Decolonising Mars: Are We Thinking About Space Exploration All Wrong?

By Ryan F. Mandelbaum on at

Interplanetary travel is pitched to us as a good thing. Explorers will visit other planets, which settlers will then colonise. But colonisation on our own planet led to the genocide and displacement of cultures and people, economic inequity, and the destruction of environments. What lessons from Earth’s colonialist tragedies can we apply to our interplanetary future?

Billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos pour money into their space exploration projects—some of which really do seek to establish Martian colonies. But before they use taxpayer money to dive deeper headfirst into these pursuits, a group of thinkers are asking for a second look at how we approach the idea of space exploration and resettlement on other planets. Particularly, who gets to go, who will be in control, how new resources will be obtained and distributed, and the very language we use when talking about “exploration,” “discovery,” and “colonisation.”

Lucianne Walkowicz, the NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology, hosted an event in September to bring these ideas to the public called “Becoming Interplanetary: What Living on Earth Can Teach Us about Living on Mars.” We chatted with her, as well as event panelists Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, about what decolonising Mars means to them. This is just a small snippet of the broader conversation that includes well-known scientists, artists, and science fiction writers.

Image: NASA. provided by X-Arc, which is a top 10 finalist in the 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge Phase: 3 Level 1 competition.

Lucianne Walkowicz is the NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology and an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium. She organized the Decolonizing Mars unconference, as well as the public discussion, as a part of her broader research into space colonization.

Gizmodo: What sparked your interest in this topic?

Lucianne Walkowicz: In my work, I’ve been thinking about issues around how we talk about going to Mars, and plans that people make for what they want to do when they get there—whether it’s living on Mars, doing scientific research and trying to figure out its history, or corporate interest in mining or resource extraction of any kind.

There are a variety of scientific reasons why human presence might make certain investigations easier on Mars. But I’m disturbed by the way people talk about going to Mars as if the planet is ours... When we talk about terraforming, that’s a planetary-scale strip mining operation. If you transform a planetary environment, even if you think you know how to do it, that represents a total alteration of the chemistry and physics of the planet, which means you may erase the history of life that might be there.

It’s been troubling to me to hear people erasing what’s going on here on our own planet both from an environmental standpoint and an indigenous rights standpoint when they talk about going to other planets.

Private-public partnership isn’t a new thing. It’s baked into the history of space exploration.

Gizmodo: What does a decolonised Mars look like?

Lucianne Walkowicz: I can’t give you an example of what a decolonised Mars looks like, but it starts by having multidisciplinary conversations about the things that happen here on Earth. I often give examples of Standing Rock as an Earth-based example of interests colliding, where you have indigenous people opposing a large-scale project that, much like space exploration, features cooperation between private industry and the government...

Private-public partnership isn’t a new thing. It’s baked into the history of space exploration. Today, a lot of the rhetoric about new space companies is that people have the impression that the billionaires at the helms are dumping their own money into it, which might be true in part, but they’re also contractors getting money from federal governments to fund what they’re doing. It’s harmful for them to imply that they’re not working with public funds.

There’s a matter of inclusion—space exploration is something that we all take part in. That’s true of public missions and not private companies. Their aims are often different from what people think about. We have to think about the way we talk about who goes to space—who’s included in the conversation in who’s not. One of the fundamental things to do is just include [those normally left out of these discussions] in the conversation in a real way, such that they’re actually listened to.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is an assistant professor of physics at the University of New Hampshire who studies spacetime’s origins and the stuff that fills it. She appeared on a panel alongside Brenda J. Child, Brian Nord, and Ashley Shew.

Gizmodo: What does decolonising Mars mean to you?

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I’m trying to think carefully about what our relationship to Mars should be, and whether we can avoid reproducing deeply entrenched colonial behaviours as we seek to better understand our Solar System. This includes thinking about why our language for developing understandings of environments that are new to us tends to still be colonial: “colonising Mars” and “exploring” and “developing,” for example. These are deeply fraught terms that have traditionally referred to problematic behaviours by imperialists with those that we would call “indigenous” and “people of colour” often on the receiving end of violent activities.

Gizmodo: Do you think that we’ve been thinking about Mars exploration wrong, and why?

