Occupying Space – The Geopolitics of the Cosmos

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the first man on the Moon, we must not allow our reading of history to be defined by a nationalist agenda.


On July 20th 1969, at approximately 17 minutes past 8 in the evening (GMT), NASA’s Apollo XI mission successfully landed its Eagle module on the surface of the Moon. Six hours later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to grace the lunar surface.

In 2019 the world stands to mark the 50th anniversary of this momentous achievement, and celebrate the utopian potential of social, collaborative and mission-oriented human labour and ingenuity.

When Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon however, it was more than just ‘one giant leap for mankind’, it was a defining statement of geopolitical power.

As they enthusiastically unfurled an American flag, and planted it onto the Moon’s surface, the astronauts of Apollo XI imprinted in the minds of 600 million spectators an image of American supremacy; a spectacle that would echo in the memory for generations to come. 

This 1969 mission was the defining moment of a ‘Space Race’ that had characterised the ideological tensions of the early Cold War era. For two decades after the development of the atomic bomb, Space had preoccupied the finest scientific minds in both the East and West.

As the Stars and Stripes were set against the cosmic backdrop the symbolism was clear; American Capitalism had defeated Soviet Communism.

This spectacle contributed significantly to the illusion of ideological permanence that embraced Western society in the second half of the 20th century. If American Capitalism could reach the Moon, if it could occupy Space, then there could be no limit to its expansion. 

In this way the steps of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin worked to legitimate an economic system, and justify the political choices of those on the Earth below. It was the start of a process that would eventually see a Fukuyarmarist narrative engulf the Western world; it was the beginning of the ‘End of History’.

A return to Space

Since his election to the Presidency in January 2017, Donald Trump has demonstrated a considerable fascination with interplanetary travel. In his inaugural address, the newly anointed President told onlookers: “We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space”.

In April 2017, Trump reportedly offered Robert Lightfoot Jr, the acting NASA administrator, “all the money you could ever need” to send a mission to Mars by the end of his first term.

Disgruntled with the impossibility of such a task, Trump refused to abandon his interstellar ambitions. At his State of the Union Address in February 2019, the President applauded Buzz Aldrin, stating “we are joined by one of the Apollo XI astronauts who planted that flag: Buzz Aldrin. This year, American astronauts will go back to space on American rockets”.

In May the President announced a request for $1.6 billion of extra funding for NASA’s annual budget. On Twitter, he told his 60 million followers the funding was ‘so that we can return to Space in a BIG WAY!’.

The budget proposes to shift funding from Pell Grants (for college education) to NASA’s ‘Operation Artemis’, in order to ensure the return of American astronauts to the Moon by 2024 (the end of what would be Trump’s second term in office).

NASA has also outlined plans for the creation of a lunar ‘Gateway’; a permanent base orbiting the Moon, from which consecutive missions could be launched. The eventual aim of this project is to dispatch a mission to Mars.

Access to History”

Trump’s Space visions, like those carried out at the heart of the 20th century, serve an eminently political purpose. Utilising the powerful symbol of Space, and invoking a close association with the historical success of the Apollo XI mission, the Trump campaign is seeking to legitimise its own political project.

In March, Vice President Mike Pence told the fifth meeting of the National Space Council in Alabama, “Make no mistake about it – we’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher.’’

Language such as this creates a zero sum binary between the success of the US in Space and the success of other nations. It creates an antagonistic frontier, a focus for attention and a distraction from national issues.

This is a false depiction of reality. Today, the US pays the Russian government tens of millions of dollars per seat to carry astronauts in Soyuz rockets to the International Space Station (ISS). The US is dependent (for now) on such collaboration to launch American astronauts into Space.

This revival of Cold War tensions, and memories of national pride, is a coordinated attempt to bolster the project of American nationalism on which Trump was elected. In this way, Trump’s space rhetoric must be placed at the heart of his wider project to manipulate the historical narrative to justify his political machinations.

Polling shows that public support for NASA to return astronauts to the Moon, or to attempt a mission to Mars, is significantly lower that support for its focus on projects such as climate research. But by utilising references to 1969 Trump is able to bypass this reality, repeating his mantra that he is simply ‘Making America Great Again’, to justify his nationalist policies.

It is, as Hannah Arendt famously theorised in 1951, an attempt to gain ‘access to history even at the price of destruction’; invoking historical credibility to selectively justify a particular set of political ideals. Just as the 1969 mission legitimised the ideological supremacy of Capitalism on Earth, Trump’s promise of a return to that spectacle legitimates his project of economic and political nationalism.

As with any of Trump’s rhetoric, the idea that we may see Americans on the Moon or Mars anytime soon should be taken with a large pinch of cosmic salt. What is important however is that, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the first man on the Moon, we celebrate the moment for what it really represents; the limitless potential of human ingenuity. We must not allow the moment to be co-opted as a political tool to legitimate a nationalist ideological project.


Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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