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Becoming Martian

Space travel through the Middle Passage

The first Black woman in space, Dr. Mae Jemison, told poet Nikki Giovanni in a 1993 Essence magazine interview, “The Third World will be the ultimate beneficiary of space technology because we’re moving away from infrastructures.” Giovanni, who like Jemison has Alabama roots, was thrilled. This Afrofuturist techno-optimism is my favorite kind, even if as a Black feminist theoretical physicist, I have become quite cynical. Like Giovanni, I am a Star Trek fanatic. I believe in the Vulcan philosophy of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” even as I rail against what I call the diversity-and-inclusion racket here on Earth. My own experiences as a Black scientist have led me to believe the night sky is every person’s ancestral heritage and that connecting with the sky is part of what makes us human.

Only recently did I learn that two of my heroes were discussing these very ideas in a Black women’s magazine around the same time I, a ten-year-old Black girl, was deciding to become a theoretical physicist. Describing the items that she took into space with her, Dr. Jemison told Giovanni, “I wanted everyone to know that space belongs to all of us.” I love this statement, though I worry about the connotation of the verb belongs. In the context of this colonizer language, English, I often think of Adrienne Rich’s poem “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children,” and in particular the line, “This is the oppressor’s language / yet I need it to talk to you.” As members of the Black Atlantic, descendants of Africans who were kidnapped from their homes and forced to survive the Middle Passage and slavery, Jemison, Giovanni, and I share a linguistic displacement. We speak the language of our ancestors’ kidnappers and owners; we are socialized into their capitalist relationship to land—and now space. When Jemison says “belongs,” does she mean it in the sense of “owned”? When I speak of an “ancestral heritage,” do I mean something more than a capital inheritance?

We speak the language of our ancestors’ kidnappers and owners; we are socialized into their capitalist relationship to land—and now space.

This is not simply metaphysical speculation. These questions are, for me, matters of actual physics. They have been, for close to a century now, material issues of national security for rich nation-states. And as we enter the 2020s, they are understood to be of enormous economic significance. Meanwhile, low-Earth orbit is more and more crammed with tiny satellites launched by SpaceX, which is led by South African billionaire Elon Musk. The company tells us that these facilities are on a humanitarian mission to provide internet to rural communities; I simply cannot imagine these are their only intentions, and as a member of the Vera C. Rubin Observatory Dark Matter Working Group, I am keenly aware that these satellites have materially damaged our ability to observe the night sky. I am angry about this, but I must reckon with the fact that my mother and stepfather, who recently moved to a rural area to escape the incapacitating smoke of California’s persistent fires, are among the beneficiaries of satellite internet.

Musk is one of three billionaires to have launched a space company that claims to be rooted in humanitarian impulses yet looks, for all the evidence, like a power-hungry vanity project. He’s even easier to pick on than Richard Branson, who had the gall to echo Mae Jemison’s words about space belonging to us all while adamantly refusing to pay what many of us would agree are his fair share of taxes. Nobody likes Jeff Bezos, who has not only gutted small businesses but also is a bit of a bore. Musk, on the other hand, has given his youngest child a completely ridiculous, technoscience-inflected name, X Æ A-12. The Black African diaspora collectively giggled when rapper Azealia Banks referred to Musk, the child of a rich white investor in a Zambian emerald mine, as “Apartheid Clyde.”

Indeed, Musk has an extraordinary amount of undemocratically allotted power. He claims that he is planning to take humanity to Mars. Back in reality, our global ecosystem’s ability to sustain life is collapsing under the weight of centuries of white supremacist, capitalist colonialism—the exact structures that allow Musk to be anything more than an engineer with a Twitter account. People murmur about how these billionaires are planning to escape and leave the rest of us behind on a catastrophically warmed planet. And it is easy in this context to transition from Star Trek fanatic to hostile, anti-space luddite. How can we imagine leaving Earth’s surface and making a livable home elsewhere when we can’t even get it right here?

