The Case Against the Case Against Space

If we had to solve the human condition before we tried anything new, we’d never try anything new.
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Having grown up with the Apollo program and as an inveterate reader of science fiction, my baseline attitude toward human space exploration has long been positive. This attitude was given a more intellectual foundation in college, when one of my professors of political philosophy suggested that the space program fell into the category of the “noble and beautiful,” a translation of the Greek phrase “kalos kagathos,” which he summarized as the unnecessary things which we do or make that go beyond the basic requirements of mere life, and even a good life. Reflecting on his point over the years, I came to see human space exploration as a chance to maintain the expression of some human traits that would come to be in short supply in a world increasingly characterized by the drive for efficiency and comfortable self-preservation — traits like ingenuity, risk-taking, cooperation, and courage as they are to be found not in markets or war, but in exploration and pioneering. These enterprises are pretty well baked into what it means to be human and yet in danger of being lost in an increasingly settled and known world.

Reviewed in this article
Oxford ~ 2020
464 pp. ~ $34.95 (cloth)

I found the more common rationales for such efforts — like military necessity, resource exploitation, scientific knowledge, and ameliorating existential risks to humanity — interesting, and paid some attention to the various programs that followed from them. But the collapse of serious human exploration at the close of the Apollo program taught me the lesson, which so far I have never been required to revise, not to expect Big Space programs. With some initial regret I concluded that we would more likely “muddle” our way into space, making incremental progress. I never doubted that it would and should be an important area of human endeavor, but I grew to understand that at any given moment the state of the art would be determined by a host of contingent considerations of what was possible technologically, politically, and economically more than by visions of grand ventures. The first decade of the American human space program was not to be the forerunner of a world of ever developing technocratic crash projects, and that is probably just as well.

This personal backstory is necessary as a context for understanding just how impressed I was with Daniel Deudney’s Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics, and the Ends of Humanity (2020). It is a big book and Deudney covers a great deal of ground, some of it rather difficult, but he does so with lucid and even frequently engaging prose. His criticisms of the arguments of various schools of space advocacy are fair-minded, and they go deep. They shook many of my long-held convictions about the desirability of an ever-expanding human presence in space. I came away chastened by this excellent book — and yet not fully convinced.

Deudney, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, arranged his book into four parts. Part One, “The Earth, Technology, and Space,” is essentially introductory, laying out in broad strokes some of the main schools of thought defending “space expansionism” — the mandate to explore, exploit, and settle space, including visions like Jeff Bezos’s of a trillion people living in space colonies — and hinting at some of the criticisms he will make of them. Admitting that the “supporting claims and assumptions” of space expansionism are “very difficult, if not impossible to evaluate fully with high certainty,” Deudney nevertheless suggests that its arguments have serious flaws both with respect to what is possible and what is desirable. Space expansionists have not given enough thought, he argues, to the implications of their goals, nor to the implications of the means they want to see developed for reaching them. As a scholar of international relations, the flaws that most concern Deudney are about geopolitics. “Geopolitical claims are widespread in space expansionist writings, particularly by military advocates,” yet they are typically “inconsistent, truncated, and slanted.”

Part Two of the book paints a picture of the extreme challenges the space environment presents, challenges that he argues effectively refute the belief that expansion into space is simply the next step after the long history of human expansion across the globe. One chapter describes the technologies that space expansionists say will be required to meet these challenges, ranging from geoengineering to genetic engineering, and discusses the various “Faustian bargains” or “megacalamities” they are likely to entail.

Part Three takes on the space-expansionist arguments in terms of their broader visions and political assumptions. What he labels the “von Braun programs” for the militarization of space, which have mostly guided actual space programs, is given a detailed chapter. Another is devoted to the more visionary outlook of what he calls “Tsiolkovsky programs,” after the Russian rocketry pioneer known for his statement that Earth is merely the cradle of humanity, and will of necessity be abandoned. Included here are discussions of orbiting space habitats and planetary colonies, asteroid mining and colonization, geoengineering of Earth and other planets, and the creation of a space-friendly version of humanity through evolution or engineering. Finally, Deudney presents a model for the use of space named after Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan. Earth-centered in its use of space, the “Clarke–Sagan program” involves progressive demilitarization through arms control and much stronger international cooperation, particularly to deal with collisions with Near Earth Objects — a field in which, worryingly, the same technologies that could be used to prevent collisions could also be used to cause them. By the time we get to the end of Part Three, it is quite clear that Deudney himself favors something very close to the Clarke–Sagan program, as the other two create a host of existential risks.

