Space Cowboys


Wrangling with the Final Frontier

There was a time in my adult life that I wanted to be an astronomer, following the usual boyhood dalliances with aspiring to be an astronaut. From my earliest memories I was fascinated with the stars—but more so the concept of them than the studying thereof, which made the whole astronomer thing a bit awkward. I had a myriad of questions in college about the relative importance of earthbound events in light of the vast cosmos (which probably should’ve led me toward a philosophy major, but the intro class was awful). Still, whether viewed as a function of equations or ethics, the essential queries of how we fit into the larger tapestry and what we might find out there have animated my journey for decades.
This is all just to say that when we talk about fascinations with outer space, I totally get it. In the grand scheme of the cosmos, human existence may well be insignificant—but in the process of figuring out whether that’s true, we are going to stumble spectacularly into a lot of very cool stuff along the way. Atmospheres, waterways, tectonics; amino acids, bacteria, biomes; nebulae, wormholes, black holes; artifacts, enigmas … aliens? Whatever we might imagine, it’s going to be even more stellar, figuratively and literally. Space isn’t merely the gap between things—it is the thing, the medium that binds it all together. Let your mind go there, and it might conjure a moment of remembering once being stardust.
So yeah, I get it: the canonical imprint of Star Trek, the dramatic human interventions of Star Wars, the collective consciousness crafted in the annals of science fiction writ large. I spent a lot of time—and still do—struggling to stay grounded against the lure of what’s out there. I suppose after decades of trying to find a balance, I’ve reached a nascent détente between keeping my feet on the ground and my head in the clouds. Living into this realization, I’ve come to apprehend how the “space colonization” fantasy can serve as a cosmic escape hatch for transcending a perilous and precarious world. Even worse, it deigns to relieve us of the clear and present obligation to help restore what we have wreaked on this planet.

The Trouble with Tropes

From the shards of a dying world sprang forth a determined band of ragtag adventurers, those hardy (and foolhardy) souls who had the temerity and sheer stubbornness to survive the cataclysmic confluence that deluged the world as humankind had known it. For a brief moment it seemed as if humanity might get lucky, going through the eye of the needle on gossamer wings made of equal parts global warming and nuclear winter, floods and droughts cancelling each other out, material scarcity finding its counterbalance in technological abundance—and in the process opening a window of opportunity to lift the human experiment beyond the surly bonds of that which it had wrought. They had hoped to leave in grace, culturally and societally intact, but it wasn’t to be. These few score were the only ones to make it…
With apologies for having you read my backhanded attempts at fiction (“like swimming uphill in pea soup,” was how I recall once hearing it described), the takeaway is clear and the point still stands: science fiction treatments often reproduce this narrative in varying degrees, sometimes amping up the “shards of a dying world” motif, other times latching onto the “band of ragtag adventurers” trope. The basic lesson isn’t all that subtle: it’s too late for this old world, and our destiny is in the heavens anyway. Not only that, but space gives us a do-over, a second chance, a clean slate, a mountain to nobly climb, a problem(s) to solve worthy of such a clever, resourceful, and preordained species. Those who came before us and fouled the whole thing up didn’t have the tools to build ladders to the sky. But we do.

  Image: Pixabay

The blurring of science fiction with science fact confirms the premise. The earth is indeed in crisis, at least in terms of its capacity to continue supporting us and complex life in general; and while we haven’t completely abandoned the idea of science solving our mundane problems here, it’s not quite as sexy a narrative as deploying our best and brightest toward the challenge of what it might be like to start over out there—plus it avoids the drudgery of cleaning up our mess on the home front. Why sweep the floors and spackle the walls when you can design sleek new biodomes in which humans can showcase their can-do spirit, their fealty to rank ordering and inspired camaraderie equally, and especially the myriad miracles of modern technology? Out there is what it could’ve been like if we’d gotten it together here.

