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Issue 10

New Beginning for Humanity or Anarchy?- A look into Space Laws

On the occasion of SpaceX’s Texas facility launch in 2019, CEO Elon Musk described how life on Mars would be and spoke of Mars’ city sustenance and the idea of democracy in International space —-all of which was seen as a precursor to Musk’s plan for Martian residence. While Elon Musk at the time described SpaceX’s Mars plan as part of a mission to democratise Mars, create self-sustaining cities on the planet and carry “maybe around 100k people per Earth-Mars orbital sync,” which he mentioned in his tweet. Following these claims Musk also spoke about governance on Mars and the way social structures would function on the red planet. Claiming to land humans on Mars by 2024-26, Elon Musk’s proposed Martian idea stands in conflict with the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty signed in 1967. While the signatories of the Treaty include the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States, a closer look at the clauses makes one question whether Musk’s dream could actually turn into reality. A look at the treaty makes one question, whether a private company and its employees along with billionaires seeking to pay for Martian travel and accommodation, actually set up and sustain a city with its own government on the planet, as Musk claimed on Twitter and his speech. The Treaty states that “ the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind”, and Musk’s proposed idea for the planet does not yet describe how potential Martians will be selected. Will these be billionaires paying their way to the “fixer-upper of a planet” as Musk calls it, or will they people randomly selected on a lottery?

Further, how the society and governance have to be structured on Mars seems to be out of the hand of the technocrat billionaire, despite his plans and claims for the planet. One of the clauses of the Treaty states that “outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means”, which stands in contradiction to Musk’s plans wherein he claims sovereignty over the red planet and its resources. Another idea that seems to be a conundrum with regards to space travel, SpaceX’s plans as well as Musk’s aspirations is the Treaty’s explicit mention of state entities, state laws and international laws holding true even in outer space. 

An analysis of Musk’s space plans and the UN’s Space Treaty makes one question the future of Martian colonisation, the government therein and the role of private companies like SpaceX in the process. The analysis seeks to question if Musk will rule over Mars by virtue of his expedition, if the Treaty, signed in 1967 will be altered for future space travel and residence, and if governments will have to bow in front of technocrats for the future of mankind. Musk’s plans also make one question how the Earth’s future would be as a planet, who will reside on it and whether Earth would become a waste-dump for Martians if that is to be ‘fixer-upper of a planet’. 

Another significant space travel and residence news was released soon after Musk’s tweets and interviews went viral, this was the announcement of the first space hotel, expected to open in 2027. Orbital Assembly Corporation (OAC) recently revealed their detailed plan for Voyager Station, a luxury space station cum hotel that is expected to accommodate over 400 guests. This plan too is one that will determine the future of space travel and inter-governmental as well as private company relations. With a room for the Voyager Station costing approximately $25 million, unlike SpaceX, the OAC makes clear who will have access to space travel and how it will affect the world. 

While both of these projects are still in the making, with predictive claims for the future, the presence of these ideas makes one question how society would be structured in the future. These projects also leave room to think about climate change, the future of the earth and who will be offered an alternative planet if this one fails. Furthermore, who will have control over space and will limited laws, signed in 1967 sustain the future of space travel?

Saman Fatima is a third-year History Major at Ashoka University, who is often found sketching or reading for leisure when not immersing herself in mandatory class assignments.

Picture Credits: NASA SpaceFlight.com

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 10

The Road to Mars – A Tale of Betraying and Befriending Physics

Let us embark on a journey to witness the past, present and future of Mars exploration, some unsolvable problems and their ingenious workarounds. Though I will not argue with philosophical rigour about a future that is wildly uncertain, I hope to motivate a well-informed instinct about a certain claim i.e. humans shall walk on Mars in the next decade. Understanding why this claim should be taken with a grain of salt at all requires us to acquaint ourselves with the challenges that humanity is up against in a journey to our planetary backyard. 