Becoming Earthian

The idea that we can abandon Earth and just move on and not meet the same fate somewhere else is silly. Our problems travel into space with us, as exhibited by the history of exclusion from space faced by Black and disabled people, and anyone else who isn’t an abled hetcis white man. Without the protection of Earth’s atmosphere and the stabilizing influence of the Earth’s gravitational pull, life is hard. As science studies and disability studies scholar Ashley Shew likes to remind people, we haven’t even totally worked out poop in space. Read any account by astronauts about life in space, and inevitably you get to amusing notes about floating poop. There are a lot of diapers involved. And for some people, life in diapers is normal and necessary. I once shared a panel with Shew where she patiently explained why colostomy bag users are more ideal astronauts than those of us who use toilets to defecate. Conjuring the ideal spacefaring body requires a different kind of imagination.

We should also stretch ourselves past the easy binary that governs our discussions about space and resource distribution here on the ground. Too many people believe that we must choose between living in better relations with our ecosystems (and each other) and going to space. People see the price tag associated with going to space—a number with a lot of zeros after it—and think we can’t afford it. The reality is, NASA has gotten multiple robots to Mars on a relatively light budget. What we spend on going to space is a tiny fraction of the annual defense (or major studio filmmaking) budget alone, though much of that money does ultimately end up in the hands of defense contractors who assist in designing the launch facilities. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. We can afford to do more than be space curmudgeons, and we can go to space without relying on a weaponized military-industrial complex. I have to make this argument all the time, sometimes to myself.

And the thing is, people are thrilled about going to space for non-military reasons. Nikki Giovanni is excited about going to Mars. In her collection Make Me Rain: Poems & Prose, Mars is a persistent refrain. That is where the Black child can escape to. Mars is a canvas for her Black freedom dreams. Sometimes I struggle to remember that this can be so, because our modern nationalist and capitalist space race cynically co-opts humanist visions of journeys into space. But then I think about Giovanni telling fellow Black Southerner and writer Kiese Laymon about growing okra—a staple of African and Black Atlantic diets—on Mars, and I remember, no, she is talking about a very different universe of possibilities.

In her poem “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars),” Giovanni declares that “the trip to Mars can only be understood through Black Americans.” She’s referring to the Middle Passage: the ancestors who survived that journey, she imagines, know the patience required for a difficult journey and understand how to start anew after a treacherous experience. This is an uncomfortable thought for me. The distance is almost incomprehensibly enormous between a chosen journey into space and a kidnapping and compulsory transatlantic journey with insufficient food, lying in one’s own waste and the waste of others, sometimes alongside people who have died or are dying. The comparison feels foul, even as I understand that she means that our ancestors made the decision to make something of their journey, to be human anyway, in all of the ways available to them. Giovanni’s poem argues that NASA needs “to ask us: How did you calm your fears . . . How / were you able to decide you were human even when everything / said you were not . . . ?”

The comparison is apt in the sense that the Middle Passage produced the possibility of fantastical journeys for others; so it is with our current arrangement in space travel. Both Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have recently lifted off from the Earth’s surface and flown at least to the edge of the atmosphere, if not really to space. The economic resources that made these journeys possible find their origins in the Middle Passage and similar violent, colonial nightmares, as well as the near-sweatshop labor conditions propagated by Bezos at Amazon. What’s more, the technological materials needed for spaceflight rely on the violently colonial global mining industry. In Brazil, where the real Amazon—a necessary part of our global ecosystem—is being burned to the ground, Black Brazilians known as quilombolas are displaced from their land in order to expand a spaceport in Alcântara. In Indonesia, the indigenous Abrauw Clan of Biak Island are facing the same fate. Meanwhile, peoples around the world are experiencing mass displacement, famine, and other tragedies because of the man-made technological advancements that drive climate change.

As a former NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow, I am aware that spacefaring organized by government organizations is not necessarily better. The next-generation iteration of the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA’s JWST, has, as of this writing, a planned December 2021 launch from a place called the European Spaceport. Coincidentally, the spaceport is nowhere near Europe but is in the Latin American region known as French Guiana, which as an overseas department is not technically a French colony, but it sure isn’t an independent country.

