We Have Always Been In and Of Space

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Land acknowledgment: I respectfully acknowledge those whose ancestral homelands I wrote this from, the Coast Miwok and Ohlone of Northern California, and the traditional custodians of the places where each of you may be reading or discussing this.

All cultures over the millenia have looked to the skies and space for their scientific traditions, timekeeping and calendars, and socio-cultural structure reflecting cosmic order. In modern times, our view has shifted towards the idea of space as our new, future home, a literal and metaphorical frontier where we lift off, even escape, from our struggles here on Earth, a planet at an existential crossroads. At this moment especially, we are scarred by the endless crises of 2020, and weary with mourning the still mounting losses from the pandemic, climate change, racial injustice, and economic inequality. To the eyes and hearts of our embattled species facing the hard work of the systemic changes needed to truly begin to address all these crises, space seems like a cosmic reset button, a chance to start over and do better in the beta version of ourselves with new horizons. Despite knowing that all non-Earth environments explored so far, and indeed many places on Earth itself, are inhospitable to life as we know it, the allure of Terranova endures. But space is not new to us, nor we to space.

Earth rising on the lunar horizon

Space is our past and our future

Astrophysics has taught us that nearly all the atomic constituents of our world and universe were made in the cores of living stars and their death throes. When our Sun begins to transition in a few billion years to its fate as a white dwarf (more or less a single Earth-sized, mega-dense carbon atom), many of the inner planets including Earth and the Sun will be recycled back into our cosmic neighborhood, from which new generations of stars and planets will arise. Space therefore contains our past and our future—at the same time—a paradoxical truism for which we are the living evidence.

A cyclical view of time—which most cultures and Indigenous peoples have had over the millennia—unifies us with the cycles we observe in our lives, the world, and the skies. However, time in the Western worldview is seen as linear for the most part, leading to a view of time as a scarce commodity needing heavy management by deadlines and, in the words of Māori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith, manufactured urgency. Nowhere is this more apparent currently than in the rush to literally occupy near-Earth space including our Moon, where the actions of state and private global interests are driven by a perpetual anxiety to not be the last to arrive. These actions arise from systems that are themselves rooted in the painful legacy of colonization, and that continue to lay claim to our cosmic commons without building consensus among all concerned stakeholders in dark skies and near-Earth space.[1] We direly need greater international regulation from a shared ethical decision-making place, and to move away from a scarcity mindset where we anxiously compete for time, resources, and space itself. An integrative approach honoring, but not assimilating, the scientific, cultural, and ethical knowledge systems of humanity, could lead to sustainable science that is far richer than from outcomes from one perspective alone.

Another casualty of the linear view of time is in the perception of Indigenous peoples—they are often widely presented as historical, keeping their perspectives and needs firmly frozen in the past. A cyclical rather than linear view of time allows us to simultaneously honor the past and a co-created future envisioned through the lens of who and where we are collectively at present.

Hubble image of the Bubble Nebula

Space has always been our home

Modern exploration of near-Earth and distant space is wonderfully exciting, with discoveries that are often a welcome contrast to more bleak media headlines and that ground us in our shared origin story. As we analyze the ancient light of distant systems, we know that our own songs and electromagnetic transmissions are leaving Earth on interstellar voyages to other worlds. Space is therefore our ancestral home in a physical and metaphysical sense. Perhaps we can begin to move away from treating space as the Wild West frontier, there for our taking, and more as a frontier of self-discovery and exploration.

As we expand our presence in the solar system, our approach to space could arise from the investigative exploratory heart of what makes us human; corporations and technology could serve as the tools rather than the driving principles, leading to communities rather than colonies in space. Indigenous knowledge has demonstrated for millennia the enduring science and sustainable practices from a culturally intelligent, interdisciplinary, intergenerational approach—this can be the grandmotherly wisdom that guides the curious youthful energy of capitalism-driven space exploration, revitalizing ancestral knowledge and languages towards a new era of humanity.

