Friday 13 July 2012

Space: the Fiscal Frontier? - How Capitalism Has Hijacked the European Space Programme

Humanity’s future is in space. What better safeguard is there for the long-term survival of humanity than the colonisation of Mars? Few things have managed to inspire people as much as Yuri Gagarin’s first orbital flight around planet, or as Neill Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, as he watched the Blue Marble on the shallow horizon. No state has claimed property to parts of space – it is sacred ground, where no arms are meant to be placed, and were only peaceful activities are meant to be conducted. The exploration of space is one of humanity’s highest aspirations, and a human presence on another world remains one of our most powerful visions. Yet, in the age of capital, this awe-inspiring project has fallen victim to capitalist megalomania, and the EU has played its part.

Space policy was one of the first areas where Europe has agreed that only a common strategy would allow for a successful undertaking. Particularly after WWII, no European state was strong enough to bear the burden of building up a space programme on its own, and after a somewhat bumpy start, the European Space Agency (ESA) was founded in 1975. ESA’s Convention states that its programme serves “exclusively peaceful purposes,” and until the 1990s, this remained more or less the case. ESA’s Giotto was the first successful mission to a comet, the small probe Huygens was the first to land on Saturn’s moon Titan, European spacecraft are currently orbiting Mars and Venus, and Rosetta will hopefully be the first man-made object to successfully land on a comet.

However, in recent years, and particularly since the start of EU involvement with the European space programme in the early 2000s, non-research based projects have become the focus. It was the European Commission that pushed for Europe to build its very own satellite navigation system: it’s called Galileo, and costs 4 billion euros. GMES (Global Monitoring for the Environment and Security), the second EU “flagship programme” in space, costs around 2.7 billion euros, and will give Europe an independent earth observation capability. Both projects are financed by the EU and its Member States, but built, implemented and operated by ESA. Both projects have specific military purposes: Galileo’s high-precision signal will primarily be used by military customers, and GMES’s earth observation capabilities can also be used for espionage. ESA has gone astray from its originally purely peaceful mandate, and is now openly participating is so-called dual-use activities, which serve both civilian and military purposes. At the same time, ESA’s more ambitious research-based projects, such as the Aurora programme, which intends to send Europeans to Mars by 2030, are now seen as unrealistic and not implementable. Even in space, the things that make us human – our curiosity and our drive to explore the unknown – had to give in to a system that is based on a commodity fetish.

Vision of a European astronaut on Mars

Even our space programme has to produce growth and profit (which are the official justifications for building Galileo and GMES), which underlines that the capitalist system is undermining human technological progress. To transport people to the ISS, we rely on the Russian Soyuz-system which was developed in the 1960! Technological developments are deliberately held back for the sake of profit, which is why the idea of hydrogen-powered cars is still science-fiction, and why our space programme has hardly made any technological progress since the 1970s. In the hive mind of neoliberal economists, it makes sense to merely develop technology to the point where there is a slight advantage vis-à-vis one’s competitors. We should be in space, and we should all be driving electric cars, but the neoclassical economic principles that are religiously believed in undermine technological progress, which is urgently needed to create a sustainable future for humanity on this planet.

I know that many of you will think, “Well, why would we spend money on exploring space anyway – people are starving!” Human suffering on earth has both nothing and everything to do with money. Water and wheat are sold as commodities, and while stock market traders in Europe may open their champagne bottles when food prices are rising, the vast majority of human beings pay the price. Money does not feed people, and money does not build schools and hospitals – it is human beings who have to that. If development aid means giving money to poor people to buy European and American products, we need to begin reconsidering our development policy. But that topic deserves a post of its own.

What is certain is that we must not allow the principles of capitalism to bury our most sacred dreams and ambitions alongside its numerous other victims. Europe has to reorient its space policy towards exploration, both to fulfil what it means to be human, and to secure the long-term future of humanity.

Harald Köpping

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