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New Moon mission brings back old ideas

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As NASA pushes to the Moon with its Artemis program, the old Apollo narratives of American exceptionalism and human settlement of space haven't changed significantly.

The big picture: Today's lunar aspirations build on Apollo-era ideas of space colonization, suggesting that creating settlements in the solar system could insulate humanity from existential threats faced on Earth.

  • Spaceflight is now seen, at least in part, as a capitalistic enterprise, where companies can potentially make money from future missions.
  • Those ideas of colonization and settlement that have wormed their way into the American consciousness are meant to inspire people to take up the charge in support of spaceflight.

Yes, but: Colonization on Earth calls to mind the violent takeover of lands and societies, and while there aren't necessarily living beings on the Moon that would be impacted by settlement efforts, that may not matter.

  • Experts say whatever issues with labor practices, exploitation and diversity we have on Earth will likely end up outsourced to space.
  • "Colonise is a problematic word, but, more to the point, we need to grapple with colonisation in space (and on Earth) now, rather than later, because the mindset, values and beliefs behind this word shape corporate behaviours," Swinburne University (Australia) sociologist Zuleyka Zevallos said via email.

Where it stands: People are having discussions around how to make the language used when talking about spaceflight more inclusive.

  • However, “manned spaceflight” and “colony” are still used by many news organizations and on social media today.
  • NASA has made specific efforts to tout its plans to make the Artemis program more equitable than Apollo by making it clear that a woman will be on the first flight to the Moon.

That's not enough for some experts, particularly when the Trump administration's motivations for sending NASA back to the Moon by 2024 appear to hinge on nationalism and politics.

  • "You can choose something — like framing it as sending a woman to the Moon — but ultimately, if your goal is imperialist or about exploiting celestial bodies, then that isn't an inclusive project no matter who's going and what their gender identity is," Adler Planetarium astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz, co-founder of the JustSpace Alliance, told Axios.

The impact: The historical narratives around spaceflight can bias how we think about access to space.

  • People with disabilities on Earth, for example, might be more adept at life in space than the typical people chosen for these kinds of missions thanks to their unique experiences on Earth.

The bottom line: Space is a frontier, and while people are trying to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, old ideas still persist.

  • "If companies believe they have a right to accumulate massive wealth at the expense of Indigenous communities, Black people and poorer nations, that is a colonial mindset," Zevallos said. "If we allow this belief to continue to shape our environment on Earth, the same problems will be transplanted into other worlds."