Our race to space as a frontier in the rush and anxiety described here are overtones of the loneliness and nostalgia that are the fundamental frequency of being human—our wanting a place to belong at last, even while knowing we belong everywhere and nowhere. Loneliness and nostalgia are part of any frontier, real or mythic, and why, as pointed out by Anna North, some of the most powerful new westerns of cinema are being created by those in the US immigrant diaspora.[2] They well know the feeling of desertedness from existing in the non-latitudes between the poles of their old and new homes. Arriving at frontiers has often meant displacing, even exterminating, those who were there before us. But as North writes, “the so-called frontier can be a site of reimagining—of how to live on land without possessing it, how to make a home without stealing someone else’s.” Even seemingly lifeless worlds or environments, like people, have value beyond our goals and projected uses for them. Protecting them through explicitly stated rights or legal inclusion under protected categories on Earth is the time-critical next step. We need to keep these historical lessons in mind, as well as our human need to explore while longing to belong, as we arrive in new environments in space and co-create a future based not on conquest or claims, but community.

As below, so above

In recent collaborative work, my colleagues and I advocated for the view of space as an ancestral global commons that contains the heritage and future of humanity’s scientific and cultural practices, requiring a radical shift in the policy frameworks of international regulatory bodies.[3] A relational ancestral view of space is part of longstanding cultural sky traditions worldwide including the relational view of the skies among Indigenous cultures rooted in space and place. This relational viewpoint is closer than we realize to our scientific origin story—we know that the calcium in our teeth, the magnesium in our salads, the oxygen we breathe, and the iron in our blood were forged deep in the hearts of stars. Treating space as a global commons has at its core the recognition of our profound interconnectivity through space and time.

Great Basin National Park

We can also learn from the far-reaching shadow of colonizing practices on Earth and the painful history of treaties, mining, and their terrible long-term socio-economic and environmental fallout. These practices are the invisible contours driving the landscape of our current approach to space, and we need to pause and reflect on who, and what, we might be losing in gaining the stars. The BIPOC communities most impacted by the pandemics of COVID-19, climate change, and systemic racism are the same voices we are most missing in science on the ground and as constituents in space.

The Outer Space Treaty is now over fifty years old, and created at a time when we and our planet felt boundless and invincible rather than fragile and uncertain.[4] Lack of consistent oversight and binding enforcement of this treaty’s lofty ideals have left it somewhat toothless and irrelevant, leading to widespread workarounds through strategic loopholes. We need new anti-colonial treaties for space—but we must first learn from the disastrous history of land treaties particularly with Indigenous peoples.[5] Last summer brought a surprise landmark victory for tribal rights in the majority opinion led by Supreme Court Justice Gorsuch in McGirt v. Oklahoma, in which he wrote, “the magnitude of a legal wrong is no reason to perpetuate it….As a result, many of the arguments before us today follow a sadly famil­iar pattern. Yes, promises were made, but the price of keep­ing them has become too great, so now we should just cast a blind eye. We reject that thinking.”[6]

This last quote from Justice Gorsuch is especially relevant for any new vision we develop as we dramatically accelerate our presence in an increasingly privatized near-Earth space. How will we answer to future generations about what we did—and didn’t do—at this juncture in our collective history, and can we be the elders that the future deserves? What kind of ancestors do we want to be?[7] It is more critical than ever to move away from a defensive transactional view of an inanimate space—that awaits ownership and extraction—to one that is relational, ethical, and sustainable in the long term, building consensus from all constituencies.[8] Perhaps we could learn from other countries’ approaches to these issues (e.g., a recent New Zealand law, rooted in the Māori worldview, of granting legal personhood to natural resources, or the relatively new Declaration of the Rights of the Moon that was drafted in February 2021).[9]

The Long “long view”

As the literary giant T. S. Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

As a species that happens to be particularly fond of travel, we can appreciate the scientific and personal wisdom of this marvelous stanza. We study the universe to better understand ourselves; we explore to cherish home more than ever.

When we reflect on this, we may begin to ask: What if this time on Earth has been the exploratory phase of our cosmic passport? We know that the early solar system was full of hurtling projectiles like asteroids and comets that ceaselessly crashed into the nascent planets around our Sun. Such impacts during the “heavy bombardment period” a few billion years ago may well have brought us many rare elements, our water oceans, and even life itself. So perhaps it’s time to return to space, where we have always been.

