Review: Reclaiming Space
by Jeff Foust
|They write in the preface that “too few attempts have been made to invite culturally nondominant perspectives into the space exploration conversation.”
They succeed in their efforts to attract a diverse set of individuals and viewpoints. They include perspectives from Africa and India, as well as from Black Americans. One essay examines the importance of flying the disabled in space, while another discusses the need for labor rights for future space settlements. Space resources, the effect of satellite constellations on the night sky, and space sustainability are among other topics discussed.
Any collection like this will feature essays of varying quality, and Reclaiming Space is no exception. One thoughtful essay explores the biases in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) as scientists impose their views on how our civilization developed on others, drawing parallels to the discredited field of phrenology (while emphasizing that SETI doesn’t share the racist roots of phrenology.) Another, brief essay ponders if the diversity of languages on Earth will make it to space if spaceflight is primarily conducted in a few languages like English, Russian, and Mandarin.
Others, though, seem less relevant: one on “deconstructing and reprivileging” the education system for space seems primarily focused on the topic of education reform, with only tangential references for its relevance to space. The editors write in the preface that the book is intended for a “wide audience” but many essays reference topics like decolonization and indigeneity that may not be fully understood by broader audiences.
Many essays take the opportunity to criticize the billionaires who have garnered most of the public attention about commercial spaceflight: “white, cis, heterosexual-presenting, wealthy men who seem to be borrowing from the colonial playbook,” in the words of one author. Those essays often present Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk as bogeymen who represent all that is wrong with space today. They’re often treated equally even though Branson’s space ventures have had limited impact—as of this writing Virgin Orbit was teetering on the edge of failure—and Bezos’s Blue Origin has yet to place a single payload into orbit. (Musk has had far more impact with SpaceX but may be far more problematic in other ways; alas, the authors don’t probe that in the book.) One might think those three represent the entirety of commercial space, as there’s no discussion of other companies, including startups that increasingly look like those in other technology sectors but without billionaire backers.
|Many essays take the opportunity to criticize the billionaires who have garnered most of the public attention about commercial spaceflight: “white, cis, heterosexual-presenting, wealthy men who seem to be borrowing from the colonial playbook,” in the words of one author.
The editors note that a single volume is not sufficient to encompass all views (and suggest additional ones are in the works) but there are nonetheless some puzzling oversights in the book. Several chapters examine, in whole or in part, African perspectives on space, including Afrofuturism, which have been overlooked in the past. Yet there’s little in the book on Latin American or, puzzlingly, Chinese perspectives. China is second only to the United States in spaceflight, with space startups that draw parallels to American counterparts and plans for a 13,000-satellite constellation. But the book is largely silent on Chinese perspectives on space, or whether that country and its companies are guilty of the same sins that American billionaires are accused (if not found guilty) of in the book.
One of the challenges of bringing in diverse perspectives is getting everyone to agree on terminology: otherwise, you risk having participants talk past each other. Much of the book, including its subtitle, refers to “space exploration” but the term is rarely, if ever defined. Many activities described in the book, like broadband satellite constellations and space mining, would seem to fall outside of any reasonable definition of “exploration” and instead be commercialization or even exploitation. Reclaiming Space is a start, but it’s clear more work is needed to not only bring in diverse perspectives but also to ensure there’s a shared understanding of key topics and terminology.
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