An artist's rendition of Mars from the nineteenth century. Appears in grayscale.
E.L. Trouvelot / The planet Mars, observed on September 3, 1877, at 11:55 p.m. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Stuck with the Worst of Us

This colonialism seems inescapable. So maybe I, too, want to lift off to Mars, to start over, to escape somehow. But part of the problem with being the kind of scientist I am is knowing how improbable this is—not just now but ever. After the sun, the next nearest star to Earth is Proxima Centauri. This means that the nearest planets to us outside of our solar system are Proxima Centauri b (first observed in 2016) and Proxima Centauri c (first observed in 2020). These planets are 4.2 light years away, and because the number involved is close to zero, you might think, “Well that’s not far.” But to understand what this distance entails, let’s recall that a light year is the distance light travels in the course of a year. Light, everybody knows, goes the fastest that anything can go in the universe: in a vacuum, it travels at 6.7 x 10^8 miles per hour, which is to say that it travels one million times faster than the speed limit on most American freeways. This means that to travel to Proxima Centauri in under five years, we would need to travel a million times faster than I do on my commute. The fastest people have ever gone in space is about twenty-five thousand miles per hour. At that speed, we could get to Proxima Centauri in 114,080 years.

These questions are not simply metaphysical speculation. They are, for me, matters of actual physics.

It’s hard to go much faster than this, the speed of light notwithstanding. People necessarily go more slowly than light because the more massive an object is, the more energy required to give it speed. The 2019 Chinese film The Wandering Earth, adapted from Liu Ciuxin’s short story of the same name, imagines that when our sun enters a red giant phase (which will genuinely happen in about 4.5 billion years), the people of Earth can collectively work together to rocket the planet to a safer location in another solar system. Though the premise of the film is intriguing, the idea of developing the type of energy source needed to move the Earth out of orbit like that is deeply unrealistic—though ultimately still more likely than traveling at the speed of light. The energy required to make anything more massive than a photon travel at the speed of light is, in our current theories of physics, infinite. In other words, without a radical new understanding of spacetime physics, we won’t be going anywhere much further than Mars. And our current technological capacity means that it will be a long, long while before we can sustain comfortable, habitable lifestyles there.

We are apparently stuck here together, Apartheid Clyde and I. If our species somehow managed to get ourselves to Proxima Centauri b, which is in that solar system’s habitable zone, we’d also almost certainly verify what we know already from observations: it likely has no atmosphere. We would not even be in a situation where the air had the wrong composition. We’d have to populate the atmosphere from scratch, and our ability to do so would depend on getting the necessary chemicals in place, the right gravitational conditions (a massive enough planet to hold the atmosphere in place), and the right radiative environment (wherein radiation from the star wouldn’t catastrophically damage the atmosphere we installed). We still don’t understand our own atmosphere. It’s hard to imagine we’ll be building a new one any time soon. But if we develop the capacity to do so, we should use that knowledge to rebuild our home.

I hate to say “rebuild” because our home has not completely burned to the ground—yet. Well, not everyone’s. Global warming-induced fires have already destroyed so much. Californians like me are keenly aware of this. The entire West Coast has undergone a shift in the last few years, with “fire season” taking on a new meaning. Whole towns have been destroyed, lives lost, lives permanently altered. Meanwhile, the Global South—including the poorest and often Blackest parts of the American South—has been experiencing these kinds of violent, catastrophic transformations for a while.

To Boldly Go

Yet for all my cynicism, I remain a dark matter theorist who loves to share images from the Hubble Space Telescope with anyone who will listen. I write a monthly column about particle physics and astrophysics specifically because I believe in humanity’s powerful connection with space. Our species evolved under the night sky, and the Black feminist philosopher of science Sylvia Wynter has proclaimed us to be homo narrans, a storytelling species. One of our first sites of storytelling is the night sky. This is how I, the cosmologist, the cosmic storyteller, am made.

Our problems travel into space with us, as exhibited by the history of exclusion from space faced by Black and disabled people, and anyone else who isn’t an abled hetcis white man.

