KABELO MOTSOENENG ’20
In 1652, curious white men went on a voyage of the Atlantic and landed in the Bay of Cape Town. They were curious about the world. Historians posit that these men traded with Africans, but I argue that they began the dispossession of African resources. They would later rape African women, engage in genocidal acts and occupy the land. Some scholars often refer to the conference in Europe where white men sat around a table and marked which territory they will call their own. They demarcated it. The British took the largest slice of the African cake. The French followed. The Italians tried. The Dutch had long annexed the land in the foot of the continent. Everyone was there but the rightful owners of that land were absent. (Absent is also a false and misrepresentation of their reality, but we shall use that for now.)
The enslavement of Africans in the Eastern and Western coasts had passed many years prior; the West made their possessory claims and Arab nations did, too. Every nation stole from Africans, its people, and its land. All of this was under the guise of curiosity, corporation, and trade but there was an undercurrent notion of dominance, ideas of othering. White men had sifted through humanity and us—granular grains of persons in the Global South— were the stubborn mass that wouldn’t pass through the sift.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first people to land on the moon in July of the late 1960s. Science teachers drilled that into our heads. The voyage into outer space was presented as an apolitical issue but history argues otherwise. The Cold War was fierce and divisive. Patrice Lumumba was killed. The Nigerian Biafran war continued. Nelson Mandela and anti-apartheid activists were sent to Robben Island. The Stonewall riots were yet to take place. Kennedy had just been assassinated years earlier. America was making its place everywhere in the universe: wanting to make claim of the moon, the people and oil. But the political decolonization in former British colonies was taking place and the Organization of the African Union was at its infancy.
In a rapidly changing world, life outside Planet Earth has been of key interest to scientists who study the universe. The study of this field has been common as earlier as the 14th century. Technological innovation and a plethora of knowledge attempt to understand how human life can be supported in other planets; scientists have found and are continuing to investigate some of the elements that can support human life on Mars.
A body of international and national law, known as Space Law, regulates space access and the uses of celestial components. In an ideal world, Space Law helps to limit conflict that might ensue between sovereign nations in contestation of space. While all these are noble, it is imperative to acknowledge that interests about celestial life are corporatized. For Global South people, the existence of such laws — governing life, land, and resources that are designated to a certain group — retrogrades how nations like the United States continue to colonize Puerto Rico and how British coded laws were used to govern nations that were forcefully occupied by the British.
Spacecrafts are the new sea voyagers, on a journey of dispossession. Spacecrafts carry persons who want to claim land, celestial subjects, and life that does not belong to them as theirs. This kind of astronomy is a glamorized form of colonization.
Without expanding our understanding of justice, we will not analyze and posit how a half-a-century worth of space traveling and knowledge is what colonization looks like. When the colonial project emerged, the land was annexed. Looking at celestial land as a property that does not belong to Earthly subjects is important. People are dispossessed of their resources because a hierarchy exists — those who are considered inferior are violated by those who deem themselves superior. As subjects who belong to Planet Earth, we consider everything that is not in our immediate realities as inferior — therefore the voyage to Mars should not be analyzed outside the frameworks of justice and how science works as a tool for dispossession, making us complicit to endangering life outside of our Earthly, human realities.
The problem with the voyage to Mars is the way it reproduces ideas of cultural hegemony and power. Conceptualization of “Life” and “the Universe” emanates from the view of the ruling class — Earth human subjects, in this case — and this framing benefits those who create it. Principally, as dominant species, we have constructed universal conditions from our subjectivity as natural and inevitable. Instead of enabling justice and freedom, the occupation of Mars — should it happen — will double the how the economic and social structures we have constructed on Planet Earth become duplicated into celestial life, leading to destruction.
We live in a global system that has not resolved issues of colonization. Native Americans are still subjugated in a country that belongs to them. Puerto Rico remains the United States’ territory. Descendants of settler colonialists are still part of the ruling class in Southern Africa. We ought to be highly skeptical when science missions are not thoroughly examined.
Terrestrial and celestial land belongs to those who are indigenous to it. And the world we live in demands us to be critical of enterprises that could further ideas of domination and dispossession.