What is the legacy of colonialism on space exploration?

Oftentimes space advocates expect leaving Earth will advance human society. To date, society on Earth has certainly been plagued by many problems, a notable one being colonialism and its legacy. Are we sure we will not simply bring societal problems on Earth to other locations? To learn about colonialism’s legacy in space, we spoke to Dr. Natalie Treviño. She recently completed her PhD at Western University in Canada on decolonial theory and space exploration.

What are coloniality and colonialism and how do they relate to space exploration?

Coloniality is a structure of control and influence that impacts social, political, cultural, and even imagined conditions of the world. This structure of control and influence places Western ideas, peoples, and ways of knowing as superior to others. You can think of it as the continuation of some aspects of colonialism through the years. Colonialism, of course, is the conquest of lands and peoples – the era of colonialism that shaped coloniality is that of Western colonialism conquering parts of Asia, Africa, and the Americas. This conquest produced the needed labor (slaves) and resources (gold, sugar, wood, etc.) that gave Europe the ability to modernize and grow wealthy. This in turn fueled the industrial and scientific revolutions, as well as political ones like the French Revolution. The colonial era provided the conditions that produced ideas about legitimate knowledge, governance, humanity, and ways of being. This legitimacy, however, was Eurocentric.

Fast forward to the early space age when the US and Russia were producing their justifications for space exploration. What we see are justifications linked to war and exploitation along with the language of humanity, peace, and prosperity. While there is talk about humanity, the activities and policies surrounding space reinforce exploitation. We have von Braun writing the preface to a book entitled For All Mankindwhen it was he who used victims in a concentration camp to build the rockets that bombed England and were later reworked to go to the Moon. In this context, we can see the logic of coloniality – some people are worth only exploiting while others gain. So, who actually benefits when space exploration is meant to benefit all humankind? My point is not that we will “repeat” colonialism in space but that the logic of coloniality will impact how we see and function in space.

Why are you interested in this intersection of coloniality, colonialism, and space exploration?

I have loved space and space exploration since I was a little girl. I used to look up at the Moon and stars all the time wondering about the universe. But I also saw the world around me – the Cold War, poverty, blatant disregard for the natural world and so many of the peoples in it. As a child does, I promised the Moon I wouldn’t let those things happen to or on her. Of course, as I went through my education, I came to realize that this promise was not nearly as simple to keep as 11-year-old me thought. The world is vast and complex, as is the cosmos. People can have the best of intentions but the worst of impacts.

Perhaps it is the strategist in me, but I began to wonder why all aspects of migration into space were not being actively considered. STEM dominates the space discourse, but what about philosophy, social orders, design, political evolution? Where are these being taken seriously? How are these things impacting policy, planning, and visions of the future? Questions like these lead me to questions that I find even more interesting. What could the future in space be? What if it could be radically different from this world? Radical change does not require the denial of challenges. Rather, engaging with space exploration can help us to solve them. In this way, all peoples and all ways of being and knowing can be part of space exploration.

How do you think considering coloniality could influence space exploration going forward?

By considering the impact of coloniality on space exploration, space advocates can better critique and dismantle the negative aspects of space exploration and actively create alternatives. We need not reproduce racism or environmental devastation. That being said, we cannot stop reproducing them until we fully grasp how they are intertwined. When there are major space figures like Elon Musk celebrating an anti-democratic coup in Bolivia because it may benefit his space company, one must ask questions. Is going into space, supposedly to save all of humanity, worth the loss of democracy and human rights?

What I have found in my research is that there is a problem with wishful thinking in the space community. There’s an idea that, once we’re in space, all our problems will be solved. In reality, we should be solving earthly problems at the same time as we are exploring space. By doing that, when we do migrate into space, we can do so conscious of our faults and strengths. If we continue to be in denial about the history of exploration and exploitation, we cannot create a future on Earth or in space that is equitable or bright.