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The Expanse
The Expanse offers a grittier yet more realistic vision of space settlement than the utopian promises of space advocates.

Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids

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It isn’t always easy to trace the origin of an idea that inspires a movement. For decades, science fiction stories featured space colonies before the 1970s, when people like Gerard K. O’Neill began to write and talk about space settlement as a feasible idea. But so far, that idea has mostly existed in science fiction, not reality. The SyFy Channel’s The Expanse, which recently completed its second season, has probably done more than any recent form of entertainment to keep alive the concept of space settlement.

What the show highlights, perhaps unintentionally, is the challenging question of why humanity should spread out beyond Earth at all.

The Expanse is based upon the best-selling series of novels by James S.A. Corey (actually a pen name for writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) and is set a few hundred years in the future in a settled solar system where people on Earth, Mars, and in the asteroid belt all maneuver for advantage. It is the closest depiction of what space settlement advocates must see when they dream—and yet it is not a very nice dream. Instead, it is a political drama where Earth, Mars, and the asteroid belt all fight each other. Space settlement is not depicted as a wonderful, liberating and uplifting experience. The residents of the asteroid belt complain about being oppressed by Earth and harassed by Mars. In the second season we were shown more of Mars and its predicament, mostly through the eyes of a Martian Marine. The Martians settled the red planet for the same reason that present day advocates of space settlement say humans should go there: to get independence from Earthly troubles. But the Martians are struggling to make it more livable, and resent that they keep putting more resources into defending Mars than terraforming it. The Martians regard Earth with disdain, an overcrowded, polluted planet filled with slackers. But we see that Earth can still hold an allure for Martians—when they put aside their hate, they can still recognize beauty.

What the show highlights, perhaps unintentionally, is the challenging question of why humanity should spread out beyond Earth at all. That question has always lurked in the background of America’s human space program, and the lack of an answer that convinces more than a tiny group of people is a good reason why, 56 years after Yuri Gagarin’s flight, we still are stuck in low Earth orbit.

A few years ago historian Roger Launius wrote “Escaping Earth: Human Spaceflight as Religion” in the journal Astropolitics. He noted the similarities between human spaceflight enthusiasts and what we understand as traditional religion. For much of the history of the space age the comparisons have often been blatant, with spaceflight leaders such as Chris Kraft and Wernher von Braun, as well as numerous political leaders such as Ronald Reagan, talking about spaceflight in quasi, or even literally religious terms. Launius observed that human spaceflight, like religion, has its immortality myths, its revered leaders and condemned villains, its sacred texts, and its rituals, rules, and shared experiences. According to Launius, “The belief system has its saints, martyrs, and demons; sacred spaces of pilgrimage and reverence; theology and creed; worship and rituals; sacred texts; and a message of salvation for humanity, as it ensures its future through expansion of civilization to other celestial bodies.”

But beyond simply the ability to achieve immortality for humanity, there has been a utopian undercurrent to space advocacy, a belief that space settlement will allow for the creation of new societies, coupled with a belief that these societies will be better than those on Earth

These religious aspects can be found throughout the writings of spaceflight advocates, the self-styled missionaries of the spaceflight religion. One of the most common arguments for space settlement is to achieve immortality for humankind by moving a portion of humanity to Mars in event of catastrophe. The Space Review regularly publishes these kinds of appeals to transcendence. The advocates argue that humankind could be wiped out by natural disaster—typically a meteor strike—and settling the Moon and Mars would help avoid the species being wiped out (see “Settling space is the only sustainable reason for humans to be in space”, The Space Review, February 1, 2016). Other commonly-cited threats include man-made ones like war and environmental destruction—as if space settlers would not also face the same things in a far more fragile biosphere. The Expanse has highlighted this vulnerability and interdependence with a subplot about food production on Jupiter’s moon Ganymede collapsing because the ecosystem lacks the robustness of Earth’s complex environment.

