Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics, and the Ends of Humanity

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Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics, and the Ends of Humanity by Daniel Deudney. Oxford University Press, 2020, 465 pp.

What is space expansionism? According to Daniel Deudney in Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics, and the Ends of Humanity, it is the historical, present, and future leaps humanity has made, is making, and likely will achieve in outer space exploration.

Deudeny’s focus is centered on space expansionists—a group he fails to concretely define but characterizes as western thinkers and industrialists originating in the pre-Space Age Era who are ideologically possessed by what he calls space futurism. According to Deudney, there is a view held by space futurists that states humanity’s imperative is to venture into and eventually conquer space—a notion which he cautions as dangerous and likely to lead to nuclear war-type blunders.

His book is called Dark Skies because his thesis offers a darker insight of human activity in outer space, which is otherwise held in high regard and deserving of praise, particularly in the sciences. He predicts humanity is bound to bring geopolitics, flag waving, and consequential militarization to the space domain less it considers his cautionary tales. He recalls the Cold War Era of large-scale nuclear posturing to warn of the potential traps that await us should we venture forward with permanency on the moon and Mars.

Deudney, a political scientist from Johns Hopkins University, says that today’s space discourse is missing a unique, even-handed, and complete assessment of space expansionist ideals. Any attempt to complete such an assessment of the “visions of human expansion into space have largely escaped critical evaluation” (p. 129). In space, according to Deudney, the social sciences have not been able to make such an assessment on the current and future state of space affairs because the literature is disparate and has been unequally distributed over the last century. His view is that “large-scale expansion across solar space will have catastrophic consequences for humanity and the Earth” (p. 32). Many of his claims show a clear lack of understanding of what motivates scientific pursuits or, mainly, discovery. There is no secret, politically based agenda at play during pure scientific enterprising. He admits, though, to science’s global kinship, especially in the open academies where peer review, duplication of results, and revision are central to the advancement of technology.

What is most striking about the book, however, is that it presupposes any activity in space should be accompanied with geopolitical considerations as part of its mandate. Otherwise, any pursuit to explore, discover, test, and learn is not worthwhile less space expansionist schemes consider the geopolitics of attempting to solve terrestrial problems and/or expand habitats beyond Earth.

While Deudney does an adequate job of introducing the grand scale of the cosmos¾the more-studied expanses within our solar system¾and how rocket technology came to be, he fails to completely define space expansionists as a group. Who are they exactly? What, if anything, have they accomplished or legislated that is beyond the point of no return? Deudney meanders between terms—expansionist, futurist, space commentator—but also introduces military space expansionist to the word salad. Am I a military space expansionist because of my association to the Space Force? By the end of the book, the reader is left uncertain if any backyard space hobbyist (e.g., my father, who enjoys taking photographs of the moon through his telescope on occasion) is deserving of Deudney’s attribution.

In the opening chapter, he groups together space billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, astronomers like Carl Sagan, and Enlightenment thinkers like Emmanuel Kant as belonging to a special group of space fanatics. While he does a great job distinguishing Copernican-like revolutionaries and post-Enlightenment scientific processes (the aforementioned mandates of peer-reviewed science), he fails to offer a fundamental, primary-sourced critique of the space sciences in general. Not one interview of a current astrophysicist, planetary geologist, astrobiologist, or military space official exists in this entire book, though his notes offer sincere references. His claims are less powerful without them, and the next logical step of introducing such a book of seemingly perennial possibilities would be to sit down with the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson, Andrea Ghez, Alex Filippenko, or Gen John “Jay” Raymond to fill the void with science expertise.

Deudney loses all scientific credibility in chapter 4 when he says, “Despite the vast accomplishments of scientific-based technology, the battle between religion and science continues unabated, withstanding many attempts to force a surrender, negotiate a truce, or establish a division of labor” (p. 106). No respectable scientist worth their salt would ever characterize the pursuit of truth and understanding about the universe as a battle between the science community and a distinct religion, or of religion in general. Find me any peer-reviewed science journal (e.g., Nature, Science, Astrophysical Journal, etc.) or commercialized science magazine (e.g., National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, Popular Science, etc.), and point out the section that ends with, “And therefore, God does not exist. QED.” You will not find it because that is not the goal of science. Richard Dawkins notwithstanding, scientists neither have the time or energy to devote their findings to inform a larger antireligion campaign.

It is not difficult to converge on Deudney’s perspective. He seems to not have moved beyond President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative of the 1980s, saying any military activity in space is predicated on supporting the larger US nuclear enterprise and nothing more. He appears to live in a world where the science fiction of H. G. Wells and Walt Disney’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow coexist. Read Dark Skies with an open mind and in the tradition of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Come for the cliches of Armageddon, and bring the popcorn.

Major Matthew D. Sanchez

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."