But it is only at this point in the book, in Part Four, “Assessment,” that Deudney presents his theory of geopolitics. Elsewhere he labels this theory “historical security materialism” (a way of adjudicating, he believes, between the two competing schools of thought in international relations, “realism” and “liberalism”). The theory is focused on “the ways in which material contexts composed of geography and technology do, and do not, determine human choices.” After a chapter on this theory, Deudney formally appraises space expansionism — that is to say, from his theory, he directly derives space expansionism’s flaws. It is rather confusing that this all comes so late in the book, since in fact Deudney in a less academic sense has been assessing space expansionism all along.

There are some important insights in Part Four, particularly relating to the failure of space expansionists to think in non-utopian terms about the politics of the world they are envisioning; these very fragile new venues for human and posthuman life might well have authoritarian or totalitarian politics. I’m not sure these insights require the full-blown theory of geopolitics that Deudney summarizes here, and the change in this section to a more formal academic mode of writing and analysis is jarring and to some extent anticlimactic. A careful viewing of The Expanse, or reading the James Corey books upon which it is based, might have revealed much the same sorts of dangers as Deudney points out.

This summary hardly even hints at the depth and interest of Deudney’s argument, which, as I’ve said, is quite convincing — but not entirely so. Each argument on its own is strong, but aggregate them and the result is a way of thinking about the future that is so risk-averse that nearly any action taken, or not taken, can be classified as unacceptable.

For example, Deudney acknowledges that collisions between Earth and Near Earth Objects (NEOs) like asteroids and large meteorites could represent a genuine existential risk and that therefore space operations to avert them should be developed. But there is danger here, he argues. The same technology for averting one asteroid collision can be used for aiming another for purposes of bombardment. To avoid NEOs being turned into weapons in national conflict, Carl Sagan believed that such technology should not be developed unless a world government existed. Deudney, more sanguine than Sagan about the prospects for international cooperation, does not impose that requirement, but does believe that the technologies of deflection should be developed “in an international consortium of spacefaring states.” This approach — “do together, never alone” — is typical of the way in which he takes bilateral or multilateral agreements to be the best, if admittedly imperfect, route to the global renunciation of dangerous technologies of space expansionism.

Deudney is right to reject Sagan here; it is a sign of Sagan’s political shortsightedness that he operated under the conceit that a world government would not use the ability to change asteroid orbits as a way to cement its power or punish non-compliance. And the potential to misuse the technology would exist too if a global NATO-like organization, rather than an outright world government, controlled it. Leaving aside the perennial possibility of hijacking by some dissident group, it would seem that the relative gain in both safety and freedom from Deudney’s chosen imperfect solution derives from the likely friction in decision-making within any international organization. That friction itself would help reduce the odds of using the technology the organization guards as a weapon. Even so, a military treaty organization could be corrupted by a self-righteous sense of its own mission, or could become impatient with civilian governments and step in for whatever reason to clean things up. Its monopoly on just the threat of this particular kind of force may provide it with irresistible leverage in some crisis situation. The point is that human imperfection goes all the way up and down; once we grant its existence, there are no guarantees of security, only ways of making things more or less secure. There is no foolproof way of dealing with the existential risk produced by dealing with the existential risk of a collision between Earth and an asteroid.

Deudney could say that this situation is precisely why he believes that most of the space operations imagined by the models he discusses should simply be renounced. If we cannot get rid of all existential risks, we should at least not seek to multiply them. And he could have a good point there. As Deudney notes, some of the existential risks that space expansionists use to justify their risk-producing programs are so far distant (The sun will one day expand to encompass the Earth’s orbit!) as to be of no practical guide for policymaking.

But the problem for his argument is deciding which existential risks to take seriously. For example, he seems to take seriously the eco-catastrophic perspectives that lead space expansionists to think we will need to mine asteroids to deal with global resource shortages, or use space structures to reduce global warming, or have Earth 2 ready when Earth 1 has collapsed ecologically. On the one hand, he disputes that the space expansion programs are the best ways of dealing with such threats, and sees a more modest contribution from space — observations to help us find earthly solutions to these earthly problems. On the other hand, more than once Deudney seems to lament that after so many decades, the eco-consciousness and “one earth” perspective necessary for decisive action against looming eco-catastrophes does not seem to have developed, at least not as robustly as environmentalists once hoped. That may represent a failure of rational decision-making, but then again it is not clear that any of the premises about human nature that inform Deudney’s theory of geopolitics would require us to expect perfectly rational decision-making — so why the lament? (And if his premises did imply that humans are perfectly rational, then so much the worse for his theory.)

