Space Force: The Non-Monetary Value of Exploring the Wider Galaxy
Gary Berman, then 14 years old, remembers the moon landing well. Berman wasn’t the only one watching: an estimated 500 million people around the world tuned in to CBS on July 20, 1969 as Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon.
“When they landed on the moon, [CBS host Walter Cronkite] just started crying like he was part of the team,” Berman told The Politic. “And he was. Because back then everyone was part of the team.”
During Berman’s childhood in the early 60s, America’s fascination for space and science fiction had yet to develop. Most of Berman’s childhood friends didn’t share in his enthusiasm. “In the early days, my parents probably would have preferred that I did something else,” he said with a laugh.
Berman has no regrets. “It was great to have a career based on my passions.” Two years after the moon landing, Berman, at that point 16 years old, co-founded Creation Entertainment, which now hosts the world’s largest annual Star Trek convention in Las Vegas.
“The conventions were, and still are, all about attracting an audience of great diversity, which is ultimately what Star Trek is all about.” Berman says, “They have always been an excellent place for different people to enter a space in which they all share a common love.”
For many, Star Trek showed that cultural and racial divides were not insurmountable. Before the show began airing in 1966, seeing a person of color in a position of authority was unheard of, especially on television. The prominent roles of African American Nichelle Nichols and Asian American George Takei would cause a paradigm shift in television.
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s embrace of the counterculture movement led to a crew that transcended racial, cultural, and historical boundaries, in which all-American Captain Kirk worked side by side with Russian Pavel Chekov. For many, it was a watershed moment seeing Nichols play a crewmember on the Starship Enterprise. According to Nichols, she was told by Martin Luther King, Jr. that her role was integral to the civil rights movement. “That got me thinking about how it would look for fans of color around the country if they saw me leave,” she said. “I saw that this was bigger than just me.”
The expansiveness of space fosters diversity and acceptance in a way that is impossible on Earth. Berlin-based artist Nahum Mantra, the founder of space-related art institute KOSMICA, believes that humans should abandon territorial or national disputes and instead adopt a ‘planetary perspective’ as they transition into the wider solar system. “There are so many logical, historical, economic arguments on our differences, but ultimately we are all from Earth.”
Born and raised in Mexico City, Mantra’s work has led him to London, Haifa, and Berlin. Mantra works closely with Middle Eastern refugees in a large shelter in Tempelhof, an abandoned airport outside Berlin. Mantra recently launched a new program called JOURNEYS, in which teams of refugee artists design their own space programs.
To Mantra, refugees provide a unique perspective on space travel and human migration to planetary colonies, having been displaced from their native environments on Earth. The artists are tasked with creating homesickness kits, in which they often pack herbs and spices from their respective home countries and photographs of the beauty of their natural environments.
“The purpose of artists, and people in the humanities, is to ask questions that the scientists don’t,” Mantra told The Politic. “To reflect on questions like why a woman has never stepped on the moon.” These are questions that Berman believes might never have been asked without the influence of popular media depicting women and people of color as the leaders of space exploration.
“Star Trek had a lot to do with making space travel palatable to the public,” Berman told The Politic. “At the time, everyone was into it.” He believes that such national fervor for the space race would not have been possible without the culture paradigm shift caused by shows like Star Trek, which first aired in 1966.
But it is undeniable that shows like Star Trek stoked public support for the space program and contributed to the generosity with which NASA was funded by the U.S. government. Adjusted for inflation, the Apollo mission to the moon cost the equivalent of $107 billion dollars in 2016.
Even NASA acknowledged the incredible influence that Star Trek fandom had on spreading the popularity of space travel among the public. In January 1972, Berman attended what is now recognized as the first Star Trek convention ever, in which fans built a life-sized bridge of the Starship Enterprise with parts sent over from NASA. “It was just a different time,” Berman reflected.