Living Large

And what’s wrong with this story, after all? It appears increasingly likely that the coming crises, of which we have barely skimmed the surface, present a clear and present danger not only to the habitat but to our ability to navigate the way forward with dignity and compassion. Crisis and conflict are often taken as ideologically linked, but ontologically it’s equally evident that cooperation in the face of crisis is an advantageous strategy. Despite ostensible appearances to the contrary, human beings are generally prosocial creatures with a long history of everything from food sharing to collective problem solving. This isn’t the whole tale, of course, but it’s a good bet that we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t deeply rooted. Say what you will about people—shout their foibles from every mountaintop, repeat them on every street corner, and tweet them on every device—but who else are you going to hang out with?
Even out there among the stars—basking in pools of crystalline liquids under a multitude of moons, traversing impossibly radiant terrains on unfathomable planetoids, drifting elegantly through the inky void in torsional vessels of gleaming innovation—it’s still going to be just us, most likely, for the near future at least. Yes, I grok the deus ex machina urge to summon superior beings who finally answer the unsettling question of our uniqueness; whether in their various quasi-fictional incarnations as either saviors or slayers, the reality of intelligent life from another world is a paradigm-shifting manifestation. And whichever way it breaks, we’re in a better position to navigate it as a spacefaring species: it might attract the good ones by announcing our presence and pluckiness, or it might help defend against the bad ones by giving us a fighting chance either to make an honorable stand or to disperse and reseed. (Yes, this duality appears like some sort of mashup akin to The Independence Day the Earth Stood Still.)
Indeed, people can do a lot of heroic things when given a chance. Unfortunately we’ve mostly opted for rewarding domestication in recent decades, trapping most of us in recurring cycles of a hipper version of The Truman Show, while leaving the heroism to those larger-than-life telegenic action figures or the self-anointed titans of industry and innovation. There’s no scenario too farfetched for the former to solve, and there’s no margin too slim for the latter. Need a last-second antidote to stem a global cataclysm? Guaranteed one-day shipping to anywhere in the world? No problem, they’ve got you covered. Looking for someone to take out a renegade nuke or open up their spare bedroom? They’re on it. It’s not quite like dialing up Slim Pickens (of Dr. Strangelove fame) bronco-busting a ballistic missile to its final target, but these modern-day Space Cowboys (real and surreal) will help us ride off into the heliopause, bound for the final frontier that has always beckoned. The solar system isn’t going to settle itself, after all.

The Original Position

The power of narratives in shaping landscapes and cultures is self-evident, and origin stories have a way of imprinting their ethos on subsequent events. In Western lore, the most common allegorical account of the original position is built on the perfect impossibility of the Garden of Eden and humankind’s inherent impetus to destroy it. Or perhaps more to the point, our destiny seems to be a combination of a profound inability to follow even benevolent edicts when they conflict with desire, and an eternally restless spirit that will carry us near the limits of knowledge but may ultimately lead to our demise. Our self-possessed explorations can conquer worlds—at least until doing so renders them uninhabitable.
Still, the part of this saga that taps into our indomitable spirit of pushing past prescribed limits fuels our imaginations and stokes the fires of discovery—both of which are innately tied to our collective future. As someone who studied physics and astronomy precisely due to the influence of this mode of thinking (to wit: the future is in the stars, if we are to have one at all), I’ve come to recognize the cautionary tale inherent in taking this logic to its, well, logical conclusion: There’s no problem too big for human minds to solve, if given enough time, and even if we create bigger problems in the process we can always stay one tick ahead of the clock if we’re smart about it. Apparently, all it takes in the end is a few good men…
There’s an archetype emerging of the benevolent messiah who will lead humanity into the final frontier, especially among some of the notable tech barons of the era. They can make a better mousetrap, and in the process make a fortune—which gives them the unique capacity and perspective to boldly go where no government has gone before. They’ve got the power, the handpicked teams, the hardware and the software, the vision and the means to fabricate it, and they want us to know: they’re going to save us all.

Fallow the Leaders

Enter one Jeff Bezos, the mastermind of e-commerce whose true purpose and aim has always been to deliver not only packages but the promise of a better future in space. As Frank Foer’s incisive expose in The Atlantic laid bare, Bezos has carried forth an inner obsession to launch space missions, deploying his energy and funneling his discretionary spending toward the prospect of its realization through his lesser-known company, Blue Origin. “There’s a utopian element to it that I find very attractive,” he waxed, and it really is quite a beautiful vision, hopeful and heartfelt with a dose of hubris (note: the original site language has been updated over the years since this was excerpted, but the gist remains the same):
“Blue’s part in this journey is building a road to space with our reusable launch vehicles, so our children can build the future. We will go about this step by step because it is an illusion that skipping steps gets us there faster. Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast…. The Blue Origin feather is a symbol of the perfection of flight. It represents freedom, exploration, mobility and progress. For thousands of years, we humans have been looking up at the birds and wondering what it would be like to fly. Now, we look up to the stars and pursue a bright future for all of us…. Blue Origin believes that in order to preserve Earth, our home, for our grandchildren’s grandchildren, we must go to space to tap its unlimited resources and energy. Like the Industrial Revolution gave way to trade, economic abundance, new communities and high-speed transportation—our road to space opens to (sic) the door to the infinite and yet unimaginable future generations might enjoy. Paving the way starts now.”
And then of course there’s one Elon Musk, the singular venture capitalist and serial adventurist with his own collection of rockets and vessels. His most urgent short-term passion is to get us to Mars, to help us plant a permanent flag and not just take a couple of cool photos for the Twitter (X?) feed. His offshoot company SpaceX plainly tells us what their mission is, as Musk’s own words frame the digital travel brochure that is the SpaceX online portal, beckoning us toward our place in the cosmos: “You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great—and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”
And just because good things always come in threes, we have Richard Branson, magnate and visionary, whose principal operation identified its noble purpose (circa 2019): “Virgin Galactic recognizes that the answers to many of the challenges we face in sustaining life on our beautiful but fragile planet, lie in making better use of space. Sending people to space has not only expanded our understanding of science, but taught us amazing things about human ingenuity, physiology and psychology. From space, we are able to look with a new perspective both outward and back. From space, the borders that are fought over on Earth are arbitrary lines. From space it is clear that there is much more that unites than divides us.” (I’m not sure what Gates and Zuckerberg are up to, but they’d better step up their game.)