To reach Mars, we (obviously) need to leave Earth and get to space. On Earth, to move forward, vehicles on land push against the ground, in sea against water and in air against the atmosphere. This is a manifestation of Newton’s famous law – ‘Every Action has an equal and opposite reaction’. But in the vacuum of space, can one propel forward without pushing against anything? This problem was the reason why space travel was considered impossible in the scientific community until a Soviet school teacher, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, presented an ingenious workaround. He suggested that in vacuum a body can accelerate in one direction by throwing away a part of itself in the other. Rocket engines, throw parts of the rocket bit-by-bit and the part that is thrown away is – no surprise – the fuel. 

Though Tsiolkovsky’s solution made space travel possible, he left us with an important constraint in the form of the ‘Rocket Equation’. To travel farther in space, rockets need extra fuel. Carrying additional fuel, then, increases the weight of the rocket and moving heavier rockets requires even more fuel. But the additional fuel has its own weight and so on. This is the Tyranny of the Rocket Equation. Even in our best rockets, only the top of the pointy end is the stuff that carries real scientific value (often called the ‘payload’). The rest is simply a technologically advanced fuel container. 

Now, let us start moving towards Mars. One might think this is not too difficult because we can simply locate Mars and burn our engines in that direction. However, science in space does not like straight lines; we move in curves. Since the rocket is launched from Earth and Earth moves around the Sun in an ellipse, the rocket gets slingshot tangentially into space by our lovely planet. To move towards Mars in a straight line, we would need to burn one engine in the direction of Mars and another one to counteract the tangential velocity that Earth imparts on our rocket. Here is the catch – Earth moves really fast. The tangential velocity is so massive, it is impractical to counteract it with our puny engines and little fuel. 

Hohmann transfer orbit is the clever workaround we use now. Instead of continuously burning engines to move straight, Hohmann transfers utilize useful school-geometry to form an elliptical path such that we only need to burn our engines twice; first, to escape Earth’s orbit and the second time, near Mars, to match the Martian orbit. 

Even though our elegant elliptic routes are the most fuel-efficient way to reach Mars, they are far from quick. A one-way trip to Mars, using the Hohmann transfer takes about 6 months and the mission must start from Earth in a specific launch window that only occurs every 2.2 years (the three Mars missions by America, China and UAE all launching in the same week last year is not just a coincidence but a physics constraint). Long-duration space travel is not much of a problem for machines but evolution has fined-tuned humans towards Earthly comforts.

Fortunately, we have a great laboratory to understand space physiology – the International Space Station (ISS). Some astronauts in the ISS have spent an entire year floating around weightless. Muscle atrophy is the most obvious effect of microgravity on the human body, which is why astronauts must workout in space using special equipment. Even more nuanced problems are observed when it comes to visual perception, blood pressure, balance, bone density and more. There is an enormous amount of research being done in this recently developed field of science and the time spent by humans in ISS keeps yielding valuable insights. It is safe to say that we know how a year-long trip to Mars (for the most part) without gravity would impact our astronauts. 

We assume that the Martian trip would be a round one. Carrying enough fuel to make the to-and-fro mars journey is an unprecedented feat. This is where the tyranny of the rocket equation kicks in again because the fuel for the return trip becomes the payload of the first trip. Building a rocket capable of transporting this enormous amount of fuel presents hundreds of annoying engineering problems. A promising solution is to only carry enough fuel for a one-way trip and, once on Mars, refuel the rocket with what we can salvage. SpaceX, for their shiny new rocket named Starship, has successfully developed sophisticated engines that they call Raptors. They work on methane and oxygen, which SpaceX wishes to extract from the Martian atmosphere using the electricity that they generate on Mars with their solar panels.  Since Mars is further away from the sun, pioneering efficient solar energy is also one of the many research avenues that, though part of Martian exploration, can have a direct impact on improving life on Earth. 

We have looked at some theoretical and engineering problems that we know how to solve. There is one giant complication in human space travel and the solution to it, I believe, would be the defining call on whether or not humans make it to Mars in this decade. This is the problem of space radiation. At all times, there is lethal radiation being showered on us from all sides. Fortunately, Earth has a magnetic field generated by its molten metal core that wraps it like a cocoon. This Magnetosphere protects the inhabitants from lethal space radiation.  Astronauts who have stayed in space for a year have only been in the low-Earth orbit, a region that falls under the protection of Earth’s Magnetosphere. It is notoriously difficult to shield against this radiation and having thicker walls in our spacecraft has proven to be an ineffective strategy. There are proposals to develop active radiation shielding techniques involving clever use of plasma or generating the spacecraft’s own magnetic field to mimic that of the Earth. 

