is a ship full of five people living on Mars actually a space city? Probably not. So, that isn’t necessarily the best solution, either.
So, in short, we don’t have a solution. However, this paragraph is very telling, because it points to the 3 questions I raised.
How many people get to go?
So, Dr. Walkowicz suggest we are really only talking about 5 people, going to Mars. Why only 5 people? I will acknowledge that, generally, NASA’s Mars plans and initial Mars missions usually assume somewhere between 4 and 10 people going to Mars, so that matches with NASA. But does that actually make sense? Because the reality is that the selection of how many people go is dependent upon…
Why are they going?
This question always ends up being the one that is glossed over in discussions. Typically we hear claims of “we are explorers” or “look at the spinoffs and the technology multiplier effect.” In point of fact, I recently got into an argument with a friend (who is also an astronaut) when I said those justifications were bad, because the first wasn’t really a good justification, and the 2nd doesn’t require human spaceflight. His response was to say, in effect, “I don’t have a good justification, and we shouldn’t need one” (Which, I find kinda of appalling, frankly).
Many scientists associated with spaceflight always jump to the idea of doing science, but why would we only do that with space activities? Why would we assume that the primary purpose of spaceflight is science? Space has a lot of value that it can provide to humanity, not just science. So, why limit it?
If we can’t ignore the reason for going (because we shouldn’t), and if it’s not science, then what? I submit that the answer is space is there to help us solve “Big Problems” (Climate change, poverty and joblessness, famine, racism, etc). But for it to solve these problems, we need to let as many people experiment with space and try things out. And that means a lot of people going into space, not just 5. And of course, that brings us to the final question
Who gets to go?
This of course, becomes a simple question, if you have answers to the 2nd question, but since we don’t always, it becomes much harder. But that said, if you are limiting it to a specific activity, then you intrinsically limit who gets to go. But I submit that isn’t good no matter what. Again, space has a lot to offer, and so we should be prepared to send anyone and everyone who wants to go — not just scientists, and not just rich people. Figuring out how to do that is a complicated problem. But, ignoring it would be a mistake.
So, to bring it to the original point — what is a good word to use? It’s not colonization — we can agreee on that. But if it’s not settlement, then what? Further, what is the language debate actually about? Is it about coming up with words an a narrative that are different from what we’ve done in the past, or is it an attempt to actually put limitations on our space activities?
I’d love to hear other peoples thoughts as to what a good alternative word would be? Or is settlement the correct word? Or, is her real issue that she believes we shouldn’t be doing this?