By Dr. Danielle N. Lee
Add to this the fact that the dominant scientific narrative in the United States space program parallels the American cultural narrative, what Dr. Linda Billings, NASA Space Communicator and space policy analyst at George Washington University calls “frontier pioneering, continual progress, manifest destiny, free enterprise, rugged individualism, and a right to life without limits.” Within astrophysics circles, the idea that it is our right and imperative to conquer other planets is commonly presented as natural, in keeping with other aspects of human history: Just as Europeans immigrated to North America, so must the human race colonize Mars. Red Colony, a website for Mars exploration enthusiasts, opens its introduction with a parable on the benefits of creating settlements, focusing on “how the country that came out of [Western Expansion] advances the world perhaps centuries beyond its time in scientific, economic, diplomatic, and religious progress.”
The problem with the ideas being pushed by Musk and Hawking is that the conversation is focused only on the possible promises of a Mars colonization, not the potential perils. (Dr. Billings has criticized the idea of Mars as “the New World” extensively and written numerous reports and papers that examine the financial, legal and ethical impact of American cultural narratives on space programs and policy.) In short, the way Mars is discussed gives individuals like Musk–people with a strong commercial interests in space travel–both a platform for shaping public rhetoric concerning planetary exploration projects, and the ability to influence policies that would allow them to profit greatly from intergalactic expeditions.
It’s not just the rich and the famous, either. People like Robert Zubrin, co-founder of and Executive Director of The Mars Society, which aims to “further the exploration and settlement of the Red Planet,” praise the founding of America as if it is an uncomplicated narrative. Zubrin’s core argument, that “Mars is to the new age of exploration as North America was to the last,” doesn’t acknowledge is how these “New World” trade activities were based on the displacement and genocide of Indigenous people in the Americas and the forced immigration and labor of Africans. This new human civilization that held so much promise to those in Europe was also oppressive and exploitative to other groups, a development that led to what is the most powerfully disparate economic system in the world today.
In other words, it's the opposite of the "neutral" scientific enterprise we think of. It's inherently biased by politics and economics.
Are people like Elon Musk planning to form nonprofits and donate everything they find to humanity as a whole? If not, Lee suggests, beware.
For more on colonization, see Rubio Ignorant of US History and Whites Destroy Other People's Homes.