RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2019

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321 The Final Frontier? The Enclosure of a Commons of Outer Space (2)
Convenor(s) Peter Adey (Royal Holloway, University of London, UK)
Rachael Squire (Royal Holloway, University of London, UK)
Oli Mould (Royal Holloway, University of London, UK)
Chair(s) Oli Mould (Royal Holloway, University of London, UK)
Timetable Friday 30 August 2019, Session 2 (11:10 - 12:50)
Room Sir Alexander Fleming Building, Lecture Theatre G34
Session abstract In February 2018, when Elon Musk sat aboard the Falcon Heavy and blasted off into space, a new age of space exploration took off with him. His company, SpaceX, is now part of a range of corporations (funded by white male billionaires) that are competing with one another to claim the right to colonise space, Mars, the moon and even asteroids. The financial might of these corporations eclipses some of the State-led space agencies (such as NASA, who themselves are increasingly looking to private suppliers) and work is well underway here on Earth that is preparing these corporations to be the gatekeepers to the heavens.

Geographical inquiry has, in recent years, begun to shift from its traditional etymological base of ‘earth writing’, to consider the ways in which outer space is embroiled within our notions of the geographical imagination. Recent contributions from Dickens and Ormod (2016) and Dunnett et al. (2017) have attempted to shift the geographers gaze from our immediate Earthly surroundings to consider how the space of outer space inflects the way we conceptualise the myriad of geographical concerns. In addition, feminism, labour geographies, warfare, time-space compression, environmental catastrophe; they are all traditional geographical concerns that have been used in these recent writings as frames to analyse the cosmos, but they have been shown to be intimately affected by the processes of current space exploration. And from the broader social sciences, work has begun to extend the idea of the global commons into outer space (Buck, 2017).

Along with the threat of thermo-nuclear war and enslavement by AI, ecological catastrophe is one of the most dangerous threats to our species; so space exploration is vital. But as critical scholars, we can’t leave this up to a powerful capitalist system that seems to be more concerned with enclosing a potential vast commonwealth that any emancipatory venture for our species. After all, do you think Elon Musk will let just anyone on his Mars colony…?
Linked Sessions The Final Frontier? The Enclosure of a Commons of Outer Space (1)
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details: ac2019@rgs.org
Robotics, automation and new infrastructures of space capitalism
Aidan While (University of Sheffield, UK)
Andy Lockhart (University of Sheffield, UK)
Simon Marvin (University of Sheffield, UK)
As capitalism confronts interlocking ecological and resource constraints, the challenges of opening of new frontiers are taking on greater significance. Governments and capital are increasingly turning attention to extreme and previously inaccessible environments from Antarctica to the deep ocean floor, as strategic new zones of extraction, commodification and control. Yet outer space is also the most hostile environment, and its exploitation will require extensive socio-technical systems capable of extending human reach far beyond what is currently possible. In this paper we explore the role of robotics and automated systems (RAS) in efforts to constitute outer space as a new resource frontier, how economic, political and technological imaginaries are co-evolving with space technology research, and their more earthly implications. First, it examines the actors, expertise and narratives being assembled in contemporary space technology research, and the logics underpinning them. Second, it considers how RAS technologies are being constructed as new infrastructures for rendering extreme environments legible for different kinds of economic and territorial intervention. Third, it considers the possible wider implications of these socio-technical developments, and the relations between extra-terrestrial colonisation, RAS-enabled frontier-making and earthly enclosures. The paper maps the contours of those new infrastructures and reflects on the similarities and differences between new space infrastructure and RAS restructuring of earthly infrastructure.
Interstellar Geographies – Project Daedalus and the Outer Space Environment
Oliver Dunnett (Queen's University Belfast, UK)
Outer space has increasingly been recognised as part of the Earth’s broader environment, raising issues such as planetary preservation, the future of humankind in outer space, and the mining of resources from across the Solar System. In the 1970s, the decade of the first space probes to reach the planets Mars and Jupiter, a team of designers and engineers from the British Interplanetary Society came up with a conceptual plan for interstellar travel – to send a probe at 12% of the speed of light to one of the closest stars outside of the Solar System, reaching its destination within 50 years. This project envisaged a future society in which humankind has successfully colonised the Solar System, making full economic use of its natural resources both for life on Earth and for the purposes of space exploration. The plan involved understanding the Solar System in environmental terms, while also enrolling imaginative geographies of extra-solar planetary systems, all of which had implications for the future of humankind, and the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. As such, Project Daedalus can be understood as a conceptual forerunner to contemporary plans such as Elon Musk’s proposed Mars colonies, and related proposals to mine asteroids and the lunar surface. In highlighting these issues, this paper examines Project Daedalus from the critical perspectives of cultural, political and environmental geographies of outer space.
When things fall from the sky: The cultural political economy of space debris in Kazakhstan
Christine Bichsel (University of Fribourg, Switzerland)
Space debris is usually discussed in relation to its accumulation in lower Earth orbits, which poses an acute problem for current and future spacefaring activities. This paper takes an unusual analytical angle and explores the trajectories of space debris back on Earth. It focuses primarily on falling booster parts from rocket launches. While some of these parts are collected by museums and state agencies as exhibition objects, others are re-utilized and refashioned into building material, sold as scrap metal, used as a tourism resource and enjoyed as playgrounds. By going up and coming down, rocket debris undergoes a fundamental re-valuation from high-tech components to scrap metal. But it also becomes a new form of resource within state and non-state networks. It may also acquire culturally specific meanings and be invested with fears of things falling from the sky. Moreover, rocket debris links the launch site and the dump area geopolitically, as they do not always fall under the same jurisdiction. The paper adopts a cultural political economy (Best and Paterson xxx) analysis to examine the social and material trajectories of rocket debris from launch pad to dump site. It argues that such an analysis is well placed to conceptually grasp the complexity of rocket debris back on Earth. Geographically, the paper focuses on the case of Baikonur cosmodrome under de facto Russian jurisdiction, and the dump areas on the Kazakh steppe. Empirically, it uses literature and photographs available in the public domain to carry out this analysis. With this analysis, the paper directs attention to questions of spacefaring and the global commons not just in outer space, but back on Earth.
Discussant
Peter Adey (Royal Holloway, University of London, UK)
Discussant