In 1961, aboard Vostok 1, the world's first manned space flight, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin flew higher and orbited further than Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos combined. After returning to Earth, Gagarin became a global celebrity, traveling the world and sharing what it felt like to float weightlessly and see the planet from above. For a brief moment, it transcended the borders of the Cold War, greeted cheering crowds in both the Soviet Union and US-allied countries, and captured our collective fascination with the cosmos.
The Vostok mission was carefully planned and executed, and its cosmonauts received years of training. Its successor, Soyuz 1, was a different story. The starship 7K-OK had beenquickly builtThe three unmanned flight tests all failed. ThereforeAn account, Gagarin helped detail over two hundred structural concerns in a report that called for the flight's cancellation. It is rumored that he even tried to take over fellow cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov's place as pilot of the doomed mission. Eventually, Komarov's parachute failed to deploy and he burst into flames on re-entry, falling to the ground at forty meters per second.
In aviation, the difference between triumph and tragedy is narrow. While hubris may have been Soyuz 1's fatal flaw, the quest for profit has also spurred cuts in the US space program. Once the crown jewel of the public sector, NASA was slowly sold off to private contractors in the neoliberal era.
Since 2020, NASA astronauts have flown into orbit on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets, a model that has blown upSecurity Problemamong engineers and logged morefailuresince its debut in 2006, more than the space shuttle has done in thirty years. More recently, another NASA contractor, Virgin Galactic, was the subject of a Federal Aviation Administration investigation after its pilots failed to notify the agency that their famed Unity flight was about to go down.commercial airspace.
The mission's objective has also changed. Although it may always be mythical, the space program's once supposedly audacious aspirations have given way to overtly touristic and militaristic goals. Companies that operate commercial spaceflight have received billionspublic funding, and the US space force alone is almost therethree quartersthe total budget for NASA.
However, the true ethos of space exploration is public service and education. Looking into the void of space raises the deepest questions facing humanity: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? While a space program that caters to the sci-fi fantasies of billionaires is decidedly dystopian, conceptualizing space exploration as an educational mission to remotely explore the depths of the galaxy can help enliven a fairer vision of futurism.
How can space exploration serve society?
Our first priority must be to decarbonise space. Without achieving this, the emissions caused by space travel can hardly be justified given the state of our planet. Like the space blanket and the cochlear implant, the potential uses of carbon-free jet fuel would extend far beyond the space program that developed it. Commercial aviation is estimated to contribute to this3.5 percentof effective radiation impact - a number that space tourism could reachexplode.
Due to battery weight and other logistical challenges, hydrogen fuel cells are considered one of the few viable ways to decarbonize long-haul flights. While some private space companies have begun to integrate hydrogen, propellant production is likelyemissionsintensiveand the technology remains proprietary. A government-run lunar exploration program, coupled with strict restrictions on fossil-fueled rocket launches, could greatly accelerate implementationgreen hydrogenFuel cells in aerospace and other sectors that are difficult to decarbonize.
In addition to our atmosphere, we must respect the sanctity of orbital space, which we have filled with junk. The Department of Defense Space Surveillance Network currently estimates that there are more thantwenty seven thousandBits of debris orbiting the earth. But even if their own ships aIn the columnBillionaires are ravaging space more than ever.
While perhaps none can match the Tesla Roadster's vanity, commercial satellite networks such as Musk's Starlink and Bezos'Projekt Kuiperactually represent a much larger onerisk of collisionand are also huge sources oflight pollutionAndElectromagnetic interference. These unnecessary and dangerous monuments to the egos of oligarchs should be removed from our skies along with other forms of space debris.
Instead of handing out billions in subsidies to make this pollution possible, governments should instead collect the taxes missed by companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic and use them to create careers in the public sectorDrive upher root. To the extent that it is useful, publicly funded infrastructure should be nationalized into private hands and made available to all.
The trade-off between telecommunications infrastructure and dark-sky preservation highlights another key failure in NASA's past: the lack of planetary internationalism. In 2013, the Bolivian Space Agency and China's National Space Agency jointly launched the Túpac Katari 1 (TKSat 1) satellite, demonstrating how easily it could bridge the gap in space infrastructure between the global North and South.
That same year, the United States proposed desecrating a sacred site in Hawaiitelescope, Bolivia leveraged space technology to enable Internet and mobile services for the first timemillionsof Andean and Amazonian citizens. Since then, TKSat 1 has advanced education and development initiatives, and even helped defend Bolivian democracy by relaying real-time broadcasts of farmers resisting the US-backed coup government.
Satellites can serve many other public interests, such as facilitating research that helps scientists monitor problemsclimate change,deforestation, Andforced labor. While today's satellite infrastructure is being used to commercialize communications and mass surveillance, ainternational konsensusTreating telecommunications and access to information as public rights could instead enable free global broadband coverage with minimal infrastructure, aligning scientific progress with our collective view of the stars.
Finally, a socialist vision for space exploration could allow us to reach our full potential to venture into the unknown. The story anchors the intrepid explorers, but the true heroes of the space age are the ground control workers. Yuri Gagarin returned home safely thanks to his commandos stationed from Baikonur to Khabarovsk. Apollo 13 famously called Houston when they had a problem. Today, many of our brightest are astrophysicists and aerospace engineersget carried awaymilitary departments and arms manufacturers. Instead, we should use their talents for science and education.
However, this does not mean colonizing Mars. The Red Planet is a cosmic wonder, but a terrible place for Earthlings. It has a lotlittle carbon dioxideAnd no amount of terraforming will restore the magnetic dynamo that once deflected the solar winds and now destroys the depleted atmosphere. In fact, everything we've learned from exploring Mars has only reinforced the importance of protecting our home planet's fragile atmosphere. While manned space flight may be useful in some situations, we should place much more value in building robots together, as they have shown us something about our planetary neighbors.
In today's space race, these initiatives compete for funding. But by prioritizing cooperation over colonization, we could pursue them all. We could try to extract raw materials for a green energy infrastructure from itdecommissioned satellitesAnduninhabited asteroidsinstead of mines in the global south. We could fly and search the solar system for extraterrestrial liferotorcraftinto the hydrocarbon atmosphere of Titan and boringU-bootin Europe's icy underground seas. We could aim for the first landing on Pluto, Eris or even beyond - not to raise a flag, but to develop a concept of what we can achieve together.
In his last year's reflection on ourLight blue dotAstronomer Carl Sagan wondered, "Where are the mappers of human intent?" Where are the visions of a hopeful future for technology as a tool for the betterment of humanity, rather than a hair-pulling weapon aimed at us?” Saga's legacy -- including the world's first and only interstellar mission -- provides a glimpse into that vision.
We can choose to venture into the depths of the cosmos together and impart collections of human knowledge, or hire billionaire taxis to spend four minutes on the edge of space and indulge their fantasy of escaping the planet they nurtured, who drives them, married. In both cases, the financial, intellectual and human costs are borne by the public.
Fortunately, space exploration has taught us one thing: fate is not written in the stars. This is what happens down here on earth.