Should We Colonize Space? Some People Argue We Need to Decolonize It Instead

"Rich guys, they love rocket ships," President Donald Trump said during a recent Cabinet meeting, according to The Washington Post. "That's good. That's better than us paying for them." On Thursday, Trump signed a set of directives meant to shift the burden of space exploration off the government and onto companies. But not everyone agrees that leaving space to commercial regency is better—governments may be more likely to ensure space exploration benefits a broader swath of society.

A stark picture of what our future in space could look like came during February's historic launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. The company was called out for its overwhelmingly white and male engineering staff on display during the broadcast. (SpaceX did not respond to an interview request for this story.)

Whether it's governments or companies in charge, some experts argue that one place to start is examining the words we use to talk about space. Many subtly or blatantly reflect unsavory aspects of our history here on Earth, like systematic oppression and murder that still produces inequality today. Even though 'manned' missions have mostly fallen out of favor, plutocrats dream of 'colonizing' Mars and filling their coffers by 'exploiting' extraterrestrial resources.

"Language is one of the ways in which we shape our social reality," Zuleyka Zevallos, a sociologist at Swinburne University in Australia, told Newsweek. That means using terms like colonize carries real risks. "The history of colonialism has taught us that there is no democratic way to colonize other lands," she said. "It is about profit, and profit always marginalizes minorities."

Qualms about the word colonize aren't new—in the earliest days of spaceflight, the State Department tried to ban the term and Carl Sagan preferred space cities. But other visionaries at the time argued it was a perfectly fine term that carried both good and bad reminders. Lucianne Walkowicz, an astrobiologist at the Adler Planetarium currently spending a year at the Library of Congress studying the ethics of Mars exploration, says that arguments like that speak volumes about diversity in space.

"It tells you something about who is driving the conversation if somebody can talk about colonialism as a dispassionate list of things that went well and badly," Walkowicz said. "To me, the words are a symptom of the ways in which we create narratives that exclude people from envisioning themselves in the future."

But commercial space companies don't have a monopoly on narratives. D. Denenge Duyst-Akpem, an art historian and afrofuturist at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, points to the example being created by Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to go to space. Jemison's nonprofit 100 Year Starship initiative emphasizes using space-bound technology to improve life on Earth as well and frames travel around the phrase 'establishing a human presence.'

That term is a goal in more ways than one. But can we stop at just a presence? Duyst-Akpem worries we'll go far beyond a mere presence, given our myriad pollution problems on Earth, from plastic bags in the Mariana Trench to old spacecraft in orbit. "It seems like there are some fundamental behavioral issues with humans that need to be addressed before we can really be trusted to do right by other planets," she said.

One group that wants to establish perhaps more than just a presence on Mars is the Mars Society, a membership group dedicated to settling humans on Mars. Its founder, Robert Zubrin, said that the one word he shies away from is colony, preferring settlement because the first "confuses the issue with imperialism." But he also argues that barring extraterrestrial natives, the history of Earth's colonization isn't really relevant. "On Mars, we have a chance to create something new with clean hands," he said. "We're not going to Mars to steal other people's property, we're going to Mars to create—not just property but a society."

(Walkowicz counters that we aren't positive yet there's no life on Mars, and Zevallos says it doesn't matter because the usage whitewashes the history of colonialism on Earth. If we do make contact, it may be too late to change our approach. "To use that word means you're already starting on the wrong foot," said Corey Gray, lead operator at the LIGO gravitational wave detector in Washington and a member of the Siksika Nation. "Language is our first impression.")

Colombian astronaut Diego Urbina tests technology designed with a human mission to Mars in mind. Qualms about the word ‘colonize’ aren’t new—in the earliest days of spaceflight, the State Department tried to ban the term. Jorge Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images

Right now, there's no societal framework to force current space explorers to be more inclusive. The cornerstone of space law, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, cherishes equity, but it's designed to govern countries, not companies or individuals. It doesn't do much to level the playing field even for less-developed countries, much less underprivileged groups within developed countries. "It basically says that nobody can deny you access to space," said Michael Dodge, a space lawyer at the University of North Dakota. "It doesn't guarantee that anybody will give you access to space."

Government agencies have eliminated the most problematic words, like manned and colonize, without tackling words that fall in a gray area, like settlement or resource exploitation. NASA didn't provide detailed comment about its word choices, but a spokesperson flagged a different concern with colonize in an email to Newsweek, that it "tends to imply we plan to send people on a one-way trip." The Canadian Space Agency generally sticks to "space industry-used terms" and government guidelines, a spokesperson told Newsweek in an email.

But no matter how gently space programs are worded, by the numbers they've mostly benefited colonizers so far. Every one of the 12 humans to set foot on the Moon has been a white American man. Just one in 10 countries on Earth has sent an astronaut to the International Space Station, and only three countries in the entire southern hemisphere have been able to do so. The U.S. sent its first Native American astronaut to space in 2002.

Those statistics and the loaded terminology we use to talk about space are two sides of the same coin. Both cut people out of seeing a role for themselves in space, and that's a problem for the included and excluded alike. "From a purely scientific standpoint, imagination is a muscle that needs to be developed," Duyst-Akpem said. "So much of science is about imagining things that you don't necessarily know exist yet but you have a hunch."

We may never be able to imagine stepping into space without our terrestrial baggage, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try, Walkowicz said—but we'd need to actually try. "There's a tendency to talk about space as a place that we're going to go that is going to magically shift our viewpoints and our practices," even though it hasn't done any such thing in our decades of reaching beyond Earth, she said. "The only thing that can bring about change is really wanting to make change."