A People’s History of Outer Space

With the release of the newest installment of the Star Trek franchise, we turn our gaze once again towards space, the final frontier.

Outer space has played host to many opposing forces throughout our history, with different institutions claiming ownership at different times. How can these narratives help inform a more liberatory version of the universe in which everyone, not just the privileged few, can live long and prosper?

On a cool, smog-laden summer night in southern California many years ago, my father and I were stargazing from our backyard when he asked me suddenly if I believed in aliens. I, of course, said yes. “But the Bible doesn’t mention any aliens,” he reminded me. I (age 11) rolled my eyes and turned away in annoyance, escaping into the infinite darkness above and around me. Later that evening I’d begin reading Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, launching a lifelong love affair with space.

I’m not alone in this love affair. The way we talk about outer space has always been hyper-romantic, emotional, and mystical: that is to say, uncharacteristically unscientific. Before Einstein and Hawking began writing about relativity and black holes, and even before Galileo and Kepler began describing planetary motion, ancient civilizations looked to the stars for spiritual guidance. The gods lived in constellations; the heavens were in the heavens.

Our uniquely passionate relationship with outer space has made the cosmos an embattled realm, with claims of ownership staked by various institutions and ideologies. The earliest debates have taken on mythical qualities: the story of Galileo standing up to the Roman Inquisition in defense of heliocentrism reassures us that the triumph of science over superstition is inevitable.

Until the mid-20th century, however, characterizations of outer space remained mostly theoretical. This changed with the advent of modern physics and engineering; suddenly, the stars were quite literally in our grasp. The time between the first aerial circumnavigation and the first orbit of Earth from space was less than 40 years. The Cold War’s Space Race and real-life Star Wars (more officially known as the Strategic Defense Initiative) were fought between U.S. and Communist powers to establish dominance over the skies. For the first time, the battle over space surpassed ideology and entered physical reality. The Space Race undoubtedly yielded important scientific discoveries, but this was secondary to political and military agendas concerning missiles and nuclear armament. And although the conversation around international space programs has evolved to include talks of peace, collaboration, and friendly science, billions of dollars are still spent every year by the United States government on military space initiatives.

Now that human space exploration seems destined to occur in our lifetime, it is more important than ever that we remain vigilant about its potential costs. Despite the aspirational nature of outer space – exemplified in the deployment of space communicators such as Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson into STEM classrooms – it’s hard not to notice the imperialist undertones lurking within the seemingly benign discourse of curiosity. On July 22, the most recent installment in the Star Trek franchise premiered with the following familiar words:

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

As a Trek devotee myself, I have been known to tear up at these words, to lose myself in their cheap sentimentality, to dream one day of traveling outer space for myself. But on closer examination, they construct space as a territory to be penetrated, explored, and possibly conquered. The concept of the “final frontier” is not new: Manifest Destiny, for example, was a narrative that encouraged and legitimized 19th-century American expansionism. But the frontier has traditionally been an inhospitable, bloody place for people of color. The phrases “to boldly go” and “explore strange new worlds,” while perhaps intended to captivate the imagination, belong to a broader rhetoric of imperialism and exploitation. After all, the European “discovery” of the Americas resulted in the loss of 95% of the indigenous population and the subsequent establishment of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Although the original Star Trek creatives (to their credit) likely developed the Prime Directive as a critique of U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asia, contemporary works of science fiction are replete with narratives of settler colonialism. The short-lived TV show Firefly (2002), in which humans terraform planets for colonization, borrows heavily from colonial/pioneer imagery in an ode to westerns (and from techno-Orientalism as well, but that’s another story). While scientists like to nitpick the technical verisimilitude in these depictions, they are also deeply committed to the possible colonization of Mars, as outlined in a 36-page NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) document titled Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration.

We seem not to have much choice in the matter, however. The ever-present fear of alien enemy combatants invading Earth not only fuels TV and movie franchises but also ensures that society look to authoritarian institutions (such as the military) with gratitude and relief instead of suspicion. Even the more domestic threat of resource scarcity and environmental collapse looms over any attempt to disavow space colonization.

Given the intractable power of the colonial imagination, will we as humanity ever respond to the unknown with compassion rather than exploitation? Will we ever recall from deep within our collective memory that outer space – in its infinity and limitlessness – has been with us all along in the atoms that make up our bodies?

One possible strategy – as offered by a Manifesto of the Committee to Abolish Outer Space – is to “return the cosmos to its proper domain, which is mythology, so that when we look up it will be in fear and wonder, and the knowledge that we live in a world that is not possible.” Given that the current trajectory of space exploration seems headed toward militarization and/or privatization, perhaps space should remain symbolic rather than a tangible reality. Maybe space is better left accessible to no one than only accessible to the wealthiest and most powerful.

But such a decree would be no less totalitarian than the current military-space industrial complex. Space has been and always will be symbolic to humans, no matter how far we encroach into its territory. Its possibilities are quite literally infinite. Instead of “abolishing” outer space out of fear that capitalist institutions will ruin it, we could empower citizen science and work toward truly democratizing the skies (not just harness free civilian labor for existing projects). Instead of making colonization an end goal, we could gently explore with humility and thoughtfulness without pursuing material – or even scientific – gains (after all, scientific discoveries tend not to stay unexploited for long). And instead of using xenophobia to force a fearful solidarity on Earth, we could make space the most inclusive community ever to exist…if we can stand to broaden our understanding of life, consciousness, and existence.

Furthermore, institutions like patriarchy and empire remain mythology in outer space – and are thus vulnerable to erosion, if not complete extinction. Science fiction – including my beloved Wrinkle in Time – has always taken note of this phenomenon. Historically, speculative fiction has functioned as social critique, arguably more political (though not necessarily more leftist) than any other fiction genre. Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and Left Hand of Darkness offer radical visions of societies free of commodity and gender, respectively. Octavia Butler wrestles with how to create community with monsters in her Xenogenesis trilogy. The universe of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga has invented a “uterine replicator,” dramatically changing women’s roles and rights in relation to men.

Beyond merely setting the stage for social commentary, the cosmos may form a different sort of space for liberatory imaginations. First described by Mark Dery in his essay Black to the Future, Afrofuturism is a cultural aesthetic in which Black diasporic futures – as imagined by thinkers and artists such as Butler, Samuel Delany, Janelle Monae, and even Beyonce – proliferate in defiance of historical oppression on Earth. Now, more than ever, it is clear that present-day Earth is not for Black people. If the past and present history of Black society is defined by systematic racism, violence, and negation, Afrofuturism is about Black creativity, spirit, and survival. If techno-optimism is about erasing current problems and hurtling naively into a utopian blank slate, Afrofuturism is about memorializing historical trauma in the march toward progress.

If I were to look up at the night sky tonight, the stars would have an artificial halo created by my prescription lenses. When I take my glasses off, the glow expands to a large, fuzzy ball of light hanging in the sky. This used to bother me – and still does at times, especially when I am out in nature and realize with frustration that I cannot distinguish individual bodies in the densely populated night sky. But maybe there is no true way to “see” outer space. Maybe there is no outer space at all, except for what we make of it: just a blank canvas for our human insecurities, hopes, and triumphs.

Kelly Jiyoon Park is a medical student and science fiction enthusiast based in Los Angeles. She is passionate about reproductive rights, mental health literacy in immigrant communities, and not actively contributing to the medical industrial complex. In her free time, she enjoys choral singing and having strong feelings about social justice, books, and the internet.