American victory over the Soviets in the race to the moon made support for space travel and technology an ingrained component of the American psyche. A Pew Research Study conducted in 2018 found that the belief that the U.S. should continue to be at the vanguard of space exploration was shared across all gender, education, political, and generation groups, with 71% of all Baby Boomers and 70% of all millenials in favor.
As the U.S. government relinquished their grip over space exploration in the late 1990s and early 2000s, space travel was released to the public domain and quickly taken over by private firms. Private space companies such as the Asteroid Mining Corporation and Planetary Resources are now racing to be the first to tap into the untold profits of mining precious minerals in metallic asteroids. The government now relies heavily on firms such as SpaceX and Blue Origin to launch the majority of NASA and US Air Force satellites.
In recent months, President Trump has made clear his intention to create an American Space Force—a military service to protect and extend American interests in space. In a speech to the National Space Council, he called space “the next great American frontier,” which would be “conquered” by the “American spirit.”
The Trump administration aims to allocate part of the National Defense Authorization Act (DFAA) budget towards the creation of the Space Force, with operations beginning in 2020. The President’s exact vision for the Space Force is unclear.
Vice President Pence, however, seems to be in favor of making the Space Force a military weapon. On August 9th, he called for the Space Force to be comprised of an “elite group of joint warfighters specializing in the domain of space.”
To Berman, the increasingly privatised and militarized American space program has departed from its original competitive optimism. “In the beginning, it was supposed to be this thing that joined everyone and everything together, and now we’re talking about how we can most effectively blast other countries’ ships out of space.”
Some experts are unconvinced that this new Space Force would adequately protect America’s national security needs. William Hartung, Director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy in Washington DC, told The Politic, “Making an explicit move to militarize space by creating a special branch of the armed forces devoted to it sends precisely the wrong signal.” Increasing America’s military presence in space might heighten the risk of an imminent arms race in space.
Exporting America’s military industrial complex to the wider galaxy also ensures that nations will enter the new space age in opposition to one another. This militarization of space, backed by the profit-maximizing lust of increasingly powerful privatized firms, will further diminish any likelihood that deep space exploration is conducted for epistemological or scientific research purposes. Robert Walker, who authored President Trump’s space policy, has made clear that the current administration sees NASA “in an exploration role in deep space research, rather than Earth-centric work that is better handled by other agencies.”
The global shift towards viewing space as a militarized and commercial zone is evident through the language we use to describe space programs. The idea of a “moon colony” or colonies on Mars and the wider galaxy has pervaded the public consciousness. Mantra believes that this begins with the way that humans often think of space in colonial terms.
”Colonization is an imperial act, where one nation imposes itself over another,” Mantra told The Politic. “We’re saying that we want to go and exploit these territories, to claim ownership, to exploit resources for profit.”
Despite vast amounts of the annual budget dedicated to national defense, the United States is by no means guaranteed supremacy in a future arms race in space. But space does not necessarily need to be viewed as the newest battleground to be conquered.
“The best way to ensure safe passage and safe operations in space is through negotiations designed to set rules of the role for conduct in space, including banning the stationing of weapons in space,” Hartung told The Politic.
And yet, while politicians and businessmen argue over asteroid mining, Space Forces, and the possibility of a future arms race, Mantra focuses on the non-monetary value of exploring the wider galaxy.
Mantra is fascinated with space because of the potential it gives for self-reflection. “I like to think of space as a black canvas, that we can use after having learnt from all our mistakes on earth,” Mantra told The Politic. “With space, we can get extremely creative about things like systems of ownership, democracy, capitalism, and we can have all these new, very experimental ideas… that we could then apply on earth to solve issues such as migration, borders, and climate change.”
Mantra believes that space can allow people to think of global issues outside of a nation-state mindset. “We have to think in a different way to redesign our societies, and space is a great opportunity to think of these things,” he told The Politic.
The diversity of humankind engenders racial, cultural, and national differences. But in the words of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, “If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.”