But beyond simply the ability to achieve immortality for humanity, there has been a utopian undercurrent to space advocacy, a belief that space settlement will allow for the creation of new societies, coupled with a belief that these societies will be better than those on Earth. Robert Zubrin has advocated a version of this vision, claiming that the challenges of settling Mars will produce incredible technological rewards and a renewal of the American spirit. Many other space settlement advocates believe that space settlements offer the opportunity to throw off the shackles of oppressive government and start a new society, with fewer rules and a fantastic view of Olympus Mons. Such arguments tend to be very American-centric, relying upon cultural myths of the settlement of the American West that are not only highly distorted, but also not shared by non-Americans, or even younger Americans.

Within the broader self-identifying community of space enthusiasts there are, in fact, many villains as well, such as Richard Nixon for ending Apollo (unless you’re a conservative, in which case you blame Lyndon Johnson), or Senator Walter Mondale for opposing it. Senator William Proxmire used to be a convenient villain when he regularly condemned NASA spending as wasteful, but today few people know who he is. Nowadays, there are no easily identified anti-space villains in space politics.

But whereas these attitudes might best describe the more mainstream space advocate community—the kind of people who join the National Space Society, for instance—in the past several decades there has emerged a vocal minority that has taken aim at NASA itself as the impediment to achieving the dream. They have expressed deep disappointment with NASA in the post-Apollo era. An oft-repeated claim is that the agency prevents space development and settlement, either through benign neglect by being too slow, bloated, and bureaucratic to achieve the dream, or through active opposition to the efforts of others. You don’t have to look that far to find comments by people who think that NASA officials oppose having any non-NASA people fly in space.

A more recent development has been indications that some space activists are growing impatient even with those who have so far been treated with saintly reverence (see “Elon Musk and the SpaceX Odyssey”, The Space Review, January 25, 2016). Last fall, when Elon Musk gave his much-anticipated big talk about sending humans to Mars, some of his faithful expressed disappointment that his vision seemed too big. It was hard for them to grasp 100-person spaceships and million-person settlements, when what they really wanted to see was a practical and realistic proposal for landing a couple of humans on Martian soil within a reasonable timeframe.

Is anybody even writing realistic, influential treatises on the need for space settlement these days?

In his Astropolitics essay, Launius discusses sacred texts in human spaceflight, noting that a primary example is the series of articles that appeared in the pages of Collier’s magazine in the early 1950s that were highly influential in establishing and shaping expectations for human spaceflight in the United States. The very first issue started with the question “What are we waiting for?” and its hint of urgency and exasperation has flowed throughout the space advocacy community ever since. The frustration with NASA, and even Elon Musk, that can be easily found in the writings of space enthusiasts is little different than what first appeared in 1952. There’s a universe waiting for us, we should go and settle it. Now! (While I’m still alive.) What are we waiting for?!

There are other sacred texts for human spaceflight adherents, particularly those with libertarian political leanings who view space settlement as a means of creating better societies. Robert Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon has been held up by space advocates as an example that an individual can accomplish in space what government cannot. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is another influential text for space settlement proselytizers (the magic answer is: “Freedom!”). Considering that it is modeled on the American Revolution, the book resonates with Americans who believe that political renewal is possible by overthrowing the shackles of the old government, but like Wild West frontier imagery, it is much less effective with non-Americans.

Is anybody even writing realistic, influential treatises on the need for space settlement these days? Elon Musk’s PowerPoint deck, slick as it was, lacked a lot of details and skirted the somewhat fundamental question of “why?” (When you’re a billionaire, often the answer to “why?” is “because I say so.”) Yes, there are still papers presented at the International Space Development Conference, and there are plenty of armchair space cadets wanting to redesign NASA’s space program to make it better (see “An alternative architecture for deep space exploration using SLS and Orion”, The Space Review, April 17, 2017). But where is the New King James Edition Bible of the space settlement movement? Is anybody writing it? How can we have a movement without a manifesto?

Which brings us back to The Expanse. In some ways, space settlement advocates should welcome this series and its vision of humanity’s future in space. Right now, it is pretty much the current keeper of the flame of a vision of humanity in the solar system. But the show still presents a fundamental dilemma that space enthusiasts have never fully addressed: what if utopia isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?