We can now begin to see the problem inherent in the way of handling risks he puts forward in the Earth–NEO collision case. What happens if things continue on their current course and the world does not act rationally to avert eco-catastrophe? Will the renunciation of space activities that smack of expansionism look like such a good idea if things come to a point where Earth-cooling space structures are our last hope against global warming? Perhaps this outcome is too unlikely to worry about, but that would put it in the same category of low-probability, high-consequence events as Earth–NEO collisions. In the same category, what about the nightmare scenario of a new comet heading our way from the Oort Cloud? Even if we had highly developed deflection technology, there might not be enough time to use it. If we entertain such possibilities, then the scales might begin to shift back toward, say, maintaining some modest effort at Mars colonization, on the same grounds as we saw above: that there is no way of dealing with some existential risks without creating others.

The case of Mars colonization is particularly revealing. The risks there stem from the ways in which Deudney’s theory of geopolitics predicts eventual conflict between colony and home world, with all of the consequent terrible potential of war with space-based weapons. (Again, see The Expanse.) Deudney argues with complete justice that, in this and other areas, space expansionism exhibits a variety of utopian assumptions that his theory exposes and corrects. But, quite reasonably, Deudney does not give a timeline for when such a conflict would develop. It took some 150 years for English colonists to bring themselves to rebel. If, as seems likely, the challenges of creating colonies on Earth are nowhere near as formidable as the challenges of creating them off-world, in the absence of some amazing new technologies one could double or triple the amount of time until the day of reckoning between Mars and Earth, particularly were we to continue on the present rather half-hearted development of ways to send human beings to Mars and sustain a viable human presence there.

At this point we have to wonder: In the imperfect and dangerous world Deudney describes, how far into the future is it reasonable for us to look when making decisions about space policy? That it is silly to let the eventual destruction of the planet in some billions of years guide policy today should hardly have to be said. A 10,000-year outlook would mean that we are planning for a time as distant from us as we are from the beginnings of human civilization, which seems particularly hubristic and pointless in the face of our much-vaunted capacity for an ever-accelerating rate of technological change. Perhaps anticipated developments in 1,000 years could reasonably guide decisions today. Yet only a relatively small number of societies, polities, economic and belief systems have lasted that long, and no small number of them are not universally respected in our progressive, secular time. Maybe 500 years would be more reasonable a time frame in which we should consider ourselves responsible for having anticipated risks? Maybe 250? Maybe 10?

Part of the answer to that question will depend on the adequacy of any model we have for predicting the future. Like the space expansionists, Deudney’s geopolitics supplies him with a rather deterministic and materialistic model in which he plainly has high confidence. Despite the many ways he insightfully suggests to distinguish expansion into space from expansion of human populations on Earth, the basic dynamics of human cooperation or competition in anarchic or governed systems derived from the past are for him sufficient to project outcomes into the future. In fact, his model is even more deterministic than that of most of the space expansionists, to the extent that they believe in progress as a kind of ameliorative wildcard acting to alter some of the harsher conditions that have determined human behavior in the past. Deudney is not without some idea of progress — he too seems to hold out hopes that a proper arrangement of human affairs can reduce global violence, improve environmental quality, and so forth — but it is a much more modest, and to that extent appealing, vision than the big ideas of secular human self-transcendence that at least some of the space expansionists rely upon.

And yet, even as a modest vision of progress, it is a moral judgment about the relationship between past and future that cannot help but raise hard questions in our time — a time that often finds serious consideration of moral dilemmas in principle difficult. For without some sense of an objective moral order, how exactly are we to anticipate that our descendants will or should be grateful to us for the renunciations of development in space that Deudney is calling for?

Imagine some late-seventeenth, early-eighteenth century intellectual, looking at developments in the New World and trying to think about their implications for the Old World — and amazingly, getting it right! He would foresee things that Deudney is all too aware of in that history, for example, ecological destruction and the decimation of the indigenous populations. A keen student of Bacon and Descartes, he might imagine increased ease of travel across the ocean, and yet also how technology and science would contribute to increasingly destructive and terrible wars that competition over colonial territory might create among European powers. Noting the dissident populations moving to parts of the Americas, he might wonder about the ability of imperial governments to control events in their outlying territories and remark upon the short-term potential for the new world disrupting the politics and society of the old. Suspicious that the trade in gold would really be a sustainable form of wealth generation, a sufficiently Lockean observer might anticipate that economic development in the new world might outstrip the old, as the industrious and rational make their way to the resource-rich West. Indeed, our imagined observer even considers the possibility that at some distant date, the success of new-world settlements might be so disruptive as to contribute to the undermining of the social, religious, economic, and political ways of the ancient regimes of Europe.

