Space Is Not the Final Frontier

Julie Michelle Klinger

This essay is an excerpt of New Geographies 11: Extraterrestrial by Jeffrey S. Nesbit and Guy Trangoš.

The status of outer space as the final frontier is a cultural fetish. What a given culture fetishizes reveals the blind spots of power in specific times and places. That outer space should even be considered a frontier is a recent historical phenomenon that reflects the fusion of political power with techno-optimism, and it is far from final. But the temporal horizon of finality speaks to the desires felt among putative winners and losers alike under postatomic capitalism to transcend the brutalities of our age while preserving the status quo.

The invocation of the frontier orients political, economic, cultural, and technological power toward a specific sequence of activities: resource discovery, enclosure, devastation, and abandonment. In this, there is an extractivist intention,[1] driven by the need to capture new resources in order to escape or ameliorate crises in the metropole. Therefore, naming a place a frontier sets it up as a problem to be solved: territories to be conquered or resources to be claimed, both processes as markers of a certain kind of “progress” that leaves the old world, and its old problems, behind. In this fantasy, taming “the final frontier” signifies the transcendence of earthly problems. But more important, it exonerates the protagonists of accountability for those problems: war, pollution, poverty, and that suite of brutalities summed up in passive voice as “the Anthropocene.”[2]
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[1] Extractivism refers to the practice of removing high-value resources—natural or otherwise—to export or sell. The term also characterizes economies that depend primarily on the removal of local resources for sale in nonlocal markets.
[2] Most recently, Kathryn Yusoff has critiqued the Anthropocene as a scientifically coded description of the consequences of the Euro-American capitalist legacy of brutally racialized human-environment relations. See Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019).
[3] Patricia Limerick, “Imagined Frontiers: Westward Expansion and the Future of the Space Program,” Space Policy Alternatives, ed. Radford Byerly (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992), 249–262.
[4] United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,” http://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/ spacelaw/treaties/outerspacetreaty.html.
[5] Neil Degrasse Tyson and Avis Lang, Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance between Astrophysics and the Military (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018).
[6] Julie Michelle Klinger, “Extraglobal Extraction,” Chapter 6 in Rare Earth Frontiers: From Terrestrial Subsoils to Lunar Landscapes (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017), 199–227.
[7] H.R. 2262—Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (2015), https://www. congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/housebill/2262.
[8] “President Donald J. Trump Is Launching America’s Space Force,” 2019, https:// www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/ president-donald-j-trump-launching-americas-space-force/.
[9] See, for example, Philip Metzger, “How Asteroid Mining Could Save the Planet,” The Week, 2018, https://theweek.com/ articles/748563/how-asteroid-miningcould-save-planet.
[10] Edward Palmer Thompson, Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act. (London: Allen Lane, 1975); Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (London: Verso, 2017).
[11] John S. Lewis, Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and Planets, Helix Book Series (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1996).
[12] Martin Beech, Terraforming: The Creating of Habitable Worlds (Heidelberg: Springer Science & Business Media, 2009).
[13] Anna L. Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011).
[14] Alice Gorman, “The Archaeology of Space Exploration,” Sociological Review 57, no. 1 supplement (2009):132–145; I. Stoner, “Humans Should Not Colonize Mars,” Journal of the American Philosophical Association 3, no. 3 (2017): 334–353.
[15] Minpeng Chen and Thomas E. Graedel, “The Potential for Mining Trace Elements from Phosphate Rock,” Journal of Cleaner Production 91: 337–346.
[16] Freyja L. Knapp, “The Birth of the Flexible Mine: Changing Geographies of Mining and the e-Waste Commodity Frontier,” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 48, no. 10 (2016): 1889–1909.
[17] On collaborative survival in capitalist ruins, see Anna L. Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).
[18] Julie Michelle Klinger, Rare Earth Frontiers: From Terrestrial Subsoils to Lunar Landscapes (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017).
[19] Lisa Messeri, “Gestures of Cosmic Relation and the Search for Another Earth,” Environmental Humanities 9, no. 2 (2017), 325–340.
[20] See, for example, Annabel Cartwright, “The Venus Hypothesis,” Earth and Planetary Astrophysics, 2016, arXiv:1608.03074; L. Rebecchi, T. Altiero, R. Guidetti, M. Cesari, R. Bertolani, M. Negroni, and A. M. Rizzo, “Tardigrade Resistance to Space Effects: First Results of Experiments on the LIFE-TARSE Mission on FOTON-M3, ” Astrobiology 9, no. 6 (2009), 581–591.
[21] NASA Office of Planetary Protection, n.d., https://planetaryprotection.nasa.gov/ categories.
[22] Valerie A. Olson, “Political Ecology in the Extreme: Asteroid Activism and the Making of an Environmental Solar System,” Anthropological Quarterly 85, no. 4 (2012): 1027–1044.
[23] Silvia Federici discussed how practices of sexual domination in the New World informed the witch hunts in Europe, effectively describing a relationality of practice and ideas among frontier spaces. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (New York: Autonomedia, 2014).
[24] John S. Lewis, Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and Planets (New York City, NY: Perseus Books, 1996)