In my own work as a Black person who is a dark matter expert, I take great pains to make clear for people that Black people are in fact not dark matter but the same kind of “normal” matter that white people are made of. I like to highlight the irony that the kind of matter that comprises both humans and stars is really a minor component of what’s out there. Dark matter dominates gravitating matter. We are the cosmic weirdos, I love telling people. I think there is nothing inconsistent with this worldview in saying that I think Nikki Giovanni is a Martian. I don’t mean she was born on Mars. But she has declared so many times her intent to go to Mars that she has written herself into the geography that I imagine for it. This reflects one of the great aspects of our traditions here in the Black Atlantic: we are always coming up with new ways to be people, and we have always known that even in terrible circumstances, the people could fly.

And so I delight in Giovanni’s hypothetical to Krista Tippett in an episode of On Being:

“Oh, what are you going to do next weekend, John?” “Well, Mary and I were thinking we’d just run up to this space station and have a glass of champagne, and we’ll spend the night, and we’ll be back.” Can you imagine sex in space?

Giovanni is asking us to imagine Black pleasure in space, to imagine something other than a capitalist catastrophe. “All my people have ever done is go forward,” she goes on to tell Tippett. Maybe Black liberation thought can get us to space in a different way. The story goes that Star Trek (the original series) was the only show that Martin Luther King would let his children stay up late to watch. “You are reflecting what we are fighting for,” he told Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, the Enterprise’s communications officer. Nichols went on to become an advocate for NASA, playing an active role in the program that recruited the first generation of American men and women of color who flew to space, including a physician named Mae Jemison.

When she eventually lifted off, Dr. Jemison carried with her Blackass markers of her life and world in Chicago and beyond: “An Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater poster, an Alpha Kappa Alpha banner, a flag that had flown over the Organization of African Unity, and proclamations from Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History and the Chicago public school system.” Jemison told Giovanni that the first thing she saw from space was Chicago, but that eventually she noted Somalia, too. Seeing the globe in its totality, it was still both Black and contextualized by what her journey did and did not mean to the Black diaspora. “I’m not the first or the only African American woman who had the skills and the talent to become an astronaut. I had the opportunity. All people have produced scientists and astronomers,” she told Giovanni.

This was part of Jemison’s version of something all astronauts are said to experience, the overview effect: a shift in how they see the world and the universe because of their firsthand experience seeing what Carl Sagan called our “pale blue dot” from the heavens. In other words, to touch space might well be transformative—if the experience can be democratized. But this requires that we look at power differently and acknowledge its deeply uneven distribution in our globalized world. The only ethical way to space is through practices that sanctify life, rather than stand on the backs of others, which is what billionaire space cowboys are doing when they refuse to care for the environment, or to pay their workers fair wages, or to pay their fair share of taxes.

Regardless of their aspirations, Musk and Bezos and Branson should be remembered for the environmental destruction wrought by the corporations they have helmed. They should also be remembered for hanging onto their riches, rather than making this potentially transformative money available to public trusts that are tasked with responding to the climate disaster. Instead of saving Earth, these men dream of escaping it, and they hope that other space geeks like me will join them in the delusion. But Swiss astronomer Didier Queloz was right when he said in his 2019 Nobel Prize lecture that rather than trying to resettle elsewhere in space, we should endeavor to find a way to live in equilibrium with our home planet. Queloz might seem like the best person to comment on this, since he won the Nobel Prize for his contributions to the discovery of the first of what are now nearly five thousand confirmed exoplanets, 51 Pegasi b.

51 Pegasi b is about fifty lightyears away, even more impossibly out of reach than Proxima Centauri b. And it’s easy to point to the impossibility of making the physics work out as the reason that we have to “settle” for Earth. But we have yet to seriously consider what it would mean for us, psychologically and socially, to permanently detach from the planet that birthed us. Ultimately, we will be better positioned to succeed in our journeys far beyond our familiar star if we learn how to succeed in our journey here on Earth. Without the capacity and the will to live in good relations with our local ecosystems and each other, wherever we are, we will be on a suicide mission.