Let’s imagine further that our intellectual is a “conservative.” With many of the prospects he anticipates being too terrible to consider, he strongly urges that only the most limited contact be allowed between the old world and the new, and that European governments develop a common plan for a non-competitive effort at restraint….

Our complacence is no argument that the world would not be better had it followed his advice, and we can say for sure that had this path been followed the people living in that version of 2020 would be just as complacent. But I don’t think Deudney can be of much help to us in deciding whether this world would have been a better world than our own. Large parts of the world (not all of it, by any means) have adjusted their expectations about the shape of human life in such a way as to be comfortable with things that once would be shocking or terrible. Some we would even see as clear examples of “progress” and “development.” I would expect much the same will happen if we travel down some of the roads that Deudney now looks at with horror. Should he lose the intellectual battle he has undertaken against space expansionism in most of its forms, our descendants might well find the kinds of concerns Deudney expresses for their well-being to be inexpressibly quaint when they are not downright wrongheaded. I imagine that they might have as hard a time understanding how they could be thankful for his advice had it been followed as we would with my imaginary prophet — in part, of course, because they would understand that they would likely not exist at all in the counterfactual world Deudney would conjure for them.

To his credit, Deudney is not entirely without moral resources in this matter. There is a positive vision of the human good behind his parade of as yet — thank goodness — imaginary horribles. He is a welcome advocate for human freedom in a human future. While he does not cite Hans Jonas’s writings on the imperative of responsibility, much of what he says conforms to Jonas’s ideas about the biggest challenge to humanity being to ensure the ongoing existence of humans as such. There is far worse company to be in.

But is there not ultimately something dehumanizing about Deudney’s deterministic vision of the future, which paints human action and choice as entirely constrained by the material conditions described by his geopolitics? He might have argued that there are perennial problems of the organization of national and international politics, that space expansionists have not sufficiently considered those problems because of their utopian assumptions, and that unless they take them seriously their enterprise is not likely to go well. But instead he argues that his theory allows him to predict outcomes in a more or less distant future that are sufficiently fated as to motivate us today to start down a path of renunciation, as if there is no possibility for human beings to meet the novel challenges of law and order that he suggests will arise in alien environments. This outlook is all the more problematic given that, absent any breakthroughs in space propulsion systems, we will have a long time to think about, and adjust to, most of Deudney’s most troublesome scenarios. And here it is also worth noting that the most immediate threats, which are and have long been based in our space-transported nuclear arsenals, suggest (so far) a record of how prudence and ingenuity can navigate highly dangerous waters.

Lest the picture I am painting seem too rosy, I must add that we should have the right expectations for what it would mean to “meet” those challenges. Certainly expansion into space may be accomplished in ways that are more or less dangerous, but in any case “safe” is not on the table. Nor should we want it to be. “Spam in a can” or not, the early astronauts were heroes. We should want heroes, but heroism requires danger. That many professed shock when the idea was floated that early Mars explorers might have to accept that they would die on Mars is a sign of how far we miss the real value of our space enterprise as falling within the realm of the “noble and beautiful.” It would be better to return in triumph, to age and pass away gracefully surrounded by loved ones, and admired by a respectful public! But to die on Mars — to say on Mars what Titus Oates said in the wastes of Antarctica, “I am just going outside and may be some time” — would be in its own way a noble end, a death worth commemorating beyond the private griefs that all of us will experience and cause.

The story changes for species-level risks, but perhaps not so radically as some might think. We should certainly seek to avoid destroying ourselves spectacularly by a profligate lack of concern with maintaining a human future, but we should also seek to avoid constantly eroding and degrading our humanity by always taking the “safe” course, by the effort to recreate for ourselves a world without risks or tradeoffs. Deudney exposes how this kind of techno-utopianism is at the heart of his space expansionists, but in the end seems a little unclear himself on the extent to which the fragility of human life is not a problem to be solved but a condition of our humanity.

Charles Rubin, “The Case Against the Case Against Space,” The New Atlantis, Number 64, Spring 2021, pp. 90–98.
Header image: Blade Runner, 1982 (Warner Bros.)

A crucial moment

JULY 2021 — Please read this note about the most important opportunity The New Atlantis has seen since our launch.