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: I also want us to consider that as we interact with Mars, we may be precluding certain futures. Perhaps life hasn’t developed there yet. Perhaps life may develop in future. Will our interactions with Mars preclude that possibility? Do we have the right to make that choice for the ecosystem? Europeans and non-Indigenous, non-Black Americans have traditionally thought they could do whatever they wanted in an environment that is new to them. Thinking about Mars is a chance to think carefully about where this attitude has gotten us. So far, technological “advancement” has brought us many things, including potentially catastrophic global warming. Global warming is a technological development.

I want us to move away from the idea of “exploration” and “discovery” and toward understanding environments as “new to us.” Columbus wasn’t the first to “discover” or “explore” the Americas. He was just a European who didn’t understand a place that was new to him.

“I want us to move away from the idea of ‘exploration’ and ‘discovery’ and toward understanding environments as ‘new to us.’”

Gizmodo: What do the ideals behind decolonising Mars say about science and space exploration as a whole? Who holds the power, and how can that change?

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: Decolonisation in the Martian context requires asking questions about who is entitled to what land. Can we be trusted to be in balance with Mars if we refuse to be in balance with Earth? Can we be trusted to be equitable in our dealings with each other in a Martian context if the U.S. and Canadian governments continue to attack indigenous sovereignty, violate indigenous lands, and engage in genocidal activities against indigenous people?

I think the answer is no. I think we need to clean up our mess before we start making a new mess somewhere else. It’s hard for me to say “we” because I don’t think my values are represented by how scientists have handled themselves in the past, and as an Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American person, I’m a descendant of people who didn’t have a choice about coming to the Americas. But I am a member of the scientific community and right now, it seems that on the whole the scientific community has not done the work of asking itself about deeply entrenched notions about who science is for, how science is done, and how it can and should impact the environment.

I’m worried about this. Our terrestrial ecosystem is making very clear to us that our old way of doing things has pushed us to the brink of extinction. What has happened recently with the Thirty Metre Telescope and Maunakea makes clear to me that we have a long way to go before science’s approach to new activities and environments isn’t painfully entangled with colonial ideals.

Image: NASA. Image provided by SEArch+/ Apis Cor, which is a top 10 finalist in the 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge Phase: 3 Level 1 competition.

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo is an underground rapper working under the name Sammus, a former teacher, and a Ph.D student at Cornell University living in Philadelphia. She appeared on a panel titled “Alternative Futurisms” alongside D. Denenge Duyst-Akpem, Willi Lempert, and Ytasha Womack.

Gizmodo: What does decolonising Mars mean to you?

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: Colonisation is a term to refer to human processes—these very brutal movements of people to take lands from other people, but it’s also a biological term. So, how we conceptualise our movement into other spaces has meaning.

Another thing that came out of our discussions was thinking about bodies and people in less utilitarian ways. As we start to think about what it would look like to exist on a different planet, the conversation is framed around who should go because they’d be the most useful or provide this or that service. It’s rooted in a capitalist way of thinking about people and bodies.

Some have already thought deeply about what it might mean to move through a new terrain with a different perspective—I’m thinking about Afrofuturism. I was part of a panel discussion that spoke about speculative fiction and what role it can play when thinking about new spaces and exploration. We have to push for not just representation, but a genuine understanding of other world views. I think it can happen through the proliferation of these stories, and recognising that people of colour aren’t absent from these discussions and have a perspective they can bring.

A lot of my work has been in response to a bleak future. But partially through this experience, it’s reaffirmed that there’s transformative power in envisioning a positive future—one that I’m actually involved in.... Those who have the power to shape these landscapes have a lens for what counts as a proper society. Afrofuturism plays a role in these conversations.

Gizmodo: How has thinking about these issues changed your views here on Earth?

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo: In a Martian context, thinking practically, there’s a population transported from one place to another. As you build a new ecosystem, everyone has to think about what’s important and what’s not. Every person who’s a part has some relationship with the environment and the crew. I think on Earth, in the face of the soul-crushing news that constantly bombards us, it feels like what we do doesn’t matter. [Sitting on a panel about decolonising Mars] was a reminder to me that even in my particular community, whether it’s me and my neighbours or me and other artists, there are things I can do.