Space Radiation Shielding is the one problem where confidence in my claim dwindles. There are still reasons to be hopeful. We started the 20th century not knowing how to fly. In the next fifty years, we sent a man to space and in another decade, to the moon. The hundreds of other difficult problems that stood in our way to Mars are nearing completion and this has got the ball rolling in several research departments to revisit the radiation problem as one that would have immediate real-world impacts. Plans to go to the moon in the near future (see NASA’s Artemis Project) for longer missions would help us understand the effects of Space Radiation on human physiology and better equip ourselves for the long journey to Mars. 

To millions like me, it remains an incredible source of optimism to know that the first human who would walk on Mars is, arguably, studying in some school right now; a hopeful reminder of the fascinating days that we will witness in our lifetime and a humbling inspiration for the work that is yet to be done, in space and on Earth.

Kartik Tiwari is a student of Physics and Philosophy at Ashoka University, with a specialised interest in Astrodynamics and Science Communication. 

Picture Credits: Starship on Mars by Dale Rutherford

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 10

The Viability of Utopia Today

In a world experiencing a pandemic, ongoing economic recessions, political upheaval, and impending ecological collapse, what does it mean to think about utopia? Projects focused on outer space by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk seem to think that humanity can find its way out the hole it has dug for itself by founding utopian societies on other planets. Politicians have longed promised utopian programs of social renewal. As a researcher of utopia as a genre and a theory, the question I have in reading about such hopes is not can we achieve utopia on earth or in space—such questions are well beyond my capacity and training to answer. Instead, I’m interested in whether it is useful to think about utopia at all. Does imagining perfect worlds serve our present or our future, or do utopias simply set us up for disappointment and failure? 

To think about the viability of utopian thought today, it is useful to return to utopia’s origins. The idea of a perfect place has existed for as long as humans have been thinking and writing. Works like Plato’s Republic and Ravidas’s “Begumpura” offer visions of worlds that improve upon the ones in which their authors lived. The term utopia, however, was not coined until the early sixteenth century by English humanist Thomas More. Formed by combining the Greek “ou” (no) with “topas” (place) and punning on “eu” (good), utopia etymologically means “a good place that is nowhere.” This should tell us something. Utopia, as it was originally conceived, was not understood as a real place. It was, by its very definition, a contradiction. 

More’s Utopia (1516) itself is full of puns and paradoxes. Raphael Hythloday, who claims to have discovered an ideal island where people’s needs are met and all live in peace and harmony, seems honest enough in his narration. However, his name, Hythloday, means “speaker of nonsense” in Greek. This name itself calls into question the veracity of his narrative. The world that Hythloday describes is equally replete with contradiction: though it has a democratic government in which everyone is free, the island also has slaves and is quick to colonize other lands. Indeed, the birth of utopia as an early modern literary genre is closely tied to the beginnings of European colonization. The justifications for colonization used by Europeans eerily echo those of the Utopia when Hythloday says that many of the Utopians’ independent neighbors, who were “liberated by them from tyranny,” admired Utopian virtues so much that they “requested” magistrates from Utopia to come to their lands and govern them. Giving these colonizing impulses, this seemingly perfect island is not as idyllic as it seems. 

The difference between dystopia and utopia is a matter of perspective. As students in my class last spring used to say, “whose utopia is it?” For the rulers of Utopia, the island’s life may have appeared equitable and democratic, but not so for its slaves. This same ambiguity pervades many other works in the genre. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella Herland (1915), for instance, depicts a feminist world run by women that also has racist undertones. Ursula K. LeGuin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973) dramatizes the contradiction inherent to utopia by portraying the city Omelas, whose prosperity depends on the misery of a child in the basement. The effort to achieve perfect harmony, it seems, often necessities homogenization, which, in turn, leads to the oppression and erasure of those who are different. 

