Theater of Cruelty

The allurements of space

Space Forces – A Critical History of Life in Outer Space
Forfatter: Fred Scharmen
Forlag: Verso (USA)


The architect and writer Fred Scharmen has written a thoughtful book about living in space – which we so far only do on small space stations orbiting the Earth. Life in the room is above all charged with ideology, prejudices and unconscious longings and assumptions. The analysis of these is the book's common thread.

The Space Force was officially instituted by Donald Trump when he signed The United States Space Force Act in 2019, which with great pathos declared the US military's presence and important tasks in space. Not long afterwards came the TV farce Space Force em>#, in which Steve Carell plays the general who will lead this new military unit together with a group of frustrated astronomers. Air Force and Navy generals laugh behind his back, while shallow PR people try to maintain a public facade that space, the Moon and Mars really do matter. Here has space travelone ended up as a joke, a useless game for geeks. 

Russian Cosmism

Fred Scharmen's rich book Space Forces starts far from such farces: In Russia's high-pitched philosophical mindscape over a hundred years ago.

The very earliest space philosophers in the Soviet Union were inspired by Jules Verne, the founder of the modern science-fiction genre. Tsiolkovsky began his novel Life beyond Earth in 1898 under the tsarist regime, but did not publish it until 1920, three years after the Bolshevik revolution. He founded a messianic notion that man's destiny lies in the stars, that "our common task" is to leave "our manger" the earth, to spread our civilization and life itself to other planets. With this he founded what came to be known as Russian Cosmism.

Cosmism was inspired both by an idealized theory of evolution and a materialist philosophy of history, underpinned by Malthusian calculations of population growth. Tsiolkovskij imagined that the exponential growth curves that are so typical of man's modern technological history could only point one way – into outer space. The fantasies of colonizing space usually do not involve enslaving aliens or stealing their home planets, but are just as much an echo of colonial ideals.

Horror images of invasion from space thus become a reversal of the situation, Scharmen points out: they become a mirror for a bad historical conscience. But even such stories establish the notion of an inevitable conflict.

Cosmic Art, Multicolored Outer Space. The Star Field And Nebula Out In The Deep Universe Many Light Years From Earth. Elements of the image were prepared by NASA. Adobe Stock Photos

Scharmen's retelling of the cosmist Alexander is thus refreshing Bogdanovs utopian space fable Red Star (1908). Here, Earth is visited by peaceful Martians who recognize in the struggles of the Russian working class their own striving to create a superior society. The Martian Netti explains humans' main problem: "[The] common calling of humanity has not yet really become a common task among you. It has been […] split in the illusions that come from the struggle between people.” On Mars, the needs of the inhabitants are always met by a wise, thoughtful and mature technological civilization.

The dream that a cosmic perspective could contribute to the maturation of humanity is also found in the long-forgotten British socialist and pacifist JD Bernal, who also dreamed that humanity would take the step into space with dignity and wisdom.

Private room programs

Scharmen finds a stark contrast to Bernal in the Nazi rocket scientist Werner Of Brown who after the war moved to the United States. Here he used his experiences from the development of the Nazi V2 rocket to develop nuclear rockets and the science behind the rocket that eventually took man to the moon. The V2 rockets, Braun's "Vergeltungswaffe" (revenge weapon), were built by concentration camp prisoners. Scharmen dares to develop an argument in which rockets sent to other planets for peaceful purposes also have their price in human suffering in the "old world".

The question then becomes whether realizing the space dreams is worth the price. Perhaps it involves a betrayal of both the earth and humanity, an accusation Hannah made Arendt presented in his book Human conditions (1958) – over ten years before the moon landing. As Scharmen emphasizes, this contrast is even greater today: here on Earth, climate change is taking hold, the world is in flames and hunger is increasing. At the same time, the new space race is being led by the two richest men in world history – the space barons Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos who, with a mixture of childish immaturity, science-fiction dreams and business drive, invest their lavish fortunes in private space programs – which they often try to legitimize in dubious ways.

Musk is close to the cosmicists in his argument for making humanity "multiplanetary", while Bezos derives his arguments for expansion into space from Eugene O'Neill who wrote his most important book The High Frontier in the 1970s.

Scharmen's presentation has a sharp eye for it frontier-the concept, the notion of a free expansion space, which is so deeply rooted in the American psyche: As with Tsiolkovskij, there is a Malthusian premise with O'Neill: we need more space, more resources – and space is the solution. The deeper argument is culturally dynamic and fits into an imperialist and capitalist logic, where we either expand or die in stagnation. More resources and more space, Scharmen points out, will probably only lead to more inequality and more suffering people – if we don't first do something about humanity's grotesque inequality problem.

The new images from the James Webb telescope this summer are in many ways the best that space technology can give us. Perhaps we should settle for scouting out to the stars – at least for a century or two – before trying to colonize other planets?

The dream of the universe as something truly universal, unifying, and the cosmos as an open "world ocean" is worth protecting.

A peaceful planetary community

Militarization of the moon is not unthinkable

Both the US and China's space programs are planning lunar bases. Will the competition between nations become more aggressive than that between private multi-billionaires? Scharmen, who between the lines admits that he himself is a space dreamer, highlights The Outer Space Treaty – signed by 112 nations in 1969 – as a utopian and hopeful document, which can form the basis of a peaceful planetary community. The treaty establishes, among other things, that nothing in outer space can be made national or private property – and that every person who moves in outer space must be seen as a representative of humanity. Also, that astronauts in distress must be helped regardless of nationality and that all findings must be shared and made public.

In the wake of the establishment of the US military Space Force, China's partial secrecy and several nations' experiments with shooting down satellites in orbit around the Earth, the treaty is today threatened – and a militarization of the moon is not an entirely unthinkable scenario.

Scharmen's considerations regarding the space treaty become a serious input for defending the best in space ideology.



Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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