Many startup companies now offer to take up human saliva and human remains to space, promising genetic immortality in space by leaving a trace of yourself in the Cosmos long after the Earth and our species become extinct. Leaving aside for a moment the troublesome ethical, cultural, environmental, and biocontamination implications of these ongoing practices, such actions thoughtlessly amplify the existential threat and anxiety we are facing as a species and reinforce the rush to “get there first” for stakes that last. But we can take the long “long view,” and remember that our atoms are on a 14 billion-year adventure that will continue for aeons after us and our fleeting claims to space and time. Ultimately, we are united by this shared ancestry, and our common cosmic fate.

This piece is respectfully dedicated to everyone and everything we have lost over this past year to the pandemic, climate change, and other existential threats. I honor especially all the elders we loved and lost—family and friends, the California redwoods, the Arecibo telescope and so much more. May these elders, like the stars, continue to guide us as we build our collective future.

[1] Venkatesan, A., Lowenthal, J., Prem, P., & Vidaurri, M. (2020). The impact of satellite constellations on space as an ancestral global commons. Nature Astronomy, 4(11), 1043-1048. doi:10.1038/s41550-020-01238-3

[2] North, A. (2021, February 28). The Lie at the Heart of the Western. The Atlantic. Retrieved April 9, 2021, from https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2021/02/new-literary-western-in-the-distance-how-much-these-hills-gold-inland/618093/

[3] Venkatesan, A., Lowenthal, J., Prem, P., & Vidaurri, M. (2020). The impact of satellite constellations on space as an ancestral global commons. Nature Astronomy, 4(11), 1043-1048. doi:10.1038/s41550-020-01238-3

[4] United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (n.d.). Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. Retrieved April 9, 2021, from https://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/spacelaw/treaties/introouterspacetreaty.html 

[5] Tavares, F., Buckner, D., Burton, D., McKaig, J., Prem, P., Ravanis, E., . . . Wilhelm, M. B. (2020, October 27). Ethical Exploration and the Role of Planetary Protection in Disrupting Colonial Practices. Retrieved April 9, 2021, from https://arxiv.org/abs/2010.08344

[6] McGirt v. Oklahoma, 591 U.S. ___ (2020), No. 18–9526 slip op. at 1 (July 9, 2020). https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/18-9526_9okb.pdf; see also, Nagle, M. (7 October 2020). “On the Far End of the Trail of Tears” ” Questions for a Resilient Future: How can we live respectfully with the land and with one another? Retrieved 6 April 2021 from https://www.humansandnature.org/on-the-far-end-of-the-trail-of-tears

[7] See also, LaDuke, W. (27 February 2017). “How to Be Better Ancestors” Questions for a Resilient Future: What kind of Ancestor do you want to be? Retrieved 6 April 2021 from https://www.humansandnature.org/how-to-be-better-ancestors; and, Blatchford, A. (4 February 2019). Questions for a Resilient Future: What kind of Ancestor do you want to be? Retrieved 6 April 2021 from https://www.humansandnature.org/written-in-the-stars

[8] McCoy, M., Elliott-Groves, E., Sabzalian, L., Bang, M. (7 October 2020). “Restoring Indigenous Systems of Relationality” Questions for a Resilient Future: How can we live respectfully with the land and with one another? Retrieved 6 April 2021 from https://www.humansandnature.org/restoring-indigenous-systems-of-relationality

[9] Tepper, E., & Whitehead, C. (2018). Moon, Inc.: The New Zealand Model of Granting Legal Personality to Natural Resources Applied to Space. New Space, 6(4), 288-298. doi:10.1089/space.2018.0025; and, Declaration of the Rights of the Moon. (2021, April 03). Retrieved April 9, 2021, from https://www.earthlaws.org.au/moon-declaration/

Image credit:

Earth rising on the lunar horizon. Image copyright: NASA. Link to explanation of image: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/87233/earthrise-reimagined

Hubble image of the Bubble Nebula. Image copyright: NASAESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).
Link to explanation of image: https://hubblesite.org/contents/media/images/2016/13/3725-Image.html

Great Basin National Park. Image copyright:National Park Service.
Link to explanation of image: https://www.doi.gov/blog/twinkle-twinkle-16-awesome-public-lands-stargazing


  • Aparna Venkatesan

    Aparna Venkatesan is a cosmologist working on studies of the first stars and quasars in the universe. Aparna is currently Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of San Francisco, and a former NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow.
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