So where does this inevitable failure of the utopian leave us? Do we throw up our hands and forsake the hope that things might get better? To answer this question, we need first to reframe our notions of the utopian itself. I suggest (as do many scholars of utopia) that utopias were never meant to be read as templates or blueprints. To understand literary utopias or utopian political visions in this way is bound to lead us astray.

If we don’t see them as guides to the perfect life, what use might utopias have? Instead of understanding utopia as a perfect homogenous society, we might more usefully read it as a mode of cognitive estrangement. Utopia helps us view the world critically, producing wonder and disorientation, not as ends unto themselves but rather to unsettle the assumptions of the here-and-now with the suggestion that things could be different. Hence, Paul Ricouer aptly describes utopia as “a progressive counterblast to the essential conservatism of ideology.” If we understand utopia in this more capacious way—as a mechanism of transformation rather than as a perfect place—, we can more clearly see its value. Utopian visions, despite or even because of their flaws, promote reform in self-critical ways that foreground the tensions and contradictions inherent in reform itself.

A practical example of this type of utopian thinking is Chantal Mouffe’s notion of agonism, a philosophical outlook that emphasizes the importance of conflicting positions. Taking issue with John Rawl’s notion of liberal pluralism, Mouffe argues that in place of a morality that seeks to neutralize difference, we should understand politics as based in conflict between adversaries who may disagree but who respect each other. Agonism might seem a far cry from utopia, but I argue that it is a vital example of utopianism as it can be exercised today: this is a form of thought that unsettles what we take for granted—that the end goal of a liberal democracy should be agreement—and helps us see that there might be different ways of envisioning the political. 

Mouffe’s political theory is one example of contemporary utopianism, but utopia does not need to be confined to the ‘real’ world. Fiction is a valuable and often unrecognized bridge between the utopian and the political. Whether a Netflix series that unsettles our assumptions about the future or a novel that gives glimpses of a world that could be different, narrative fiction offers pathways for critique, a mode as vital to our world as to More’s. It’s tempting as a literature professor to use this as a chance to make a case for the value of the humanities, but this is not so much my point, at least not here. Rather, fiction is one of many possible vehicles for a utopianism that charts lines of flight to other worlds of possibility. These worlds do not have to be on Mars but instead can consist of smaller acts of reimagining what we take for granted and efforts towards change with the understanding that perfection will never be possible.

References: 

Mouffe, Chantal. Agonistics: Thinking The World Politically. London: Verso Books, 2013.

Ricoeur, Paul. Lectures on Ideology and Utopia, ed. George H. Taylor. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Alexandra Verini is a professor of medieval literature at Ashoka University. Her research interests include medieval and early modern gender, religion and utopia. She is currently completing a book that explores utopian thought developed in women’s devotional communities.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 10

The Scramble For Mars: Why Are We So Obsessed With the Red Planet?

The mysterious disappearance of Mars’ ocean witnessed a major breakthrough in the past week – it might have never been lost at all. A recent NASA-backed study found that between 30 to 99 percent of the planet’s water is likely held within its crust in the form of hydrated minerals. While the extraction of water from these minerals may not be an easy feat, the study has gathered substantial traction at a time when humanity is looking to Mars like never before. Why are human beings obsessed with colonizing Mars – and what does this obsession represent?

The desire to explore Mars initially stemmed from a curiosity to enhance knowledge about the conditions that lead to life on a planet. It is also studied to understand how critical shifts in climate fundamentally alter planets. Recently, though, the paramount motivation to explore the planet is rooted in the objective of establishing an interplanetary human civilization – as a crucial safeguard against mass-extinction.  

The obsession with colonizing Mars is a product of several factors. One argument holds that only a space-faring human civilization faces the best odds of survival. This perspective is closely linked to the fear of death and the desire for “immortality” which motivates sending humans to other worlds. Moreover, a “biological motive(s)” with respect to the innate human desire for migration has been repeatedly suggested to substantiate extra-terrestrial prospects for the human race. Additionally, the romanticization of establishing an interplanetary existence for human beings also arises from optimistic perspectives of establishing a “utopia”. Setting up a space-faring civilization is expected to unify humanity and positively impact perspectives on socio-political and economic systems to finally create an “ideal” society. 