We Come in Peace

Just to recap: we have to go to space, as soon as possible, if there’s any hope of (a) solving our current problems, including the environmental and sociopolitical ones, and (b) having a human future at all. It would have been nice if our progeny could build their future here, but the proposition is too tenuous to gamble on at this point; and if it happens to be that some spin-off tech from the outerworld (either a cache of deliverable resources, a new clean energy source, or a better mousetrap) saves Mother Earth and its remaining children, then it’s a win-win. If not, at least we’re batting .500, which is a new record.
Maybe I’m being too cynical and should suspend any disbelief while reconnecting with my erstwhile space fixation. These guys are among our cleverest innovators, right, and who doesn’t want to believe in the unlimited power of human imagination and ingenuity? And hey, it’s not like I’m rooting against us making it, either here or there or both. But those pesky feet on the ground aren’t convinced it will be that easy, having walked miles in the beautiful mire of this old world, even with our complicated imprint upon it. As Kendra Pierre-Louis quotes in the essential book All We Can Save, “Earth is Easy Mode”—and inquires: “What does it say that spinning a story about humans moving into a radioactive vacuum resonates more strongly with many people than our chances of reducing greenhouse gas emissions?”

  Image: Pixabay

From the vantage point of a social critic, I see the paucity of the notion that space is our salvation, and even apprehend its abject horror. If we aspire to “colonize” space (with all the implications within that concept) with the same rapaciousness and will-to-power that got us to the crisis point in the first place, we’re more likely to spread a scourge than solve a spate of problems. Does the impetus to explore inherently devolve upon hubris, or can humility be the driver? I’d like to think the latter is possible, but history rarely records the deeds of the humble wanderers who seek peace rather than conquest. Maybe the future will do so, but only if we resist the temptation to abdicate our responsibility to the present.

Surreal Estate

Way back in the halcyon mid-1960s, philosopher and economist Kenneth Boulding pointed out the logical tensions between conquest and sustainability: “I am tempted to call the open economy the ‘cowboy economy’, the cowboy being symbolic of the illimitable plains and also associated with reckless, exploitative, romantic, and violent behavior, which is characteristic of open societies. The closed economy of the future might similarly be called the ‘spaceman’ economy, in which the earth has become a single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution, and in which, therefore, man must find his place in a cyclical ecological system….” The basic dilemma thus is squarely posed: exploitation or ecology? recklessness or respect? violence or viability?
I think humankind can and will get to the stars (or at least the planets and moons) in the not-too-distant future. If we approach this threshold as conquerors and colonizers, looking to acquire more real estate and extract wealth, it might be a short stay. If we arrive as visitors and learners, maybe we’ll find solace. Just as the lingering appearances of “cowboy diplomacy” can provoke both cold and hot wars, notions of going to space with the same shoot-from-the-hip ethos may prove disastrous. Technological innovation alone will tell just part of the story; ultimately, the fundamental design problem of space exploration will be less about connecting tubes and wires than about fostering our sense of connection to peoples and places. We can deepen our bonds to one another—and this world—while slipping the surly ones too.

NOTE: The original version of this too-long diatribe was written way back in 2019, but the ideas are basically evergreen and have been on this mind for decades. The ambivalence of discovery versus determination, between space and sustainability, between starting over and staying rooted is palpable on many levels, from the personal to the planetary. I only slightly revised this piece to update a few links and change a couple of tenses, but the song mostly remains the same. My own evolution in the intervening five years, though, clearly has tended more toward digging in than taking off — with notable implications but also vast possibilities.