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Native Intelligence: Space, race and us

Native Intelligence: Space, race and us
  • PublishedFebruary 21, 2017

If space is the next frontier, and one already being defined along the usual territorial lines, will human history, even in hyper space, repeat itself? More urgently, Kalundi Serumaga asks, will black people need a visa?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: one day, the black and brown peoples of the world may wake up to find that the white race have abandoned this damaged planet and flown off to distant new ones.

Consider the incentives: poverty, disease and need remain concentrated in the formerly colonised, non-white parts of the world. The globally declared aim of eradicating these scourges has eluded the minds of the best and richest countries in the world, some six decades after the demise of formal European colonialism. The rise of dissenting voices from among  the formerly colonised, rejecting “aid” and goodwill and arguing instead for direct reparations of land and cash, has not made things easier.

Would it not be wonderful to be able to simply fly away, leaving all these people and their intractable problems behind, and start all over again?

Globally, billions of dollars are spent on research and development of space programmes. However, this is all carried out by a handful of countries.

Unless Africa stakes out a claim in the resurgent race to explore outer space, our grandchildren may well wake up to a future in which they are the aliens.

As of 2015, 70 different government space agencies are in existence; 13 of those have launch capability. Six government space agencies – the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the European Space Agency (ESA), the China National Space Administration (CNSA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Russian Federal Space Agency (RFSA or Roscosmos) – have full launch capabilities; these include the ability to launch and recover multiple satellites, deploy cryogenic rocket engines and operate extraterrestrial probes.

Only three currently operating government space agencies in the world – RFSA and the CNSA and NASA – are capable of human spaceflight.

The basic technology for the “space race” is to have a telecommunications satellite in orbit (or even an observation one for environmental, agricultural and military purposes).

A few of those countries have a myriad of such satellites, including some which look upwards into outer space.

The 1946-1989 Soviet vs American Cold War “space race” was largely about reaching the moon, launching military satellites, as well as creating life-supporting platforms in space. However, looking at the scope of today’s activities, this could simply have been the small beginning of a much bigger ambition, with the Voyager deep-space probe (launched in 1977, and finally sailing beyond our solar system in 2013, sending back data from a 70 kilobyte computer), as well as earth-based radio telescopes.

My modest research shows only a few African countries have active space programmes, although none currently has launch or human flight capabilities. Furthermore, the AU does not seem to be demonstrating any further interest since the (largely Gaddafi-sponsored) launch of the Union of National Radio and Television Organisations of Africa (URTNA) satellite.

It would not be wise to see this merely as a case for the standard “me too” politics that saw post-independence Africa (and Asia) struggle to catch up with the “developed” countries by trying to match them highway for highway and hospital for hospital. This is more about understanding the possible basis for planning the next phase of the human race.

African states could draw on their collective experience to help shape policy and protocols for global space exploration.

Planet Earth is in a dire state. For the first time in its entire history, critical changes to its (deteriorating) geological state are now being driven primarily by human activity. Science has named this the Anthropocene era. 

Current space activity seems focused on three aims. The most immediate short-termist one is the commercial interest in developing reliable technology to make near space a viable transport route, and even a site for tourism, as well as to find and harvest minerals from smaller space bodies, for use here on earth. The next is looking into ways that human life may become sustainable, either on currently inhospitable planets, or on human-made space stations anchored to one or another planet’s gravitational forces.

The third is based on probing far into deep space in search of any another planetary system that may have – by the laws of probability – evolved in a manner similar to earth, that could then be colonised.

Many challenges still exist. The distances involved mean that many journeys would exceed the normal life-span for an adult human. Furthermore, many bodily functions are actually dependent on earth’s gravity, which underpins the functioning of human organs and bones.

These will not stop the innate and deep-seated human drive to explore, and solutions will be found. For example, travel could become intergenerational, with a human colony first settling on a far-off space station and then reproducing a younger generation to go even farther.

This takes place within a context of diversification and specialisation. Not every country with a space programme is launching rockets into the heavens, and not every project is the property of the government concerned, or even the property of one country.

The British BEAGLE Mars Exploration programme provided the core technology that was delivered into space by Russian rockets.

The key point is ownership access, and accountability. We can all agree that the human race behaves exceptionally badly. So, if say, a Chinese space mission finds a habitable planet and settles on it, does it become Chinese territory, or does it belong to Planet Earth as a whole? And if they find sentient life forms there, and then proceed to annoy them, will earth as a whole be accountable, or will it be an extra-terrestrial vs China matter if and when the “aliens” come seeking restitution (and will those space natives be interested in the distinction, anyway)?

Which body would be able to implement law in outer space, especially considering our failure to design a global governance system on earth?

The risks are obvious given the record: there is the possibility of the usual environmental destruction to the new-found planets as well as a massive risk of even more “space junk” (large bits and pieces of discarded rockets and obsolete satellite hurtling around at speed in futile orbits) being scattered even beyond the earth’s orbit.

There is a likely inability to deal sensibly with any life-forms that may be discovered; there is an avarice that may lead to looting, and even conflicts among the looters that could lead to all kinds of warfare, nuclear included.

In short, there is the possibility of a long-distance, hi-tech version of the genocidal “Wild West” culture that European settlers brought to the Americas.

Even if the African states cannot individually meet the physical challenge of getting into the space race, they could draw on their collective historical experience to help shape planetary policy and protocols for what may follow.

All of this should be rooted in telling the true history of earth’s experience of the human race, and acknowledging our weaknesses.

Ideally, there will have to be stricter protocols on the transportation, deployment and detonation of nuclear and biological weapons.

A greater environmental protection and control of disease, protocols for the declaration of discoveries of wealth and sentient life-forms, guarantees of equal access to new spaces. And no discriminatory visas.


Written By
Kalundi Serumaga

Kalundi Serumaga is a cultural activist agitating through theatre, journalism and creative writing. He lives in Kampala, Uganda. He has been engaged also in a long-standing case before the Ugandan courts, challenging a ban on his radio work placed on him by the Ugandan government.

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