As alluring as these reasons may be, they are not grounded in reality – especially given the glaring gaps in scientific knowledge about how to establish self-sustaining human life on Mars. The argument that only colonizing Mars, and other planets will significantly improve the chance of human survival can be countered by arguing that sending humans to other worlds may not prove to be safer beyond a probability analysis. Attempting to address crises on Earth – such as the climate emergency – may increase the probability of human survival as well. The prospect of reaching Mars can disrupt efforts to find possible solutions to problems on Earth.  

Secondly, it is important to acknowledge that the idea of human progression is one that is culturally propagated. Just as human beings have historically shown tendencies to migrate, they have also displayed the desire to settle down. Justifying colonization of other planets on this basis ignores the fetishization of space travel, that equates space exploration with technological advancement and national power. 

 Thirdly, notions of a utopian human existence on faraway planets are naïve. The connotations of the usage of the word “colonization” elicits references to intergenerational torture unleashed at the cost of building “moral” and “civilized” societies. The modern interaction between “colonization” of planets and the advent of large-scale capitalism is bound to have similar consequences. Though human activities in space are governed by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which posits that international law applies in outer space, the moon and other celestial bodies, the ambiguities in its laws allows corporate entities to circumvent its clauses.

This came to life in the case of SpaceX, a private company based in the United States that designs and manufactures rockets and spacecrafts. The company has declared that the services of one of its products will not fall under the jurisdiction of any Earth-based government; in addition, Earth-based governments will also agree to recognize Mars as a free planet. This position becomes more dubious when analyzing SpaceX’s CEO, Elon Musk’s, claim that “loans” and “jobs” will be made available for those unable to pay for the exorbitant trip across space to sustain their life on Mars; essentially representing an interplanetary repackaging of indentured servitude. Hence, given the current state of space legislation, it will not be anytime soon that economic and social equality will be ensured for a space-faring civilization – completely shattering any possibility of “utopia” on Mars. 

The colonization of Mars, consequently, also raises important moral questions – particularly about how a Martian society would operate. A new approach suggests that once human beings arrive at Mars, they should disconnect from their Earthly relatives. This “liberation” perspective implies that once permanent human settlers arrive at Mars, they should relinquish their planetary citizenship for Earth – instead adopting Martian citizenship. From that point on, the Martians should be left to their own devices. Any entities – governmental, non-governmental – must not engage with the economics, politics, or culture of this society. While scientific exploration by Earth’s citizens can continue on Mars, sharing research and information should only take place to achieve medical or educational goals. Most importantly, the citizens of Earth must not make any demands for Martian resources. 

The idea behind this position is simple – in order to develop a Martian extension of human civilization, it must be allowed to freely determine its fate, just as human beings did on Earth. Often the mission to establish human existence on Mars is projected as a “moral” position by governments and businessmen, in which case the liberation approach is the most principled execution of this goal. The reason why this idea doesn’t sit well with human society – and probably never will – is because colonizing Mars is, inherently, a selfish, human fantasy. This fantasy emerges from the desire to possess and profit – either in the form of capital or nationalist feats, or both. It is impossible to isolate the race to establish human settlements on different planets from geopolitical, social and economic processes existing on Earth; the maniacal pursuit of Mars is about scientific triumph as much as it is about a show of power.

The obsession to populate Mars, hence, represents the manifestation of the worst in humanity – never-ending curiosity coupled with little regard for ethical, sociopolitical, or economic consequences of the same. Instead of addressing the glaring issues that currently exist on Earth, there are strong desires to “advance” to the perceived next stage of human existence. While it can be debated whether occupying other planets will objectively be beneficial, the only thing that becomes painfully clear is that humanity is preparing to leap from one ill-fated land to the next – with little awareness or regard for the problems it will inevitably carry to the new worlds it explores. 

Aarohi Sharma is a Psychology student at Ashoka University. Her academic interests primarily focus on the intersection of politics and psychology in society.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).